2017, Appreciations, Classic Films, Compelling Cinema, Daniel Robichaud, Genre Giants, George Romero, Gore!, Great Directors, Horror Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Masters of Horror, Nick Cato Reviews, Paul McMahon Columns, Peter Dudar Reviews, Zombie Movies, Zombies 0
A TRIBUTE TO THE GREAT GEORGE A. ROMERO
By The “Cinema Knife Fight” Staff
Director George A. Romero recently left us. Since he was such a huge figure in the realm of horror cinema, we wanted to give our staff a chance to say some words to remember him by.
Back in the early 80s (late 70s?) when the VCR became the hot new thing, a buddy and I rented one from a store for the weekend. They were very expensive when they first came out, so we were happy to get one for a couple of days. The first movies we rented to watch on it were Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) and George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). I had heard about NIGHT for so long, but hadn’t had the chance to actually see it, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a moody, atmospheric genre classic that overcomes its miniscule budget. Whatever you think of it, it influenced so many people who came after it, that it’s kind of amazing.
A couple of years later, my college was showing Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) on movie night, and I was very excited to finally see that. While I liked NIGHT a lot, DAWN blew me away, leaving a huge impression on me, starting with the scene where a SWAT team invades a tenement building full of zombies, and one ghoul takes a bite out of his wife’s shoulder as she pleads with him. From that instant, Romero had me firmly in his grasp as one of my all-time favorite directors, in horror or any genre.
I made sure, after that, that I saw all of his movies (that got theatrical releases) in the theater right when they first came out. From DAY OF THE DEAD (1985, which I saw with my now-wife back on one of our first dates—when she enjoyed it as much as I did, I knew she was a keeper), all the way until SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009). I really wish he had made more movies. As it was, I was really hoping he would make at least one more movie after SURVIVAL (eight years ago), but that’s all we got.
Of course, I went back and rented any movies of his I hadn’t seen, and came upon MARTIN, starring John Amplas as a young guy who is tormented by the fact that he believes he’s a vampire. Made the same year as DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), MARTIN is a smaller, more intimate film, and I always thought that, aside from the first three DEAD movies, MARTIN was Romero’s masterpiece. It really deserves a bigger audience.
I also remember how CREEPSHOW was such a big deal when it came out. And it’s still one of my favorite (and funniest) Stephen King-related films.
The one time I met Mr. Romero was at a special showing of his 1981 film KNIGHTRIDERS in what must have been a restored cut. It was a small theater in Somerville, MA, and the place was only half full. But he introduced the film and took questions afterwards. I was surprised at how tall he was (he seemed like a giant) and how incredibly nice he was to everyone. The fact that he was such a lovely person just made me appreciate his films even more.
For the longest time, the trilogy of his first three DEAD films (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and DAY OF THE DEAD) was my favorite movie trilogy of all time, and it probably still is.
It’s funny, how I’m not much of a fan of the zombie explosion that’s happened in the media over the past decade or so. Except for THE WALKING DEAD, there’s not a lot of work, especially in cinema, that I feel is up to the standards of Romero’s original trilogy. Even Romero’s later zombie films weren’t as good. But it’s amazing to think all of this began with him and his version of what zombies are.
That said, I’m sure his films overall influenced me as a writer as much as a lot of the fiction I’ve read.
They used to say that the first Velvet Underground album didn’t sell an awful lot when it was first released, but almost everyone who bought it started their own band. I don’t think everyone who saw Romero’s original DEAD films became a filmmaker, but I do think he had just as much influence in film as the Velvets had in music. Even more, so.
Farewell to a true titan of horror cinema.
I was at a party for a cousin one Saturday night in 1975. I was 7 years old, and the party ran late even for a family event. At 11:30, my cousin James said he was going to watch a movie called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which was starting in a few minutes on ABC TV (Channel 7 in the NYC area). From the second the film started, something about it grabbed me and I couldn’t pry my young eyes away from the TV screen. At midnight, my dad said we had to go home (an endless 15 minute ride), and during the trip my younger brother and I begged him to let us watch the rest of the movie. Miraculously, he did, and by the time NIGHT’s final shocking scene aired, I was scared, fascinated, and couldn’t wait to somehow see the film again without the 15 minute interruption.
I lay in bed that night until at least 4:00 a.m., replaying every scene in my head. While even at this young age I had already become a big horror and monster movie fan (especially anything Godzilla-related), this was the first horror film to truly scare me, and it did so in a major way. I finally got to see the film again about two years later when it aired on a local PBS station, and around the same time, a local NY/NJ station (WOR-TV) aired a film called THE CRAZIES one Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. When the opening credits rolled and I saw it was another George A. Romero film, I was again glued to the screen and loved every second of it.
Thankfully, in 1979, a new horror magazine called FANGORIA was released. My mom bought me the first issue at a local mall, and despite having Godzilla on the cover, it was the interior article and gory pictures of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) that made my pulse race. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t see the film until 2 years later during a re-release, but it was well worth the wait.
Since then, like most horror fans, the films of George A. Romero have been a constant inspiration for me. Even his films that didn’t work for me (such as SEASON OF THE WITCH, a 1972 film that was rereleased theatrically in 1982 in an attempt to cash in on HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH), still had that certain feel that most of his films do. I’ve always said Romero was a master of creating claustrophobia, and SEASON was no exception, albeit on a different level.
Romero was the main reason I couldn’t (and still can’t) get enough of horror. His first three DEAD films hold up incredibly well, and I still get goose bumps whenever I watch one (most recently I was fortunate enough to attend a midnight screening of DAWN OF THE DEAD, which also happened to be the same day he passed away).
My debut novel was inspired by him, most of the punk bands I drummed for back in the 80s featured songs inspired by his films, and when CREEPSHOW was released in 1982, I actually broke up with my (then) girlfriend halfway through the film because she wouldn’t stop talking. Yep. I went to the front of the theater, watched the rest, and then bought a ticket for the next showing to see it in total peace. To this day I don’t regret that decision.
While Romero’s last three DEAD films weren’t anywhere near as good as the original trilogy, each had their moments and to this fan, just seeing his name on the screen was enough to make me smile from ear to ear. In 2010 I got to see George do a question and answer session at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after a screening of SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), and a year earlier I finally had the pleasure of meeting him at a Chiller Theatre Convention in NJ, where to my delight he was as cool as I always envisioned him to be.
George A. Romero will be missed by countless fans. He changed the face of horror. His love for filming independently encouraged me as much as the films themselves. I thank you George for giving us NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE CRAZIES, MARTIN, DAWN OF THE DEAD, KNIGHRIDERS, CREEPSHOW, DAY OF THE DEAD, MONKEY SHINES, and BRUISER. I thank you for your other films not listed here, for being so gracious with your fans, and will always cherish the few minutes I spoke with you about how NIGHT and THE CRAZIES literally changed my life.
You were the game changer that will never stop making the rest try harder.
George A. Romero might have started out as a serious-faced director of industrial films and flicks like DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), but by the time I got to seeing him interviewed in magazines and then DVDs and then YouTube, he was always the broadly smiling guy with the giant glasses shaped like TV screens. The personality he showed to the world through both his on screen chats/interviews, as well as the work he wrote/directed, presents a thoughtful world view, as well as fearlessness. Part of that fearlessness is not shying away from being a little silly. I appreciate more in Romero’s worlds than the ghouls, maniacs, jousting motorcycle gangs, and psychological horrors he took as his subject matter.
In addition to being the champion of creating films that offered maximum screen bang from wee budgets, in addition to being horror’s social commentator, Romero’s work is also steeped in both sides of the horror coin. Should the walking dead stare lovingly at fireworks? Should a backwoods hillbilly covered in “meteor shit!” (played to Wile E. Coyote perfection by Stephen King) be so loathsome and yet charming? Should a witch show up at a miser’s house on Halloween to play a prank? Should a man accuse his mentally disturbed teenage grandson of being “NOSFERATU!” with absolute relish? Should an action hero who has survived a night of Hell buy it in the last reel because of a long distance mistake? Should a cruel bastard of a military leader shout “CHOKE ON IT!” as he is torn to pieces by a horde of hungry ghouls? Well, all these things can and do happen in Romero pictures! Some of these scenes have bite, some evoke melancholy, some are cartoonish, but all line their emotional edges with humorous poison. They earn their grins and laughs, no matter if those responses are earnest or tinged with cynicism. This triumvirate of emotionally honest horror material, interesting images, and funny as hell content, gives Romero’s work a depth and resonance that is seldom appreciated or even understood by his legion of imitators.
George Romero’s movies, for me, have always provided more than what happens on the screen. I attended the DAY OF THE DEAD premiere at midnight in a packed theater that reeked of pot and bubbled with a keyed-up rock concert atmosphere. I first viewed DAWN OF THE DEAD while eating a very greasy cheeseburger, so that first “bite” scene made me pause and consider my poor choice of snacks. I got the owner of the first video store I ever visited to order MARTIN, which made him a die-hard Romero fan, asking me every time I came in if the man had anything new. Finally, there was the time I set my alarm clock for 3 a.m. to sneak downstairs and watch CREEPSHOW, which my parents forbade me to see, on cable TV. I spent the whole movie with my nose practically touching the screen to hear the low volume, looking over my shoulder every few minutes to reassure myself that my Dad was still asleep and not coming up behind me.
But the Romero film that affected me the most was also my first.
I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do with my life when I watched NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on MTV, Halloween night sometime in the early 80s. I was a horror fan, watching what I could in a house full of siblings and parents who weren’t horror fans. Since MTV aired this underground masterpiece at midnight, I didn’t have to bargain with anyone for the only TV in the house.
The opening shot, grainy film of a car driving up a long road toward a cemetery, overlaid by the unforgettably creepy music, sped up my heart rate and made it impossible to look away from the screen for an instant. Engrossed completely, and unarmed with a single spoiler about the end of the film, the final actions damn near stopped my heart. I remember being unable to sleep for a long time afterward. It wasn’t just the ending of the film that had my mind reeling, but the fact that George A. Romero chose to end his film the way he did. The concept that you could break with convention that blatantly shattered everything I believed about storytelling, which until then was based on Disney movies and black and white creature features.
Not long after, I started writing stories of my own. I referred to the lessons I’d learned from NIGHT as I wrote a lot of those early pieces. Make minor characters as interesting as the main characters. Keep your characters true to who they are, no matter what is going on around them. Never, ever, be afraid to do the unexpected. In fact, take the unexpected path every chance you get.
I’ve kept my eye on a lot of filmmakers over the years, but Mr. Romero remains the one who’s influenced me the most. Sleep well, sir, and I promise to stay scared.
PETER N. DUDAR
I never got the chance to meet George A. Romero in person, and a small piece of me feels like I’ve been cheated of something terribly important. Yeah, the world knows Romero as the Father of Zombie Pictures (which is enormously significant for horror fans and cinemaphiles alike) but for me, his film CREEPSHOW is the real treasure. The 1982 venture between Romero and Stephen King is more than just a stylized anthology piece or campy horror/comedy nod to the classic E.C. Comics of yesteryear. It’s my year-round version of Halloween. You see, the kid in me discovered this film for the first time when it premiered on HBO, sometime long back in my early teens, and I fell in love with its Technicolor animation and comic strip panels, and its cast of patented Stephen King ghouls, bogeys and grimoire…all with a bloody wink and evil cackle of amusement. I can’t remember an October season where CREEPSHOW didn’t appear on my must-watch list, even when NIGHT and DAWN OF THE DEAD got substituted for newer, fresher horror films. And every time I watch it, I’m transported back to that teenage me that still revels in seeing Halloween decorations in stores and leafing through old copies of Creepy and Eerie magazines. I’d have liked the opportunity to meet the old guy from Pittsburgh, the one with the bug-eye lens glasses, and thank him for capturing my youth in celluloid. God bless you, Mr. Romero.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Daniel Robichaud, Paul McMahon, and Peter N. Dudar