Romero & Me by Rottingcorpse

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I was headed out for a bike ride when the news that iconic film director George A. Romero had died at the age of 77. It immediately weighed heavy on my heart and mind. My legs felt wobbly, so much so that I worried whether I should go for the bike ride or not. Then my wife came outside in her bike helmet and sunglasses, and suddenly the thought of being too upset to bike over a filmmaker I had only met once seemed silly. I mentioned the news to her in a “Say, did you hear?” kind of way that I hoped was masking how sad I was. Her eyes seemed to say that she understood it was effecting me more than I let on, but that maybe I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that. We both ran with the ruse and hopped on our bikes.

While on that bike ride, I composed a great deal of what you’re reading here in my head, pedaling so hard I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and the muscles in my legs tremble. Pedaling like… well, like I was trying to get away from the living dead.

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The term “independent filmmaker” wasn’t invented for George A. Romero, but a compelling argument can be made that he defined the public perception of what it was. His mold-shattering first film Night of the Living Dead was a “backyard movie.” That’s a term that’s gone by the wayside, but in a different time was used to describe movies (usually in the horror and sci-fi genres) shot for the price of pocket lint in the span of a nanosecond in an attempt to make a quick buck. These types of films sprouted like wildfire after film producers Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson and their company American International Pictures made a name for themselves (and a killing) distributing low-to-no-budget movies in the late 50s and early 60s.

It’s not many auteurs who can be credited with inventing an entire genre. Love The Walking Dead? Thank Romero, who along with screenwriter John Russo, created the modern concept of the cinematic zombie. That we have “zombie culture” now is a direct result of a single low budget yet groundbreaking film from the late 60s. Before 1968’s culture shifting Night of the Living Dead, movie zombies had more in common with brainwashed cult members and Voodoo magic then flesh eating ghouls.

Better folks than me have told the story of how Night of the Living Dead came to be, but here’s the short version: George Romero, along with his Pittsburgh TV studio buddies John Russo, Karl Hardman, and Russ Streiner, decided they wanted to get into the low-budget game. They scraped together $114,000 and shot a script penned by Russo and Romero called Night of the Flesh Eaters or Night of Anubis depending on which writer was winning arguments that day. The story concerned a group of folks trapped in a farmhouse surrounded by reanimated corpses hungry for human flesh. Romero and company got a bunch of local commercial actors to play the roles, making the then bold choice of casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as their heroic male lead.

Romero and company shot the film on and off over the course of six months. Once finished, they shopped it with vigilance. Columbia Studios passed, but a small NYC distributor didn’t. Romero and Streiner were driving a cut of the film from Pittsburgh to NYC when they heard on the radio that Martin Luther King has been assassinated in Memphis. I won’t give away the ending of NOTLD (though if you haven’t seen it, for shame), but let’s just say that MLK’s assassination added a whole other level to the film’s subtext. The distributor loved it, but decided to change the movie’s name to Night of the Living Dead. Because of a weird copyright filing error, Romero and his friends lost the rights to Night of the Living Dead and never saw a dime from the thousands of screenings it had.

And make no mistake, the film was popular as hell. People couldn’t believe what they were seeing. NOTLD didn’t shy away from the gore and, even at its modest budget, gave some convincing effects that today still have the ability to turn the stomach. Stephen King tells a great story of seeing it as part of an afternoon matinee with kids. (In those days, horror films were squarely aimed at kids and teenagers.) Sociologists complained of how such a film might influence America’s youth, but strangely didn’t wonder about even worse images on the nightly news coming from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Night of the Living Dead was more than just a cheesy little horror film designed to scare kids on Saturday afternoons. (Or provide a soundtrack for teenagers to make out to on Friday nights.) Whether by accident or design, the film had its thumb firmly on the pulse of the chaos of the late 1960s. Night of the Living Dead doesn’t directly reference Vietnam, the Cold War, youth counterculture, the civil rights movement, or the political upheaval of the era, yet it’s all there for the taking. It utilizes what in film school we called “apparatus reflexivity,” which is a fancy way of saying that it shows images of the media response to the zombie outbreak to add a real life “this is happening now” verisimilitude in a way that few if any films had done at that point. Even now, nearly fifty years later, the film resonates. Maybe it shows how little things have really changed.

Everybody has their favorite Romero zombie film. The cool kids prefer the stylized Italian influenced Dawn of the Dead (1978) or the real life gore of Day of the Dead (1986). I was always a Night guy. Part of it was my obsession with the era of the late 60s/early 70s which I later explored in my own work. A bigger part was the political resonance which was more than likely a happy accident. I like to think that in 1968, Romero didn’t quite recognize the cultural critic he was, and all the political subtext just kind of happened. Romero would later make political statements a point of his later films to varying degrees of success. However, in my opinion, he never did it anywhere close to as effectively (or subtlety) as he did in that first film.

Other zombie films came, not only from Romero but in rip-offs of Romero’s work. The best were done by the Italians, particularly Lucio Fulci. The worst focused too much on the gore and not enough on the social commentary. (Or even, you know, characters and story.) The zombie movie and its fans were their own weird subculture until the early aughts when the one/two punch of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead brought zombies into the mainstream for good.

The craze of the early 2000s would create an atmosphere allowing Romero to make three more zombie films before his death, none of which would match the strength of his first three outings. Land of the Dead is perhaps the best. It certainly has the biggest budget of any of the Dead films. Diary of the Dead latched onto the found footage craze of mid-2000s horror films. The less said about Survival of the Dead is probably for the better.

Those first three zombie films are classics, though. Most filmmakers hope they can make one classic film in a genre. Romero made three. Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are not sequels in the traditional sense, but different melodies built off similar chords. Dawn is the story of four survivors who lock themselves in a mall to protect themselves from zombies. It’s a shameless commentary on a consumer culture that was just taking hold of the American economy when the film was released. Day is a riff on the Reagan era military/industrial complex featuring a group of survivors (perhaps the last?) who are trapped in a military bunker with a despotic military leader and a mad scientist hard at work on figuring out a way to “tame” the zombies.

Yet Romero’s career was more than just zombies, and in many ways he extols the virtues of a working class independent filmmaker that doesn’t (perhaps can’t) exist anymore. In the years between 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, Romero made a number of films including his unreleased sexual awakening/film industry satire There’s Always Vanilla, the second-wave feminist parable Jack’s Wife (released as Season of the Witch), Martin, a gritty, hyper-real, and modern take on the vampire myth, and The Crazies, a film that was both a rehash of NOTLD and a prototype for the visceral artistry he would later unleash with Dawn of the Dead.

Though Dawn of the Dead was as successful as Night, Hollywood still kept Romero at arm’s length. (Romero’s frustrations with this situation were vented in the text of his next film, Knightriders, a misfire about traveling stunt performers that tries to mix the King Arthur legend with biker movies.) However, Romero found a champion in Stephen King, who collaborated with him on a classic horror film that’s an annual Halloween tradition for many horror fans, Creepshow, an anthology which pays homage to the EC brand horror comic books of Romero’s and King’s youth.

The combination of Stephen King’s blessing (at the height of his popularity in the early 80s) and the financial success of Creepshow finally got Romero his break into the Hollywood mainstream. He was hired as a producer and director for Paramount TV’s Tales of the Darkside, and did five years’ worth of script work. Hollywood’s love affair with Romero didn’t extend to his Dead films, however, as 1986’s Day of the Dead was independently financed. The two films he did direct for major studios, Monkey Shines (1988) and an adaptation of King’s The Dark Half (1993), were critical and financial flops and Romero soon found himself out of Hollywood’s favor.

The 90s were a drought for Romero who found himself too big for indie financiers, but too small for Hollywood. His rarely talked about, but super-underrated take on the slasher film, Bruiser, was released in 2000. (I saw it in theaters. Yeah, I’m the one.) Then 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead ‘04, and the zombie trend proper started. The “Godfather of Gore” got a brief victory lap from Universal Pictures which financed his long gestating Land of the Dead. At the same time, Romero became a fixture of the horror convention circuit, a professor emeritus of horror fandom’s great school of fear. It was at one of these conventions, in 2008, the now defunct Horrorfind Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, that I had the opportunity to meet the man.

Let’s be clear about genre conventions, they’re money-makers for both promoters and celebrities. Fans spend hours waiting in line for the chance to have two to five minutes with the actor/directors/writer of their favorite movie or TV show. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I’m saying that it has the potential to be annoying, frightening, and even dangerous for the celebrity, and cold, emotionless, and disappointing for the fan. It also has the potential to be amazing for everybody involved. I’ve had both good and bad experiences at cons. There were celebrities I assumed would be utter jerks that ended up being the sweetest and kindest people imaginable. There are others who were awful. (One celeb in particular seemed so pissed off to be in my presence, it’s practically ruined watching their movie for me, and it was formerly one of my favorites.)

I was at Horrorfind that year not just as a fan, but as a vendor/filmmaker promoting my first feature film, a “backyard” horror film about a women’s academy run by homicidal feminists called Women’s Studies. (It was intended as a “play it straight” satire, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with, don’t we?) At that point, the movie was in the can, headed for the post-production finish line. I was sure I was going to be the next Tobe Hooper, or Sean Cunningham, or Wes Craven, or maybe even the next George A. Romero.

How much did I idolize Romero? When it came time to cast the matriarch to my cult of killer feminists for Women’s Studies, I chose none other than Judith O’Dea, the actress who played Barbara in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “Dame Judy” was all strength, poise, and humor though the character she played in Romero’s classic was lost and frightened. The woman remains an erudite rebel with a biting wit and infectious smile. She threw herself into her Women’s Studies role as a Senator with a secret. All the while giving a much needed boost to cast and crew at a point in production when we all had started to wonder what we were really working towards.

Dame Judy was also attending Horrorfind that year. I had arranged a panel in which to play the trailer for Women’s Studies and gave a brief Q&A with the cast including Judith O’Dea to try and generate buzz for the movie. I was also in a dirty martini phase at that point, and was thrilled to discover during filming that Judy had a similar affliction. During a break in the con, Judy ran into me in the hallway while I was sipping one.

“I’m dying for one of those,” she said.

Never one to not encourage day drinking, I ran to the hotel bar and ordered her one. The problem was that the bar was on the far end of the hotel, about 150 yards and a huge flight of stairs from where the celebrity room was. If you know anything about martinis (and trust me, I know more than I like to admit), they don’t exactly travel well. Nevertheless, I carried a dirty martini across a football field and-a-half of crowded convention hall and up a ridiculous flight of stairs for her. (Judy, if you’re reading this. You owe me.) I’d like to say I didn’t spill any, but that would be a bold faced lie. Judy’s uproarious laugh was worth it though. While we stood there talking, Romero, on a break from his own signing room, waltzed in to chat with some of his NOTLD compatriots.

Seeing Judy’s martini, he asked, “Where did you get that?!”

Judy, in one of the finest moments of my life, gestured to me and said, “My director.”

We didn’t get to officially meet in that moment, but just nodded at each other. The next day, I stood in line for a good bit to get a chance for a brief bit of face time with him. Having made my own second-wave feminist parable, I wanted him to sign my copy of Jack’s Wife/Season of the Witch. When I finally got to him, he shook my hand and nodded in what I thought (hoped) was recognition from the day before. We chatted, and what I remember most was that he was totally present, looking me in the eye and giving me very ounce of energy he had. I handed him my copy of Season of the Witch. He sighed.

“Man, I’d love another shot at this one.”

I told him I thought it was pretty good as it was. Then I babbled on about my own film. We spent a few minutes talking about what a joy Judy O’Dea was to work with, particularly when it came to the physicality of the roles she played for us respectively. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome. We wrapped it up. He signed my DVD and posed for a picture.

“Good luck,” he said, followed by advice I’ve carried with me ever since, “Don’t let anybody tell you how to do it.”

George A. Romero and the author in 2008. Photo by Jim McGivney.

That night, I met up with Judy and Kyra Schon, another NOTLD alum (the little girl Karen), at the hotel bar. We were joined by Scott Reninger (Roger in Dawn of the Dead) and Joe Pilato (Rhodes, the despot military man in Day of the Dead). The four of them spun yarns about working with Romero. Each story was filled with warmth and nostalgia. Their respect was genuine. We talked about their current projects, my projects, the filmmaking process, and what did and didn’t make a good movie. They treated me not as a fan, but as an equal. It was one of the greatest nights of my life. I was living the dream.

Here, my friends. Here we get to Hamlet’s rub, the ultimate point of why Romero will be truly missed. In 1968, Romero and his friends decided to make a movie on a wing and a prayer. They had no Hollywood deals, no presale funds, no promise of distribution, no letters of intent from A-List actors. They just had an idea they believed in and had surrounded themselves with a group of people that said, “We can.” They believed they could and stupid copyright mistake be damned, they did. Romero took a crazy gamble and made a career out of it. It was never easy. And I’m sure it never lived up to the narrative Romero created in his head of what his “big break” would be. That aside, he was a working genre filmmaker his entire life.

In being the “Godfather of Gore” or “Master of the Midnight Movie,” Romero became an inspiration to every would-be filmmaker who had nothing but an idea, a group of people who might just say, “We can,” and hope. He was the example we all followed. I like to think that in 1968, Romero and his friends were simply too naive to know any better. He, like me, like every indie filmmaker who scrapes together a camera, their friends, some cash, and some fake blood to maybe, just maybe, try and make a masterpiece, simply believed. He believed he could succeed the way the truly pious believe a heaven awaits. The idea Romero planted in tens of thousands of men and women who might not otherwise ever take that frightening, tumultuous, yet awesome first step to making a movie was this:

“Romero did it. Why not me?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: rottingcorpse is Lonnie Martin, an independent filmmaker and DMV native whose latest film ‘The Last of the Manson Girls’ will hit film festivals later this year.

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