Talkhouse Film Contributors Remember George A. Romero
In the following post, Talkhouse Film contributors and other filmmakers share their tributes to George A. Romero, the father of the zombie movie and the man behind such great movies as Night of the Living Dead, Martin and The Crazies, who passed away yesterday, aged 77.
More remembrances will be added to this post as they come in. Feel free to leave your own tributes and memories in the comments section. – N.D.
Over the years I have often cited George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as my favorite horror movie. It served as a fulcrum between the old black-and-white horror films produced by Universal, featuring iconic monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula, and the more modern, despairing, angry and confrontational cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. I saw Living Dead on TV late one night and as a kid, I couldn’t tell when it had been made because it was still black-and-white, but I knew something was different. I knew the genre had grown up. Later, I was enamored with Martin, another film that grappled with the tension between movie monsters, in this case black-and-white vampire movies, and the very real, disturbing psychological violence of the young protagonist. And with The Crazies, Romero gave us a parable about mass hysteria and government overreach. Even when I could see the filmmaking was awkward and on the cheap, there was an energy and a fierce intelligence to Romero’s films, and their scrappiness felt like an invitation to aspiring filmmakers to just go out and do it. Of course he did make Creepshow, which had a budget and a cast and offered him the opportunity to celebrate his love of the DC comics that had influenced him as a kid. Romero was among a band of horror purveyors who came up in the ’60s and who ushered in a more brutal tone to the genre: Craven, Carpenter, Tobe Hooper — but distinct from his contemporaries, Romero seemed to resonate a conscience even as he relished in extreme gore. It is remarkable that a medium that is so collaborative still tends to convey the personality of the director, and in his films, you can feel George’s humility, thoughtfulness and sardonic anti-establishment sensibility. I often think about how Romero lamented he never really had a Hollywood career, never had it easy making films, no matter how influential and beloved he was. It has stood as a reminder that the embrace of Tinseltown is not the only measure of success in cinema.
Few filmmakers have the ability to create a masterpiece right out of the gate, but among those people is George Romero. He will always be known for his first film, Night of the Living Dead. That film captured the essence of what would come to define most of Romero’s work. It tapped into the cultural zeitgeist and was about something. It exploited our fear of “the others” while showing us that “the others” are really us. The movie broke ground by featuring an African-American lead who survives the carnage, only to be killed by people who assume “he’s one of them.” It is a stark statement on the racial conflict at the time … that still strikes a chord today. But “the others” could stand in for any group, and that’s what makes this film timeless. His other work was also about something. Whether it was consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or the desire of the military to weaponize chemicals in The Crazies, Romero always had something to say with his work. And he said it intelligence and humor.
This same intelligence and humor also made George Romero a wonderful person. In a town known for sharks, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t adore George. In addition to his many creative qualities, he was an extremely humble man. I don’t know if he ever fully grasped the impact he had on the film industry. And if he did, it never showed. But his mark on cinema will never be erased. His “light up a room” smile will never be forgotten. And whenever we see a movie with the dead walking the earth, we’ll think of him.
1968’s Night of the Living Dead was initially banned in Australia, so my first exposure to the genius of George Romero was at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles the weekend Dawn of the Dead opened. OMG! Rivers of blood, graphic cannibalism, and social satire! I emerged gobsmacked, then joined the line for tickets to the next session. I had the honor to meet George Romero at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2008. What a charming, urbane, self-effacing man he was. Over canapes and goulash we discussed the mechanics of screen cannibalism. Several of the zombies in his Night of the Living Dead were investors, including a butcher who provided livers, kidneys, and intestines. Chunks of roast ham were the preferred diet for close-ups. At a time of generational change, George Romero pushed the boundaries of graphic bloodshed, infusing political comment along with deep suspicion of authority into his films. He influenced the next generation of film makers, and changed the horror genre forever. Vale, George. You will be missed.
I didn’t make a zombie movie as my first feature film just because I loved zombies – I was also heavily influenced by the work and perseverance of George A. Romero. He was one of the first directors I ever studied, and I was so inspired by his innovations and creativity within the genre while making the best of his budget and resources. Because of his films, I started to believe I could make my own independent horror movies as long as I had interesting characters to drive the story. Even though Creepshow has a completely different tone from Night of the Living Dead, they are united by compelling characters, twists on the horror genre, and social commentary that tell us, “Hey, horror movies can be fun and have something to say.” That’s what makes all of Mr. Romero’s films timeless to me. And on a personal note, I’ll never forget the few times we met and I shyly told him how much I looked up to him (and how kind and smart he was in return), or how shocked I was to hear that he knew about my little zombie movie.
Growing up in the ’80s, it was still possible to hear about certain notorious films, (picking up details from unreliable older brothers of school friends or from still photos in old issues of Fangoria) without having any way to actually see them. Dawn of the Dead was one of those for me. I remember being told a story of a man trapped in an elevator facing monsters at every floor. I saw a black-and-white image of someone walking too close to a helicopter rotor. I knew the film had something to do with a shopping mall, which sounded crazy because horror movies take place in the woods or in old castles. I had to see it, but I couldn’t see it.
Life, uh, finds a way.
In my case, it was the AMC Midnight Movie Express. Multiplexes back then typically screened their final shows at 10PM, but one day some unsung hero at the AMC theater chain decided to give the Express a try. It was incredible while it lasted, entire suburban multiplexes screening the greatest hits (and some surprisingly deep cuts) at midnight all weekend long. Chainsaw to Phantom of the Paradise, Heavy Metal to Bloodsucking Freaks. Death Race 2000 to, Yes! Finally! one weekend, Dawn of the Dead. Midnight Movie Express was so special they even created this amazing trailer for it.
That was an incredible time for me and my friends and we had no idea how lucky we were to be in high school with lenient parents and brand new driver’s licenses during the brief window it lasted. Almost all the movies screened were fun in their way, some of them simply for the audacity with which they trampled over taboos, while others were genuinely inspired films that I still count as among my favorites. Dawn of the Dead is clearly in the latter category. I knew going in that it was going to be an incredibly gory zombie film, but what I didn’t know was that it was going to be a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic portrait of a country in perpetual civil war. I didn’t know that it would introduce me to four characters as real as friends or portray a newsroom in a state of chaos and panic as hilarious and horrifying as anything in Network (or happening live today.)
I was just learning how much I could learn from these movies.
We’re still learning from them.
RIP George A. Romero
Calvin Lee Reeder
Night of the Living Dead is public domain. It used to be called Night of the Living Flesh Eaters but when the title card was changed the distributor forgot to copyright it. So Romero made no money. NO MONEY on fucking Night of the Living Dead. But other people made money, lots of other people. I guess some folks will read that and think the lesson is “Copyright and lawyer up.” That’s valid. But for me, it says the business is full of non-creative money vampires. They’re gonna find a way to suck your blood if you have a lawyer or not. And if the objective is to make money alone, then chose the path of the non-creative money vampire. They sleep ironically well.
But if you’re a creative person, you don’t have a choice. It’s a life sentence. George Romero served a beautiful life sentence and if you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you how important he is. He knuckled up, he pressed on, he fought the vampires with zombies and carved out a place in the movies that didn’t exist before. George Romero is resilience. If you make movies, you need that more than anything else. It’s a different world than the one Romero came up in, but you could say that about Jesus too. I’ve only read six pages of the Bible, but I’ve watched Romero my whole life. I still want to be just like him.
If George Romero isn’t the biggest early influence on my filmmaking career, he’s certainly in the top 10. My little-seen first feature, A Four Course Meal, is a direct product of someone loving Creepshow way too much. Calling it an homage may be leaning on the charitable side. Romero invented the space in my brain for horror-comedy. To that point, he basically invented the space which accepts that horror films can talk about stuff other than jumps and screams, Dawn of the Dead being the first socially conscious horror film I ever saw. In fact, that movie means so much to me, it motivated the one and only “movie pilgrimage” I ever made. I was in Pittsburgh on a job, working 18-hour days. We had one day off, mostly to do laundry. But I saw the time as an excuse to visit the Monroeville Mall, clearly the most important mall in cinema history. It took my some spelunking, but I made off with a few pristine copies of the Monroeville Mall map. Some people look at my innocuous map and wonder why I have such an item on prominent display at my home. Others, the cool ones, totally get it.