George A. Romero has passed away at 77. When I first saw the news pop up in my email, I froze. It was hard to wrap my head around what I was reading. It still is. Romero’s name has been popping up quite a bit within the realm of horror news lately. George Romero Presents: Road of the Dead is currently seeking funding and will hopefully continue to move forward despite his loss. While details are scarce, we can assume that Romero has been battling cancer for some time. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine Road being crafted as a way to ensure his Dead legacy carries on. My deepest condolences go out to those closest to him.
As I alternate between feeling numb and shedding tears, I wish us to focus on the legacy Romero has left behind. I’ve already shared a lot of love when I wrote about my excitement for Road of the Dead, but there aren’t enough words in the world to express the gratitude I have for the films he’s made. As I write this, I’m watching Day of the Dead with commentary from Tom Savini, actress Lori Cardille, production designer Cletus Anderson, and the mastermind himself, George Romero. Even after years of working in the zombie business, you can still hear what a passionate and jovial man Romero was. He lived doing what he loved.
Personally, Romero was a huge inspiration to me as an aspiring writer/director. The way he presented conventional B-movie plotlines with all the gore and thrills one expects from a Saturday matinee, yet used them to tell a socially conscious story, has always filtered its way into my own work. In fact, the very first screenplay I ever wrote as a teenager was Suburb of the Living Dead. I haven’t read it in many years, and I’m sure it’s pretty terrible. Nonetheless, it was a full blown homage to the entire Dead trilogy. It was a love letter to the years of amazing cinema we’d been gifted from the Master of Horror.
My love for Romero and his undead hordes started at an extremely young age. While I’m sure I’ve shared a version of this story before, it bears repeating at this time. I was probably around eight or nine. My mother had begun renting classic films from the library in an attempt to fill my ferocious appetite for horror cinema. The classic Universal Monsters were always on heavy rotation. One day, she brought home Night of the Living Dead. I was instantly struck by the label on the VHS. It stated the movie was rated “NC-17”. Being a good little Christian boy (oh, how times have changed), I pointed this out to my mother. I was afraid the contents of this tape were much too extreme for my innocent eyes. She brushed off my concerns, stating it was “just an old black and white movie.”
Off I went to my bedroom and plugged the cassette into my VCR. I loved every second of it. The opening scene with cries of “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” struck me right away as something iconic. While at the time, I had no idea of who Romero was or any knowledge of the trilogy of films that followed Night, I knew I was witnessing something special. As the tension rose throughout the runtime, I squirmed and hid my head under my pillow. When Barbara gets pulled through the broken window and becomes just another meal for the living dead, my jaw dropped. Suddenly, it became clear to me that horror could be truly dangerous. The good guys don’t always win.
For those who’ve somehow avoided seeing this film all these years, stop reading now! It’s a public domain title, so you can find numerous sites streaming it for free. You owe it to yourself to witness the birth of zombies as we know them today. Back to young-me glued to the television, I wasn’t prepared for how the ending played out. After barricading himself in the basement and surviving the incursion of zombies upon the house, our lead, Ben, hears the calvary rallying outside. As a viewer, you’re relieved. It appears he’s being rescued. As he pokes his head around the corner of a windowframe, a redneck outside mistakes him for one of the dead. “Hit him in the head. Right between the eyes.” Just like that, a bullet is fired and Ben is put down. “That’s another one for the fire.”
Witnessing these final moments of Night of the Living Dead as a child were earth shattering. I sat in front of my TV, frozen in shock. I didn’t move to stop the film as the credits began to roll. When the tape reached the end and cut off by itself, I jumped up from my room. I ran crying to my parents in the living room, “They killed him! They killed him!” They had no clue what I was speaking of and didn’t seem terribly concerned to understand. I was alone to try and work through would I had just seen. I was distraught, but I finally settled on the realization that horror could be a powerful tool. It can stir emotions from a viewer that they might not be prepared to deal with. It forces us to face our mortality. We all die, but did you live your life trying to do what is right? It’s a heady takeaway for a nine year old, but I was hungry for more.
It wasn’t long after this viewing that I discovered Dawn of the Dead and the legacy of George A. Romero. I’ve loved almost every single entry into his filmography. Bruiser is a woefully underrated revenge tale. Monkey Shines is filled with insane moments and weaves a twisted story of love and dependence….with a monkey! Few directors would touch such a subject, let alone manage to deliver it with such panache. Romero’s skill eschews the seemingly inherent campiness of it all. He quickly rose to the top of my list of favorite directors, and his style has always seeped into the DNA of my own work.
The outpouring of love for Romero across the horrorverse tonight has been deeply touching. In fact, when news broke, you guys actually crashed our servers as you piled on to share your own thoughts and condolences. He will be missed by us all. We may never known just what else he had in store for our beloved genre or, more specifically, the sub-genre he helped create, but we will always have his body of work to inspire us, frighten us, and keep us questioning just how close we are to becoming the monsters we fear. With great sadness I say, “RIP, Romero.”