Monday, July 17, 2017

George Romero 1940 - 2017 The Originator of the Modern Zombie Film

Yesterday afternoon I flipped over to my Facebook app on my phone and discovered the saddest news that I was totally not expecting. George A. Romero had passed away. A lot of times when a celebrity, musician, actor etc. passes away I usually greet it with a "aw man that sucks". But when I saw the news of Romero passing I shed a couple of tears for the man, his accomplishments, what he meant to film making and how his films affected me at a young age when I first heard of Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I first discovered Romero's first film when I was in the 3rd grade around 1979. I was browsing book titles at the school book fair and had the novelization of Star Wars in my hand. I was about to plop down my $3 for the book when an issue of Weird Tales caught my eye. Now I may be a little fuzzy but I'm pretty sure it was Weird Tales. I flipped through the magazine and quickly came across a still shot that made me stop a moment. What were these people doing shambling across the porch of an old house? They looked like they were trying to get into the house. I remember reading the caption on the black and white still and seeing the word "zombie" and the title "Night of the Living Dead". I decided that Star Wars would be taking a back seat to this little magazine that I had discovered, thus cementing my love for Horror and not Science Fiction. I love both by the way but Horror caught my heart first.

It would be years before I ever laid eyes to Romero's debut film but the image to the left would stay burned into my brain forever. Not long after this discovery I would hear another movie title that sent shivers down my spine. "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) was playing at the local art house theater. The Naro Theater was the only place the film was being screened and my older brother's best friend came over to tell us all the gory details while we were playing basketball. Zombies in a mall! Zombies attacking a motorcycle gang! Zombies tearing into an elevator shaft and eating the people inside! At that moment I didn't realize the movie was tied into Night of the Living Dead but something told me it was.

Around 1982/83 my family bought our first VCR. I was so excited to finally get to see all the cool movies that were available to rent from the local video store. I remember finding the store copy of Night of the Living Dead and rented it forthwith. What can I really say about NOTLD? The first 10 minutes are riveting! Immediately Romero sets the tone for all the doom that is about to come the audience's way. I was pretty well sucked into the film and it felt a little odd to me that a black and white movie could give me the creeps but it did. This wasn't like the Frankenstein and Dracula films I had seen on T.V. No, this was something totally on a plane by itself. I was completely hooked and of course completely blown away by the ending. I remember feeling somewhat melancholy afterwards.

I then rented Dawn of the Dead, which took a few tries since it was not rated and the lady at the store wasn't keen on me renting it. I was finally able to snag a copy home when one of the teenagers was manning the front desk and thought it would be cool to let a kid rent a zombie flick. Again Romero obliterates your brain within the first 10 minutes. The world has gone to hell and Romero has set the tone for the rest of the entire film.

Dawn was bloodier and a little more action packed than Night of the Living Dead. It certainly grabbed me by the collar and refused to let go. However this film was the film that opened my eyes to how Romero constructed his films and how important characters were to the story telling. This was the film that scared me with cannibalistic walking dead corpses but also frightened me with how scary the living actually are in a time of crises and uncertainty. It also introduced me to proficient and excellent make up effects of Tom Savini. This movie was two fold for me. It opened me up to how films are made and also started my interest in make up effects. Both Romero and Savini became gods in my cinematic universe. They also became quite the tandem in many of Romero's future cinematic endeavors. I was totally sold on all things Romero and had to see more of what this filmmaker had to offer.

I don't remember what store I found it in but Document of the Dead (1985) completely blew me away when I rented it around the same time that Day of the Dead (1985) had been released to home video. This documentary is the best documentary on Romero in my opinion. It follows him around the shooting of Dawn and of Day of the Dead. It also offers a look into Romero's early work on television commercials and some of his other films that at the time I wasn't familiar with. I had seen The Crazies (1971) before seeing this documentary but hadn't heard of Season of the Witch (1973) or Martin (1977). Of course now I was prompted to hunt them down and hunt them down I did.  This documentary really showed me who George was. Who would have thought this scarf wearing, chain smoking, jovial man was responsible for so much zombie mayhem I had seen on my TV screen? Seeing this side of the man made me like him even more.

Over the years more Romero movies would hit the theater screens. Monkey Shines (1988), Two Evil Eyes (1990) and The Dark Half (1993). Things got quiet through the rest of the 90's though. Romero was slated to direct a film adaptation of the hit video game Resident Evil but that fizzled out and it went on to someone else. Romero returned to the big screen with Bruiser (2000) but the film didn't receive a big release but found it's place on home video and remains a very interesting and odd film even by Romero standards. Finally in 2005 Land of the Dead hit the screens and was a nice return to zombie form for Romero. More zombie films would come afterwards but with limited theatrical run and mostly straight to DVD, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2010). Each film had Romero's stamp on it. Romero's use of social commentary and his ability to pit human against human as the main threat is unmatched.

I've tried not to present a play by play on each Romero film and believe me it's a hard task because all his films have had some kind of effect on me. Somehow I left out Creepshow (1982)! That is one of Romero's greatest non zombie films. But the bottom line is this; George Romero was an innovative film maker. A man who loved film and loved being part of every aspect of film making. His films have had an impact on me in some way or another. I will always thank him for that. While I never ventured farther than my own video camera, I enjoyed putting little fun short horror films together with my friends as a teenager. Every time I looked through the lens I envisioned myself as being Romero. I would try and remember some of the things Romero would do and try to emulate that somewhat. When I think about it, I'm pretty sure I failed at it. HA HA! But the influence was there.

With that I just want to say thank you George. May you rest in peace.