Zombies R Us: George A. Romero (1940 – 2017)

By Glenn Lovell

I remember the late summer night as if it were yesterday. We were at a drive-in theater in central Pennsylvania. My girlfriend turned to me about 20 minutes into the first feature, about a disparate group attempting to ride out the original zombie apocalypse in the cellar of a country house, and said, evenly, “If we don’t leave now, I’ll never talk to you again.” 

Her measured response to what was unfolding onscreen in ghastly black-and-white (set to music that sounded like flies sizzling on a griddle) told me that this was no ordinary ultimatum.

I put the window speaker back in its cradle and made for the exit. Disappointed? Yes. Secretly relieved? Probably.

That was my introduction to George A. Romero’s grisly, newsreel-immediate “The Night of the Living Dead,” shot on a shoestring just southwest of us, outside Pittsburgh. The seminal 1968 shocker was remembered in obits announcing Romero’s death from lung cancer at age 77Romero. (He was a lifelong smoker.) I finished watching what would go on to become the most influential American horror film since Hitchcock’s “Psycho” a few weeks later at a theater in State College, where I would attend graduate school and write about movies for the school newspaper.

Getting back into the dark with Romero’s zombies was akin to a double-dare made with your own warped psyche: How can you call yourself a horror fan? Get back in there and stare down your worst fears of being first cannibalized by your neighbors and then jerking back to “life” to join their ranks.

Romero made movies about other horrors, such as the all-too-prescient conspiracy thriller “The Crazies” and the clinically observed vampire variation “Martin.” But he will be forever remembered for his six-part zombie series, which somehow worked as a Rorschach test for the evolving viewer. The original zombies? “Us,” said Romero. “We live with the fear of death. We’re dying from the time we’re born.” In “Dawn of the Dead,” they’re glassy-eyed consumers drawn instinctively to the muzak piped through every suburban shopping mall. In “Day of the Dead,” a Frankenstein’s monster variation, they’re the sadly abused “other.”  

Here’s my last conversation with Romero, published by the New York Times Syndicate in 2005.

Pittsburgh’s own George A. Romero is thrashing mad.

On the eve of the release of his zombie sequel “Land of the Dead” to DVD, the director says he’s seriously considering crossing the border.

“I’m fed up with the country, with the whole thing,” he says from Toronto, where he’s adapting another Stephen King book, “From a Buick 8.” “And I’m seriously thinking of leaving, man. Sure it’s a tough decision; I’ve lived there (in Pennsylvania) since college.”

None of this will come as a shock to anyone who has followed RomLandDeadero’s career.

He’s always been the most political of horror-meisters. Indeed, as has been pointed out more than once, his milling undead in “Night of the Living Dead” and its first sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” are all-purpose metaphors for America’s disenfranchised. That’s why they’re so popular; they’re just like us, only uglier.

Romero looks upon his zombie series as a “platform” for rebellion.

“They’re sort of snapshots of the time in which they’re made, not only thematically but also cinematically. I try to make them look like one of today’s movies and at the same time reflect a little bit of what’s going on in society.”

“Night of the Living Dead,” released in 1968, resonated as a Vietnam War allegory. “Dawn of the Dead,” shot 10 years later in a shopping mall outside Pittsburgh, said something about consumerism run amok.

“Day of the Dead,” set in a subterranean lab in our own back yard, was the most cynical and worst received. “It came when we were just beginning to mistrust everybody. Not only institutions, but each other. Like who’s correct in that film?” Romero says.

“Land of the Dead” — due Tuesday as an unrated director’s-cut DVD — is, at $18 million, the most expensive of Romero’s zombie movies. It did well in Europe, but, arriving after “28 Days Later,” last year’s “Dawn” remake and the horror-comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” went largely ignored on these shores.

Not surprising. It’s a ghoulish, post-9/11 parable that includes a city tower under siege and armored vehicles gunning down restless locals.

Actually, Romero points out, “Land” was on the drawing board at 20th Century Fox pre-9/11.

“Yes, I wrote this script literally days before the terrorist attacks. Then the towers came down and everybody wanted to make soft, fuzzy, friendly movies, and I basically put it away for a couple of years.”

But then Bush invaded Iraq and Romero said, “Jeez, this might even be stronger now.”

“I didn’t have to change much, because some of my original scenes resonated even more, particularly the armored vehicle going through a small village, mowing people down and wondering why they’re pi–ed off. I made the tower taller and protected it by water — until the water gets breached.”

If it’s so timely, why didn’t “Land” find a larger audience?

“You know, man, it could be as simple as we’re tired of horror films,” he speculates. “Also, I think American audiences want more gratification. They’re not as open to horror films that go a little deeper … (and) use horror as parable.”

Romero’s personal favorites among recent fright shows: “Saw” and “Shaun of the Dead” by England’s Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who have zombie cameos in “Land.”

But truth be known, Romero’s not big on bogeymen — or Halloween.

“I’m not a student, man. I don’t rush out to see these things. And I’m not into Halloween.”

Contact Glenn Lovell at glovell@aol.com.

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One Response to “Zombies R Us: George A. Romero (1940 – 2017)”

  1. Audrey Nieson Says:

    Night of the Living Dead gave me bad dreams for years. Since then I vowed never yo watch a zombie movie again.

    Like

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