Sunday, July 16, 2017

RIP George A. Romero (1940-2017)

Romero on the set of DAY OF THE DEAD, 1985.
Today, the life of writer-director George A. (for Andrew) Romero was claimed by his own most abiding subject - death - at the age of 77. The cause was lung cancer, reminding me that, even on the set of TWO EVIL EYES, almost 30 years ago, he could be seen playing with a yo-yo in an effort to wean himself away from cigarettes, that tempting companion of so many artists who sit alone in rooms, turning their insides out for our entertainment - and if they just work a little harder, perhaps our illumination.

Filming Judith O'Dea in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Romero changed everything in the horror genre. He first arrived on the scene in 1968, arguably the most revolutionary year in living memory, with what could be considered the first horror film worthy of the adjective "confrontational." Like all the best horror films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started small and spread across the country, and then around the world, like an urban legend; and unlike most films of its kind at that time, it appeared to have been deliberately constructed to mean what it was saying (which was about zombies, then a very underused form of monster) and what it was not saying (about our country, about race, about Vietnam, about the gulf between the media and the man on the street). But it was more than the beginning of a politicized horror cinema; its success became the starting pistol for the independent film movement in general. It was not an overnight thing, and it certainly didn't benefit Romero himself in any ready or significant way. I remember that NIGHT was still gaining speed within the horror community even as he was making other kinds of horror film like THE CRAZIES and MARTIN. Thanks to some enthusiastic reviews and its happy coincidence with the rise of the Midnight Movie phenomenon, MARTIN (1978; one of the few films to treat vampirism as a psychosexual kink, as in Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET and Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD) received the widest release Romero had enjoyed since NIGHT, and it was around the time that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started showing up on television that DAWN OF THE DEAD was announced. DAWN (1978) changed everything too - paving the way for blockbuster horror sequels and the unrated horror years. Without DAWN OF THE DEAD and Tom Savini's colorful splatter effects, Italian horror got a new lease on life extending it by more than a further decade. Unfortunately, Mario Bava died before he could benefit but - thanks to Romero and DAWN - Lucio Fulci continued working for the rest of his life.

John Amplas in MARTIN.
For a golden few years, there in the first half of the decade when home video boosted his celebrity, Romero seemed to be having his cake and eating it too. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) in particular, made well in advance of "Ren-fests" becoming a thing, showed that Romero could deliver a disarming, moving, multi-tiered story outside the horror genre; it's a film that speaks beautifully to its disenfranchised, post-Woodstock generation while also celebrating the creative, mobile lifestyle that Romero worked to pursue. It's a film that he looked back on, with MARTIN, as his best. He might have made more films in its vein, but the success of DAWN - unprecedented for an unrated film, and thus embodying a defiance of one of the most fundamental rules of commercial filmmaking - required that he specialize in horror, and preferably zombies. He contained multitudes, but he wanted to work, so - after joining forces with Stephen King for the hoot that is CREEPSHOW (1982) - he set about giving the fans what they wanted with DAY OF THE DEAD. He wrote it under the influence of Stephen King's THE STAND, as a vast apocalyptic saga that he intended to be his untoppable, final word on the subject. The anticipation for the project in the fan press was well into the red, but - for reasons that defy common sense - he couldn't find the funding to realize his vision, partly because his vision included working in the filmmaking community he was developing in Pittsburgh and having total creative control. After a lengthy stand-off, he finally bowed to trimming some of its muscle and pulling some of its teeth to get DAY made in 1985. It's a fine film, but at the time of its release, it disappointed expectations - not least of all because, by this point in time, you could not cast a glance anywhere in horror without seeing work that Romero had inspired, that was somehow more Romero than actual work coming from the mercurial Romero himself.

Romero with Stephen King - top o' the world, Ma!
In horror movie terms, that's two careers right there, and Romero would resurface in time with a third. In between, he spent years trying to write THE MUMMY for Universal (it never happened, but he would die with ads for THE MUMMY with Tom Cruise mocking his efforts), only to give up and make other significant films - MONKEY SHINES (1988, another Romero "best") and THE DARK HALF (1993, an underrated King adaptation) that were derided by critics and fans alike for not adding to his lore about the living dead. Seven years between THE DARK HALF and BRUISER (2000); five years between BRUISER and the commencement of Romero's second Dead trilogy, LAND OF THE DEAD (2005, featuring Dennis Hopper, no less); eight years between his last film, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), and his dying day. Eight years when AMC's THE WALKING DEAD was the biggest thing on television and drawing huge queues of fans to autograph shows.

To hell with the yo-yo.
On a personal note, I knew George only very slightly. We never met. I interviewed him for HEAVY METAL magazine in 1980 as part of an essay I was writing about a core group of filmmakers - including Cronenberg, Carpenter and Dante - whom I was putting forth as the fathers of a "New Mythology." I came to George armed with questions about why he included the shot of Vladimir Nabokov in DAWN OF THE DEAD, and he disarmed me by saying, "I'm just a fan. It seemed like a good idea to just have it in there." It was my first encounter with a director whose textures were not entirely conscious. He actually apologized to me, explaining "I'm not so much of a film fan as someone who just digs movies." And I thought our talk would really start getting somewhere when I asked him if he had named his vampire hero Martin because, in the bird world, a martin is a swallow. He just laughed. (In my defense, that approach somehow worked with Cronenberg.) In a post-script to the above, when I was learning how to write screenplays and had no idea what in hell to do with them once they were done, I took heed of something I'd heard Francis Coppola saying on television and made use of any acquaintance I had to get my work read. I tracked George Romero down to a phone number in Florida. I could tell from the tension in his voice that it was the last thing he needed - he worked from his own scripts, after all - but he invited me to send it along. I did so, but I never followed up. I understood that his welcoming something from me was already more than I had any right to expect. He was a good man. 

When someone of Romero's stature leaves us, there is a strong desire on the part of the eulogist to be reverent and appreciative and encompassing, but Romero's down-to-earth eloquence as a creator in this field - the field of our nightmares - is virtually irreplaceable. Not because comparable voices aren't out there, but because those voices are not being courted by Hollywood or even regional filmmakers, who tend to produce anything exploitative that their friends can churn out for the DTV market. So for anyone who actually gives a damn and isn't just collecting a buck, George Romero's death feels a lot like our own, and a little righteous anger - a little railing against the dimming of the fucking day - seems in order. We don't have him now, and we didn't have him for a lot of the time he was here among us - with unfilmed scripts in his outstretched hands. Face it, friends: we didn't deserve him. We deserve what we've got, and if you don't know what I mean by that, well, look around. You can't say he didn't warn us.

But then again, what is immortality? Everywhere we look in horror today, there's Romero. His name may not be on it, but it is what it is - and it's what he was.

"Stay scared."
(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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