It’s been almost twenty years since the release of this George A. Romero’s overlooked classic graced the big screen and unlike most of Romero’s films this one has actually aged quite well. Unlike most of Romero’s films prior to this one, Monkey Shines was based on a novel by Michael Stewart (the only other author Romero had adapted prior to this was Stephen King). It was also a film that relied more on atmosphere and character than gore and violence and it also didn’t have as profound a political or cultural message as say Dawn of the Dead (1978), Hungry Wives (1972), The Crazies (1973), or Knightriders (1981).
Monkey Shines tells the story of athletic runner Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) who is rendered a quadriplegic after a car accident. Believing he has nothing else to live for because his dreams are smashed his best friend Geoffrey (John Pankow), a brilliant scientist dealing with genetic manipulation, gives Allan an intelligent monkey Ella who will help him cope with his new life. Not soon after the two bond, Allan begins to suffer from nightmares in which he believes that Ella is escaping from her cage at night and wondering around unchecked. When Geoffrey examines Ella he soon discovers that his experiments on her are having an unexpected and profound effect to the point that Ella is beginning to experience human-like emotions and attributes due to her exposure to Allan. When Geoffrey tries to take Ella away from Allan, she has other plans as she becomes emotionally and uncontrollably unstable and will stop at nothing to return to Allan.
Although one of the few films in which Romero would work within the studio system, Monkey Shines is a strong character piece that although subtle packs a punch when it needs to especially considering that other films in this category have occasional gone the comedic route either on purpose or by accident (i.e. Link, Project X, and Buddy, to name a few). At times the film may seem compromised especially when compared to Romero’s previous films, this film does have a refined charm and ambience that’s missing from most of his previous endeavors which is why this one stands up so well even after twenty years. You can look back at Romero’s Knightriders or Hungry Wives, or even Dawn of the Dead and see how those films have not aged as well as this one. Those films are extremely “raw” whereas by the time Romero made this film he had crafted a style all his own and which would benefit him in his later films Bruiser (2000) and The Dark Half (1993) and Two Evil Eyes (1990).
By the time this film was released Romero’s name no longer meant the same as when his Day of the Dead (1985) or Creepshow (1982) were released. It had been three years in between this film and his previous film and his name on the marquee didn’t guarantee the attendance of an audience or his loyal fan base. Instead, this film never found its audience and disappeared into the history of film. With the exception of his recent Land of the Dead (2005), most of Romero’s latest films have yet to find their audience (which includes Bruiser, The Dark Half, and Two Evil Eyes), but hopefully with time, this will change with those films as well.