It shouldn't feel strange to put together the words "George Romero" and "dead." After all, film lovers, gore hounds, and zombie fiends have been doing that for almost fifty years now, since the release of his groundbreaking horror classic Night of the Living Dead.
Yet, it does feel strange. George Romero is dead, having passed away on July 16 after a battle with cancer. Unlike his famous cinematic creations, he won't be coming back.
I'm not going to go into his legacy or what he did for the movie industry and the horror genre. Plenty of other people have done so, and I can't add much to it. More successful and talented people who knew Romero, such as Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro, have said their piece, and while I never met the man, I've followed his career for the better part of the last fifteen years, as long as I've been serious about movies and moviemaking. I can only describe what he meant to me.
In some ways, I'm an atypical George Romero fan. Growing up, I always loved movies but not horror. I avoided scary movies, especially zombie movies, because they freaked me out so much. Two titles in particular affected me: Night of the Living Dead and The Return of the Living Dead. The former felt like a waking nightmare; the latter, which I didn't realize at the time was a comedy, bothered me because these zombies couldn't be killed.
So I avoided horror for years, and pretending to be a zombie or threatening to change the TV channel to one of those movies was an easy way for family members, especially my older brother, to scare me.
Gradually, I overcame that fear, sneaking in clips of movies on TV, daring myself to be braver. The turning point came in seventh grade when I did a project on Mel Brooks. Weird transition, I know, but I discussed this in my Day of the Dead review. My mom bought this massive, red book on the history of Hollywood for me to use as research and to cut out pictures from.
The book contained a section on 80s horror by Mark Kermode, the British film critic. He talked about Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Fly, etc. He also devoted a couple of paragraphs to Day of the Dead, Romero's third zombie movie and at the time his conclusion to the series. I don't have the book anymore, but a few choice phrases stuck with me: "Romero's multi-layered script" and "supremely intelligent festival of gore."
The writeup hit me like a lightning bolt. A horror movie, a zombie movie, intelligent? Multi-layered? It didn't seem possible. I was baffled but intrigued. Also, I knew of Night of the Living Dead but had no clue there were any sequels. What was the name of the middle chapter? What was that story?
Sometime later, I found Night on TV and watched it, with eyes more open and mind more receptive. I appreciated it more. I also read the info box on screen that made note to mention "Directed by George Romero." Not every movie's director was listed by the cable company unless they were at the level of a Steven Spielberg or a Stanley Kubrick. This Romero must be up there with those guys, I thought, and my thought was confirmed, to me anyway, when shortly afterward, I saw his episode of The Directors, a TV series that showcased the great directors.
Romero came off as friendly, articulate, insightful, and he seemed like a great guy to root for. More importantly, I learned about all these other movies he made that I could now seek out and watch, which I did.
The timing was good. This was around the time I became interested in filmmaking, the craft, the greats, the process. Romero - and John Carpenter - was my window into that, seeing how he imbued his movies with intelligence, wit, style, and substance. A few years later, he finally received funding to continue his series and made Land of the Dead.
Romero was the first director I actively followed. True, I did the project on Mel Brooks and knew about Steven Spielberg but didn't really pay attention to their current output. I collected all the news on Romero, reading every interview I could find, visiting a million websites, tracking all the announcements about his next projects (Diamond Dead! The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon! From a Buick 8!), and eagerly anticipated whatever he had planned next.
Sadly, a lot of those next projects became never projects, falling through for one reason or another. Despite his impact and success, Hollywood never totally embraced Romero, forcing him to scrape by on lower-budget fare and churning out more and more zombie movies, even when it became clear he wanted to move on. I probably like Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead more than most horror fans, but I admit they are, compared to the rest of his work, weak. When those movies were announced, I was disappointed he was going back to the zombie well.
I've spent more time than I should have reading up on all those films he almost directed: Before I Wake, Resident Evil, The Stand, The Mummy (I even bought a copy of his script), Apartment Living, Carnivore. I could go on. It's depressing to read up about all the work one of your favorite directors wanted to do but couldn't.
Romero, like Rod Serling, used the trappings of the genre to tell interesting stories that had something to say about society. His movies dealt with racism, feminism, consumerism, class warfare, family conflict, government overreach, identity. He gazed hard upon the dark nature of humanity and brought it out in a palatable and entertaining vehicle. He - along with collaborators such as special effects makeup wizard Tom Savini - created some of cinema's most memorable, shocking, and visceral images.
He's very much the kind of storyteller I want to be. I hesitate to call him my favorite director because those superlatives are hard to quantify, and I admit there are better filmmakers who have been more innovative and consistent in quality, many of whom I'd count among my favorites, too.
But Romero, I relate to him more than the others. I see more of me in him, or at least more of the traits I value and wish I had: independent, socially conscious, always trying to find greater meaning and value where most people wouldn't think to look, daring, exploring new terrains, a sense of humor. He made many movies I enjoy and will enjoy.
Thank you, George. I will stay scared.