Remembering George A. Romero
Article by Ray Schillaci
My first memory of hearing about George A. Romero was in 1972. My mother always gave each child the opportunity to pick what movie we were going to see. There were four of us boys altogether. Sometimes a re-release of a Disney or James Bond film was picked, and there were any number of $3 single cinema houses to choose from in the San Fernando Valley. It was fall, Halloween was looming, and my choice would be a strategic one.
I was in junior high school, and the word around the school was, “I dare you to see this movie.” People were eating each other, and a crowbar actually goes into a guy’s skull, gets twisted, and the guy’s eyes roll back and forth. That was taboo back then. Nobody had gone so far with the carnage. Being someone who grew up with the magazine, Famous Monsters, I made it my mission to see what everybody was talking about.
Of course, not everybody had seen it. They just boasted about it. And not everything they purported to have seen actually was shown on screen. I would not find this out until later. So, when my pick of movie came up, I knew my mom would never subject me or my younger brothers to such a film. Being the devious 15 year-old, I found a double bill at the Cornell Theater in Burbank for only fifty cents, Night of the Living Dead with Night of Dark Shadows!
Night of Dark Shadows was a spin-off from a popular vampire daytime soap opera, and I knew even though it was rated “GP” (now the PG rating) my mother felt it was a safe bet. What she did question was the other feature. I assured her it could not be that bad since it was in B/W and not rated, meaning (as I explained) it did not need a rating. I also added that we would miss the first fifteen minutes, to cushion any hesitation on my mother’s part.
We stepped into that darkened theater with the screeching speakers, the place packed full of young people cowering in their seats while a dimly lit powder blue night sky ceiling, peeled from age, hung over our heads appearing nearly as ominous as what was taking place on screen. We managed to find five seats together as six individuals on screen were barricading themselves in a house while moans and groans emanated from outside. The audience was already traumatized. We had no idea why, but we were about to.
Through the eating of bugs, people being caught on fire, their intestines eaten, and one youngster stabbing her mommy to death with a garden trowel, my mother tried to cover our youngest brother’s eyes. She scolded me in harsh whispers that never again would I have a choice in what we were going to see. My siblings were in shock, and I was thrilled while the audience screamed, and some people went running to the lobby for safety.
That was my introduction to the world of George A. Romero. But it was not until much later that I realized that the writer/director had far more than scares in mind. Most of his films were laced with socio-political commentary and dark laughs. He didn’t come into filmmaking to become a horror schlockmeister, as the small minded would suggest.
Romero started off as an industrial filmmaker out of Pittsburgh. His original idea was getting a couple of film enthusiasts together, Richard Ricci, Russ Steiner, and later John A. Russo, and start a film company. They were unsuccessful in financing their first feature, but eventually went into creating commercials that won many awards over the more expensive competition.
From there, over sandwiches and beer, they decided that “A Monster Flick” was the easiest way to break into the industry. According the to the book, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, the original idea was aliens attacking locals. Ricci came up with the idea of a spoof involving teenagers from outer space. Russo penned some pages centering around young space creatures “feasting off corpses, and they had to decompose to their taste.” The problem was the budget would not be able to accommodate the effects.
It was Romero that stepped in with the idea of Night of the Living Dead, from a short story he had written that was adapted from the ever-so-popular Richard Matheson novel, I am Legend. Romero’s short story was never published, but it ended up being the inception to his trilogy of the dead. He started it with a small group of people that barricaded themselves in an abandoned farmhouse just as the epidemic begins. And, as Romero muses, “They’re all eaten.”
The screenplay started as a group effort by many, incorporating several ideas as to the plague, the government handling of it, the dead, the media, and the individuals caught up in the situation. Once everybody had their input, Romero formulated it all in a screenplay. While many thought that the choice of shooting in B/W was an artistic one, it was far from it. George was willing to work with the budgetary constraints, but not content just delivering a monster movie. As pre-production started, he decided to shoot the film in a documentary style for a sense of heightened realism.
Upon its release, Night of the Living Dead became the stuff of legend. Reviled by some critics, yet adored by others that touted him as a daring new “horror” filmmaker, the documentary style paid off. George’s black humor came across, eliciting uncomfortable giggles, and the idea of an African-American lead, a hero no less, was highly unusual in its day, just coming off the heels of Sidney Poitier’s In The Heat of The Night. There was also a very bleak and controversial ending.
The success gave George hope as a filmmaker, and he and his company went onto a romantic comedy/drama, There’s Always Vanilla, that ended up failing miserably. He then delivered a more scaled down horror with Jack’s Wife (aka Season of the Witch), an unhappy housewife that turns to witchcraft to improve her life. Later he returned to something on the scale of his first movie with The Crazies, where the military was attempting to contain a man-made virus in a small Pennsylvanian town. Neither had the impact of his first movie, but at the same time did show the growth of the filmmaker.
From ’73-’76, Romero worked in TV with documentaries and a TV special, but soon after, he had that creative itch to launch another feature, a vampire film like no other. Martin was a personal drama as much as a vampire film. It was far from conventional, and is still praised to this day, but it was not the film that would catapult Romero back in the spotlight. Whether it was hindsight or just to return to his roots, Romero came back with a vengeance with Dawn of the Dead, along with an upstart maestro of makeup effects, Tom Savini.
Not only did Romero bring back the dead, he did it in glorious blood-drenched and corpse grey colors. He also insisted on having fun with it and made the social commentary far more apparent with a small band of people holding up in a mall. Romero and Savini went over the top with their depiction of the zombie violence. Romero also amped up the tension with more definable characters, including a pregnant woman. With his new makeup effects artist, Tom Savini, Romero would go on to create several unforgettable scenes in the movie; zombies feasting in a basement and housed by a one-legged priest, an undead having the top of his head lopped off by a helicopter blade, the dead wandering in the mall to the tune of light muzak, to name just a few.
Dawn was a qualified hit, and Romero once again wanted to branch out of the horror genre with his knights on motorcycle saga, Knightriders. His die-hard base loved it, but the film did not do anywhere near the kind of business his two zombie films did. Sadly, it was frustrating for George, who so badly wanted to branch out. But, the popularity of his undead films was so big that it launched a wonderful collaboration with one of the best known horror genre writers in the business, Stephen King.
Romero and King took their love of the EC horror comics and developed Creepshow. Not only would he go onto two other King projects (Two Evil Eyes and The Dark Half), but he would also develop a successful TV series, Tales From the Darkside. While some thought George had ended his trilogy with the large scale Day of the Dead, he actually went onto developing new groundwork for the continuation of his zombie saga with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. Dear George never slacked off in his writing either while bringing the dead back to life.
With each new film, Romero had more to say and show us. Just when his audience didn’t think he could top himself with Dawn, Romero gave us military officers and scientists in a bunker as the world above is being overrun with zombies. If that was not enough, Romero introduced us to a lovable zombie, Bub! It was Romero’s way to humanize and give us a whole new view of the undead.
He even took his vision a step further with the large scale Land of the Dead, where the living dead have taken over the world, and what’s left of humanity is behind a walled city. To add to the skirmish, actor Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) played a tyrant ruler over the city. Once again, Romero astonished people with his vision with some very unique WTF moments.
And just when you would think George would run out of steam with his zombies, he decided to scale everything back and take a nod from some of the young upstart directors who were exploring “first-person” horror (i.e. Blair Witch Project, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon). Romero took a group of film students and set them in the middle of a new zombie attack. The results were incredibly unsettling and is considered one of the ten best first-person horror films ever made.
George’s last zombie opus would take place on a small island where the survivors are not only fighting the epidemic, but frantically looking for a cure for their undead loved ones while a long standing family feud continues on. This is possibly George Romero’s most intimate look into the human and undead condition. Some found the philosophical debate off-putting while many of us remained enthralled with George’s view and his warning of the dangers of showing blind faith in leaders.
George continued on into his 70s as an executive producer on a horror anthology and its sequel, Deadtime Stories, a very successful reboot of The Crazies, and a documentary on horror films. In fact, all the way up to his death, George was working. He was announced this year as the producer of George A. Romero Presents: Road of the Dead.
It was said that George was not fond of what had become of the genre he started. He was not a fan of The Walking Dead and it was long rumored that he hated Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead. The latter poked fun at Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and retained his old writing partners Ricci, Russo, and Streiner. But recently I was informed by an unnamed source that George had a secret fondness for the O’Bannon movie, and did not want to let on how much he enjoyed it.
The man has left one helluva legacy. If people will just look a little deeper, they will realize what an icon of cinema he really was and still is. His influence can be seen in countless movies. Although copied many times over, no one touches upon the level of gallows humor and social commentary that George always provided.
Here’s the tell-all of one of our favorite filmmakers. At 77, George A. Romero quietly passed away in his sleep while listening to the score of one of his favorite films, the 1952 John Ford classic, The Quiet Man. His wife and daughter were at his side. Another great one goes quietly.