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A Tribute to George A. Romero (Pt. 1)

Posted on October 7, 2014 at 6:40 PM

A Tribute to George A. Romero Part One

Part One: They’re Coming to Get You

If you’re going to write about a horror filmmaker every October, you’re certainly not going to run out any time soon. The list of influential and great filmmakers in the genre is pretty extensive, however not all necessarily make for a good writeup. Some had a hey-day then petered off quickly (Dario Argento), some only made two or three good movies to begin with (Tobe Hooper) and you’d have to slog through a bunch of mediocrity and blandness to get through.

Well, this year is a guy who both had a heyday at one point and kind of has never been able to get back to it. The difference, though, is that George A. Romero is, even at his worst, still one of the more interesting horror filmmakers out there. The running theme to all his films, in some form, is that they’re less all about scares or gore or making you shit your pants but more about reflecting the horrors of real life issues: themes like “finding an identity," for example, can be found in nearly all of his movies or commentary on societal issues like militarism, consumerism, racism…a lot of “isms” I suppose.

Of course, then he made Knightriders and I have no idea what that is supposed to be about. Chivalry? Tom Savini's sexiness? Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

To start talking about Romero, you have to talk zombies. Specifically his three big zombie trilogy flicks, Night of the Living Dead (1968,) Dawn of the Dead (1978,) and the often underrated Day of the Dead (1985) - each not only about hordes of zombies and human survivors struggling against them, but they’re also reflections of their times and societal issues - Night about race, Dawn about consumerism and comodification and Dead about rampant militarism.

What causes a man to want to “create” undead hordes wandering the earth and destroying all of humanity? It seems it began with just a fascination of things growing up. He liked film at a young age, received an 8mm camera as a birthday gift and then began exploring what to do with it. This is a story that seems to be a constant thread through a lot of filmmakers: they got a camera, started shooting, interest arose. Romero took that through college where he studied the arts, then got a job as a director, them met like-minded people such as Russel Streiner and John Russo, created a production company and began exploring creative freedom from that.

Ok, that’s the back story, but still…why zombies? Specifically, why the first Night of the Living Dead - a movie about bigotry, racism and the breakdown of the traditional “nuclear” family?

Well, the racism is likely from his own background. Romero’s father was Cuban, an artist himself, his mother was Lithuanian and they raised their son in the melting-pot that was The Bronx. Then throw in watching other films growing up, specifically the movie The Tales o Hoffmann that Romero states was "really a movie for me, and it gave me an early appreciation for the power of visual media—the fact that you could experiment with it.” Fantastical things that grew the imagination and really got you to think.

So think about all that. You have a multi-racial young person growing up in New York in the 50s and 60s where social turmoil was at its highest, was infused with art and interest in film from a boy and had a fascination with fantasy. Well of course he’s going to make a movie that’s a social commentary on the destruction of, what is assumed, to be “the normal.” If anything, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead needed to be made in the 1960s. It couldn’t have been made any other time. Those version of “zombies” that are meant to represent the devouring of the old and replacing it with the new. When you lay it out like that, not only is it no surprising how a pretty well-off young man would want to make what was the most influential (and at the time pretty violent) horror movie of its time, it paints a picture that it also needed the racial and political turmoil of the early 1960s to even exist.

Behind the scenes of Night of the Living Dead. Romero shoots and directs actress Judith O'Dea and Russell Streiner in the infamous opening few minutes. You can watch some bad-quality behind the scenes footage as well that's almost as creepy as the movie itself.

There’s no denying that Night of the Living Dead is influential and, despite its budget, surprisingly well made. It’s a movie that’s not perfect, yet simultaneously perfect in what it needed to do. Even for a first feature, it shows smart capable low-budget indie filmmaking: small cast, one location (technically two), well lit and, despite the amateur status of most of the actors, pretty well acted. It’s only faults is the lead female character kind of not doing anything (she has a bad habit of getting tired and lounging on couches) and a little repetition in terms of “here they come yet again” and some very, very bad decision making on the part of characters that shouldn’t be as dumb as they are.

It’s a character study at heart: a look at a diverse segment of people trapped in a horrible situation. However, it’s not all sparkles and rainbows and they don’t come together to fendoff the horde. That’s the thing about Romero movies: they’re not your typical “let’s all set aside our differences and work together.” No. They’re less about zombies and more about the interactions of people. It’s here where distrust, racism, sexism, anger and hatred and all the nastiness really comes out, and it all kind of started with Romero’s take on a horror movie: the monsters aren’t the horror element, the people are.

Zombies are less the point and more just background decorations. It was an interesting approach considering the “monster” or “creature” was usually the focal point of any horror movie up to that point.

Romero, arguably, perfected all those ideas and even then some with Dawn of the Dead, which I have to say is a masterpiece of horror and, as is the case with Romero’s approach, a masterpiece of satirical filmmaking and social commentary. Here, it’s less about the theme of racsim and spreads it to consumerism, capitalism, and to a certain degree, the who idea of “identity” where it’s less about individuality and more about a comfortable nook we carve out for ourselves that is formed by the things we are told we have to own and feel we are a part of. All those corporations just want money, but here we have our zombies returning to a place that is familiar with them. No, not a home, but a shopping mall…and they’re all exactly the same just like all malls are the same. Dawn of the Dead has quite a lot to say between the lines about homogenization.

The movie was shot for 500,000 and made millions. Romero became a household name. The movie defined his career, much to his chagrin as all the Dead movies are now what he’s defined as (Heck, I’m starting with them on this own article). This is where it all just seemed to come together. Shot in color. More memorable and distinct characters. It took the one-location element and expanded on it to add in a little fun (fun was not in the cards for a shack in the woods, but a shopping mall? You can do a lot of creative things). Ifthere’s only thing that doesn’t quite work its the uneven third act, but honestly that’s barely an issue as you’ve become invested in this characters and feel like the shopping mall itself is your home.

That’s kind of neat trick the movie plays. Because you identify with the characters and are familiar with shopping malls, there’s a little bit of “wish fulfillment” happening here that I love. I mean, you have a whole shopping mall all to yourself…that’s kind of cool. Sure the world has gone to shit, but come on: food everywhere, video games, it’s all yours which is why when the biker gang in the third act shows up, you really feel how villainous they are. They come in, wreck the place and ruin that ideal society founded in a shopping mall and all the comforts it brings.

Dawn of the Dead was the second collaboration of Romero and make up effects artist Tom Savini, who did some small work on Romero's film Martin a few years earlier. It would launch Savini's talents and their long-term professional relationship as well as Savini would work on Romero's films through the late 1980s.

Seriouslly, this was Romero working on some next-level allegorical and satirical stuff here, well above what some 500k picture should be working on. This was less a monster movie and more in line with a Rosemary's Baby or Exorcist level of depth if you break it down and really take a magnifying glass to it (and you're supposed to). Perhaps all the gore and "cheapness" of it overshadows that for some people and they just shake their heads and go "eh...zombies."

So that’s the 70s, eventually you have to come back to the 1980s for what, at the time anyways, was the final installment of a trilogy of “Dead” movies with Day of the Dead. Now Romero could have easily just done the same themes as 1970s - excess and consumerism was a major part of the 80s as well. Then again, militarism was a major part of the 60s and 70s, and racism as well through that near-20 year span between “Night” and “Day."

In a way, if you think about it, because those first three Dead movies are so interchangeable thematically, it kind of shows a through line of how little our society had actually changed over the course of a couple of decades. That’s…actually kind of disheartening now that I think about it.

Anyways, Day is kind of an odd one. It ups the gore, the effects as good as you could ask for, but unlike Night and Dawn it doesn’t quite have the central characters you really go for. The reason? Well, by this point the whole world is gone and we’re stuck with a lot of inept people living in a bunker. A good chunk of them, by this time, have lost their minds. Then again, maybe they were already lost and just covered up by the fact they were in the army or were protected by the government in some way. The roots of things we saw emerge in “Night” and “Dawn” have pretty much planted themselves here: the “normal” people really are nowhere to be found.

Well, that’s unfair. Against these military assholes we do have two or three fairly well-adjusted individuals still holding out hope that they’re not alone in this zombie-infested world. But, like the movies before it, the people begin to clash. Someone wants to do one thing, someone else another, resources are scarce as is time, and then, on top of that, you have the ticking bomb aspect.

George, a baby and a zombie walk into a bar...

That ticking bomb is “Bub,” the most important and undentifalbe thing about Day of the Dead and a good decision to put into the story because, truth be told, nobody in this movie are all that likable and the setting isn’t all that appealing. Bub is “smart” zombie. Actually he’s kind of a guineea pig being experiment on, but he’s arguably he most unique and sympathetic character in the entire movie. Isn’t that odd? Yet at the same time incredibly fitting? Think about it…this is kind of the natural end that these three movie had to go to: eventually we’re all be zombies, but in a way it’s all not that different than what we are now as "Bub" shows.

Day of the Dead has sort of been looked down on, but I feel in recent years people have been able to reproach it and like it more. Maybe that’s because Romero’s later zombie movies never quite even got to Day of the Dead levels, kind of like how you think Papa Johns is a good pizza until you have a real slice from a pizzeria and realize “you know, relatively speaking that pizza sucks.” Persepctive is important, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The characters across all three of these movies are an interesting thing to take a moment and look at: they’re all kind of the same in their own ways. You have someone who’s clearly lost their mind by the time we meet them, you have a bit of a dufus (or two), we have  some that seem to be fairly normal and trying to do what’s right and then and you have pretty underwritten female characters, though Sarah in Day of the Dead, giving she’s technically the lead, at least has some more things to say and do than her previous female counterparts in “Night" and "Dawn.”

They’re familiar character tropes thrust into various different-yet-similar scenarios. Romero plays well with them, and gives them something to do with the small cast while not feeling like he’s simply retreading it.

All three of these films I came to watch when I was in college, during my horror-discovery hey-day of watching everything I can and, often, starting with well-known filmmakers like Romero, Carpenter, Whale and Craven. I immediately found myself drawn to the subtext as much as I was drawn to the gore and characters. Romero, at his height, was untouchable in term of horror - a distinct voice that really had no equal. Other horror directors/writers were more interested in simple scares at the time, Romero thought outside the box a little more.

I met Romero at a convention a few years ago. He was a slight man, said very little and when he did it was difficult to hear. He was also fully aware of who he was, as the line to meet him and get his autograph or take a picture was long and those around him certainly made sure he was comfortable and not pressured. I’m not saying he wasn’t happy to be there, though I’m certain a lot of “Heard that one already” went through his head when someone told him how influential his movies are to them or when they first saw Night of the Living Dead on cable as a kid, but he certainly knew his importance and didn’t dwell on it with anyone. You met, shook his hand, he signed, you moved on. If you wanted a picture, chances are he wasn’t going to smile. He’s not much of a smiling type, more of a grin that said “ok…another one.”

He was still very cordial, very polite, but all business. 

The three zombie movies of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead defined Romero’s career, it’s why this first entry is all about it because, let’s face it, there’s more to talk about and say about these three movie alone than the rest of his filmography put together. Plus, it lets us get the big three out of the way and we can concentrate on killer monkeys and weird Stephen King adaptations.

At the same time, it's kind of dissapointing how much the zombie movies pigeon-holed Romero. As it turns out, he had a lot more to say and do between Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead beyond blowing up zombie heads and being cynical about societal issues. He made one of the best vampire movies in history that nobody talks about, he collaborated with Stephen King on one of the 1980s defining horror films, made a weird-ass biker movie and a few non-genre movies that, let’s say, were errors in judgement at the time.

Next week:

Part Two: Vampires, Bikers and Monkeys, Oh My

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