Sunday, July 16, 2017

George A. Romero (1940 - 2017)

The first time I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was on a cheap, grainy Goodtimes video purchased from K-Mart.  I was about ten years old, and I had no idea what I was getting into.  The movie kept me spellbound from beginning to end.  When I said that to George Romero years later, he didn’t believe me—because he believed that the film’s power derived entirely from the cultural context in which it was produced, a cultural context that existed a full decade before I was even born.  I tried to explain my love for his first movie, remembering how I watched it repeatedly as a teenager.

When I was about fourteen, I upgraded my VHS copy to the double-tape 25th Anniversary Collector’s Set.  The second tape was an unedited, roundtable discussion with Romero, co-writer John Russo, and producers Russ Streiner and Karl Hardman.  In those days before bonus features were taken for granted, it felt like meeting the filmmakers.  I remember I got that anniversary edition for Christmas from a girl at school who liked me.  My best friend told her that the way to my heart was through horror movies.  (So true.)  

Later, I remember talking my dad into bringing home a big screen / projector from work so that I could watch the movie in more cinematic fashion.  I must have done that at least a dozen times.  Somehow, the grainy image and tinny sound just seemed to work better with a big screen.  I’ve always felt that watching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is like receiving a transmission from deep space.  The medium may be weak, but the message comes through loud and clear.

I had read about DAWN OF THE DEAD before I ever saw it—in VHS guides, and in Stephen King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre.  When I finally watched the movie on video late one night, I thought it was the bleakest thing I’d ever seen.  Somehow, the garish colors and slapstick humor made it even more melancholy than NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.   Then came DAY OF THE DEAD.  I saw it for the first time at home alone, in the early hours of a blizzard that (soon after the movie ended) killed the power to my neighborhood for more than a week, and trapped me inside with my family for days.  Although DAY is arguably the most despairing of Romero’s films, there’s something about it that has always been strangely comforting to me.  By way of explanation, I can only point to the Terry Alexander character, who lives—in his own mind, anyway—on a tropical island, far from all the dehumanizing habits of modern “civilization.”

I wrote my first tribute to Romero’s Dead trilogy in college and it quickly morphed into a chapter in my first book.  The book was newly published in August 2004, when I went to meet George Romero at the Horrorfind Convention in Baltimore.  I remember that he didn’t look the way I thought he’d look.  The photos I’d seen of him, in Paul R. Gagne’s excellent book The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, had been taken many years earlier.  Now he was slimmer, his hair was whiter, and he was wearing huge, black-rimmed, Coke-bottle glasses.  But the eyes and the smile were the same.  George Romero always radiated warmth and childlike glee.  Not what you’d expect from a guy who made his career off of the zombie apocalypse, right?  But, as anyone who ever met him will tell you, he was a big ol' teddy bear.

I nervously handed him a copy of my book, and he seemed genuinely humbled that I had written about him.  I’m not sure why; he was already a legend.  But he got flustered enough that he actually signed the wrong name on my DVD copy of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Millennium Edition, in case you’re keeping track).  As soon as he realized what he’d done (by comparing the newly-autographed DVD to the name on the book I’d given him), he was embarrassed… which, in turn, made me feel guilty.  All I’d wanted to do was to say “thanks,” not make the guy feel guilty for anything.  I tried to slink away, but his personal assistant followed me and took down my cell number, promising to get me a newly signed copy of the DVD before the weekend was over.   I told him not to worry, that I was just happy to have exchanged a few words with one of my heroes.

The next morning, I was eating breakfast with friends in the hotel lobby when my cell phone rang.  I recognized the exchange as a Baltimore number and assumed that it was a call from a friend who was planning to meet us at the convention that day.  Instead, the voice on the other end of the line said, “Hi Joe, it’s George Romero.”  The rest of the conversation is a little fuzzy.  He apologized, repeatedly, for signing the wrong name on my DVD, and confessed that his assistant hadn’t been able to find another copy at the convention.  (No surprise—since everyone at that convention wanted a signed copy of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.)   Then the conversation turned to the subject of LAND OF THE DEAD, which was in pre-production at that time.  I don’t think I was the one who brought it up, but I sure as hell seized an opportunity.  I asked if he might need a production assistant… or a zombie extra.  He gave me his home phone number and said to call him in a few days. 

Somehow, I managed to keep the conversation going.  I told him that I was getting on a plane to India in a few days.  He jokingly asked if I was fleeing the country before the Republican convention.  I laughed and said I was going to visit a friend, but would call as soon as I got back. 

In the end, I didn’t work on LAND OF THE DEAD.   When I returned from India, I called and talked to George’s wife.  She explained that, because the production had recently moved from Pittsburgh to Toronto, they couldn’t hire any additional American cast or crew members.  So that’s as close as I ever came to being a zombie in a George Romero movie.

On the up side, I got to interview him a few years later.  When I decided to turn my first book into a documentary film, George Romero was one of the first people I contacted, and he immediately agreed to do an interview.  In April 2008, he came to L.A. for a Fangoria convention and I made arrangements to sit and talk with him for about an hour and a half.  When he rolled in to the interview, he was tired and jetlagged—but by the end, he was a live wire, laughing heartily.  One of the liveliest parts of the interview was an exchange about the Howard Hawks movie THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, a childhood favorite that he insisted was “all about opening doors.” My documentary editor subsequently turned it into one of the most memorable segments of the doc.

Sometime later, I ran across a passage in a book on Howard Hawks that reminded me of the exchange.  The passage revealed that Romero’s observations about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD had been shared by another remarkable filmmaker, Ernst Lubitsch.  I promptly sent George an email, which read in part:

A few days later, he responded with the following message:

It’s clear that the curious and mischievous twelve-year-old in George Romero remained alive and well throughout his life.  And it's reassuring to know that, even though the filmmaker has now disappeared behind the door, that twelve-year-old boy will continue to live on in his films—and in the hearts of all us movie geeks who love the films, and who came to love the man too.

Godspeed, George.

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