They’re Dead…They’re All Messed Up
Sometime in the early 80’s, MTV showed Night of the Living Dead as a midnight movie. My memory tells me it was on Halloween but I could be wrong about that. What I cannot be wrong about is the impact this little film made upon my young teen mind and conscience.
I always loved horror from since I can remember. Scary books about ghosts and stories of hauntings were always a part of my landscape. If Godzilla was on, I was there. I remember the original TV mini-series of Salem’s Lot scaring the crap out of me, as well as a film called Burnt Offerings, and any time The Exorcist was on, I avoided it like the plague. That was just too scary, you know?
By this time I was into horror big time, meaning it took up many of my Friday nights at home. Showtime ran two horror films back to back after midnight on those Fridays, and that’s when I got my taste for slasher flicks (Friday the 13th scared the living bejesus out of me) and nubile teens who liked to show their boobs and scream a lot. Oh, and the blood. There’s always the blood.
But then along came this black and white film that I’d heard about yet hadn’t seen, and my world changed completely. That ominous music at the beginning told me immediately I was in trouble, and that this was serious business; this movie wasn’t going to play around, despite its age and black and white status. Then came Johnny doing his best Karloff impression (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra”) and that first zombie and I was like, what’s going on here? The guy is dead but living, and he really wants to kill this pretty lady. But why? Later I would learn. These things lusted for human flesh. Oh, god. Oh, dear god. Well, at least they won’t show it. I mean, this is black and white, after all and…they showed it. Dear Lord, they went there. And the daughter kills the mother. And a black man punches a white woman. A black man was in charge. This movie was breaking all kinds of taboos for its time. For my time. And then the posse comes along. Maybe these guys can survive because it’s only localized…no, no, it’s happening everywhere. Everywhere! They fight and scratch and claw and the humans do their best to survive but they can’t get along and soon the dead are in the living room and poor Ben is alone in the basement. But wait, he’s going to get saved! They’re going to…Did those motherfuckers just shoot him in the head? Jesus, what the fuck? And finally those flickering, final images, still photos, all grainy and so very disturbing. They put Ben on the fire with the rest of the dead zombies. How could they? How could this movie end like this? How?
I couldn’t wait to see it again.
And again. And again.
It became my favorite film of all time. It still is.
Imagine my wonder when I discovered there was a sequel! Set in a mall! And in color! I dove into Dawn of the Dead and oh my, if I thought Night went for it, this one…this one pushed it even further. The guy making these movies was a maverick. He didn’t care for convention or Hollywood storytelling. He told it like it was. The TRUTH.
Oh, and a bit later I discovered there was a third movie. What??? Day of the Dead, just as extraordinary, even more destructive of the soul.
George A. Romero made these films. I wanted to know more about him, and over time, I saw all of his movies. And he became my favorite director of all time.
George gets credit for starting the whole “zombie” thing, and that’s great. He doesn’t get enough credit for being an amazing storyteller. He didn’t use fancy camera tricks, or strange angles, or do flashy fifteen minute single takes. Nope. George told the story. His greatest gift was his editing. He could make benign scenes sing and pop. He knew what he was doing. And what a great writer! I won’t even get into his wonderful imagination, and the way he could make characters feel completely real, and the way he could make political and social statements without you even noticing at first. Later it would sink in. Later you would realize, this guy is a master. He also doesn’t get credit for his scoring choices, whether it was his original picks of library music or his employment of such wonderful composers as Donald Rubinstein and the mighty Goblin. George knew how to tell a story. He was never salacious, never out for a buck, never like, “Let’s be really nasty and gory and make some headlines!” No, the gore worked for the story, not the other way around. If a zombie ate people, you had to show it. If the only way to kill one was to shoot it in the head, you had to show it. This was all very matter-of-fact. He was a blue-collar kind of guy. Nothing mattered but telling the story.
I learned this trait from him. I’ve tried to carry it over in my own fiction (I fail more often than I succeed). The first short story I ever had published was a zombie story. My first published novel was a zombie novel. I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I made the zombies like George made them: slow, hungry, and gory. I tried to give them all some kind of personality, just like George did (and this is something people miss all the time: his living dead were pretty damned human, so they were monsters in the classical sense, meaning they reflected us; nearly all of the other zombie movies—and The Walking Dead—don’t do this, they just make them one-dimensional feeding machines).
George A. Romero is my favorite director of all time.
I told him so when I finally got to meet him at a convention two years ago. I sat next to him and shook his hand and told this gentle giant quite boldly that Night of the Living Dead was the greatest movie of all time. He barked at me. “Of all time? Come on!” And I smiled and said, “Well, it’s my favorite movie of all time.” And he smiled and said, “Well, that’s okay, then.” And I got my picture taken and shook his hand again and thanked him and left.
I will always treasure that day.
Now George is gone. He passed today. I’m filled with sadness, which is a weird thing to feel for a person when you don’t really even know them. But it’s how I feel.
This world is a sadder, less vibrant place without George A. Romero. But at least we still have the movies. And right now, I’m going to put my favorite of all time on (and yes, Night of the Living Dead is the greatest film of all time, and if you disagree, we can fist-fight about it), turn down the lights, and slip away.
Thanks for all the scares, George. Thank you, thank you, thank you.