Monkey Shines (1988)

Monkey Shines (1988), written and directed by George A. Romero.

After being hit by a truck while jogging, a man becomes quadriplegic and loses his girlfriend to his surgeon! He is given a remarkably intelligent and deft Capuchin monkey as a service animal. Problem: a friend who is a sort of self-medicating junior mad-scientist has been injecting the monkey with experimental serum containing human brain tissue.

The monkey becomes smarter and more dangerous than normal and develops a weird telepathic emotional bond with her client, increasing the pent-up rage in both. How do you fight such a jealous little devil when you are in a wheelchair and can move only your head?

I saw this years ago and did not remember that Jason Beghe plays our main character. I have enjoyed his TV work and would have gotten back to the film sooner if I had known. I would not call it a fright-fest but it has some intense moments.

There is some extra plot with an evil dean that goes nowhere; Romero's original ending was replaced with a shock jump scare by the studio. "They called it the Carrie (1976)-ending in those days and every thriller had to have one".

The studio also insisted on a happy ending where the quadriplegic is healed. Audience response was negative and there were protesters in wheelchairs outside the theater.

We have a sex scene with the second girlfriend where she hoists herself on a bar above his face. It is not very explicit but kind of erotic. Romero thought it was bold to have quadriplegic sex but the test audience response was: nothing. Critical response: more nothing.

The film didn't do well and is not much remembered. I think people want zombies from Romero and nothing else. He blames the studio marketing: the poster was of a toy monkey banging cymbals, as if this were a haunted doll story.

It is called his first studio picture but was actually privately financed. Orion picked it up after seeing the first cut.

Using Capuchins as service animals is a real thing and Romero says they can actually do all the remarkable things shown in the film, apart from lighting matches which had to be simulated. Training is easy: show them what you want and reward them with treats and they pick it up quickly. A second unit recorded hundreds of hours of monkey expressions to pick just the right bits for the story context.

In a remarkable bit "Ella" embraces Beghe with the most loving and devoted expression. Romero got a call one morning: "Boo (= Ella) is in heat. Jason has to be the first male she sees today". So they did that and she cuddled with him the next few days.

Stories like that, plus the performance of the animal, suggest to me that simians deserve better treatment than the average lab rat. They are much closer to us. I know Ella is supposed to be a hateful little demon in the end, but it hurts to see her that way. Was that the intention? Well done, if so.

Available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory. The commentary track is a happy conversation with the director.