Photo of filmmaker George A. Romero. Photo by Josh Jensen CC BY-SA 2.0

A Personal Tribute to George A. Romero

Director George A. Romero passed away in July 2017. This is an audio tribute I made to him for the Halloween Listening Party broadcast Oct 31 (Photo by Josh Jensen CC BY-SA 2.0)

An Unofficial Mentor

I read a lot of books about horror films as a teenager; but after leaving highschool and moving into the inner-city at the age of eighteen, I gave most of them away, including all my Stephen King novels and Peter Haining anthologies. I felt that I had outgrown the genre, as I was now reading Jack Kerouac, and watching Ingmar Bergman films.

But a friend had faithfully kept a few books of mine, and one of the books he was able to give back to me, a few years later, was The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero by Paul R. Gagne.

This book had been a kind of guiding light for me, the story of someone who I have always admired deeply, not just for his films, but for his attitude to life. His idea of independent film making has always stuck with me, giving me the idea that it was possible to go ahead and make my own things, even if they are not part of a system.

A Shark and the Tales of Hoffmann

Romero had grown up in the Bronx, the son of immigrant parents, a mum from Lithuania and a Cuban father with Spanish ancestry. In interviews, he has joked, that he was a ‘shark not a jet’ a reference to the movie West Side Story, where two gangs battle it out for turf in a tough area.

But his interest in film started the way it does for most people – at the movies.

His mum and his Uncle would often take him to the cinema to see films as a kid, and along with sci-fi films and westerns, he was amazed by a film called Tales of Hoffmann by the English director Michael Powell. Tales of Hoffmann was originally an opera, based on three strange tales by the 18th century German writer ETA Hoffmann.

Watching it again on TV, this would be a film that would stay with Romero throughout his life. He would also borrow it from a film library in Manhattan, where he noticed that another kid was regularly borrowing the same films as him. This kid with the Italian surname, would also grow up to be a film director, making his name with the Godfather movies.

Life in Pittsburgh

After finishing high-school, Romero spent a year in a Connecticut college-prep school, before getting into Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Already a good illustrator, he was studying to be a commercial artist like his father – but the whole time, his interests still lay with film, and he began to connect up with other aspiring filmmakers.

After five years, he left uni, and formed a company with some of these new friends to start making ads for the local business community. Their big score came with an ad for Calgon soap, which gave them a chance to work with a decent budget.

Watching this, it is no surprise that Romero’s first feature film would be a horror one! But he’d also been told by a potential distributor that horror films were a good bet for first time directors.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

So, influenced by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I am Legend, Romero wrote a screenplay called ‘Anubis’ with friend John Russo. With a group of eight others, they raised over a hundred thousand dollars and set about making their first feature length film.

Coming out in 1968, just before the official R-rating was introduced, Night of the Living Dead ripped through cinemas, leaving both audiences and critics in a total state of shock. Nobody really knew what had hit them; this film was violent, with graphic special effects; but it was also incredibly convincing, with strong characters and a newsroom style of realism.

Working two and half thousand miles from Hollywood, Romero and the Image Ten group had made a completely modern horror film.

Martin (1977)

But this success wasn’t to last.

For filmmakers, it is often said in Hollywood that ‘you are only as good as your last film.’ And despite the success of Night of the Living Dead – Romero’s next three films were commercial failures.

It wasn’t really until Richard P. Rubinstein, an aspiring film producer from New York, was sent to interview Romero for an industry magazine Filmmaker’s Newsletter. Rubinstein actually already knew of George and his films and the two of them hit it off. Seeing the potential in each other, they soon became business partners, adopting the name Laurel Entertainment. With Rubinstein bringing his film investing knowledge to Pittsburgh, their first major project would be a series of sport documentaries for television called The Winners.

Rubinstein’s film investing knowledge allowed Romero to keep on making feature films, and his next film would again be a horror film, a modern spin on the legend of Dracula.

I was very impatient as a teenager, and would describe anything with a ‘downbeat’ mood as having a ‘Sunday Feel’ – that bad feeling you get on a Sunday when you realise you have to go back to school the next day.

The film Martin was completely this for me. But as I got older, I came to understand why it was such an interesting film; despite some shocking scenes, Martin is an incredibly subtle film, as Romero was writing about things that he deeply cared about. Besides capturing and creating a picture of the city that he had come to love, he was also exploring some pretty universal human themes: misunderstanding between people, and loneliness.

A very poetic film, Martin was always Romero’s favourite, and in 2015, it was awarded the Best Rediscovery by the Boston Society of Film Critics.

But it was his next film that was really going to cement his reputation as a maker of horror films.

Dawn of the Dead (1979)

While being shown around the newly constructed Monroeville shopping mall in the mid-seventies by its co-owner Michael Mason, Romero could suddenly see a way to continue his vision of hell-on-earth. He imagined a shopping mall full of his zombies, with the human survivors living a hand-to-mouth existence up in the ceiling crawlspace.

His half-finished script for Dawn of the Dead was shared with the Italian director, Dario Argento, who’d had a massive hit with his own film Deep Red. Argento, along with his brother Claudio, and producer Alfredo Cuomo, loved George’s story so much that they became Dawn of the Dead’s European investors.

This would be one of his most intense horror films. The film continually shifted from one harrowing moment to the next, going from elation to despair and back up again.

Dawn of the Dead was a major commercial success making back 55 million on their small budget of 1.5 million. It was also an artistically successful film, as Romero’s skills not only as a director, but also as an editor shone through.

This is the one that fans have come to love the most, and in many ways, it was the most successful film of his career.

Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside

But Romero was not going to rest on his laurels.

The Hollywood studio Warner Brothers, who owned the rights to Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot, approached Romero to adapt it into a screenplay, aware of his work with Martin. Although this particular project would eventually fall through, Romero and Rubinstein had still visited Stephen King at his home in Maine, where they had also discussed the possibility of making another film, a tribute to the old EC horror comics of the 1950s that they used to read as kids.

Though known for his brick-like novels, Stephen King was also an excellent writer of short stories. He took a couple of his previous published tales, as well as creating a few new ones, and wove them into a wonderful screenplay for Laurel.

Creepshow was a brilliant film. It had a beautiful score created by assistant director John Harrison, as well as fantastic sets and costumes by Cletus and Barbara Anderson.

It was also a film, that unlike many of his others, was easy for kids to enjoy. The success of Creepshow would lead Laurel to make a TV series, Tales from the Darkside, following a similar theme, creepy short tales with a twist ending.

However, Romero was not that involved with the series, outside of creating the pilot. It was other members of his Laurel team that would do the directing.

Day of the Dead (1985)

In fact, Romero was concentrating all of his energy on what he imagined would be his magnum opus, a third and final ‘of the living dead’ film.

He wrote a massive 216 page script for it just after Creepshow was released in 1982. The original version of his story was kind of like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the hero survivors travel to a jungle island off the Florida coast – only to find out that someone else has already had the same idea; an ex-military madman named Rhodes who has built a mini-empire, enslaving both the zombies, training them as a paramilitary, as well as the living, former scientists experimenting with the creatures in an effort to make them tame. Filled full of action and human brutality, Romero’s vision was a power-struggle between all of these disparate characters, with the zombie apocalypse being the least of their worries.

Unfortunately, to get the budget that he wanted, he would have had to cut down on many of his gory special effects; but these effects by make-up wizard Tom Savini had become a major feature of his films – fans would rent videos and go to the movies on Savini’s name alone – and this was something that Romero was unwilling to sacrifice.

So, Romero chose instead to scale his story down, transferring it from an island setting, to an underground bunker, a limestone mine in Pittsburgh located by Laurel’s cinematographer Mike Gornick.

Despite what Romero would have felt was a major setback, he still managed to preserve most of his ideas from the original script; that heavy theme of human brutality, and the inability to resolve human differences. The story also had an underlying optimism running through it, which in many ways, was its most redeeming quality.

He ended up making a film that fans would not see as a compromise – and who would not be able to imagine it in any other way, than what it had become.

Development Hell in the 90s

By the end of the eighties, the wheels of horror had begun to fall off . . . iconic characters like Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers were suffering from overexposure, thanks to too many sequels. Gore special effects had gone as far as they could; and the audience just needed a break, the chance to take in something new, as horror had lost its edge.

Romero had lived through the absolute highs of the genre – but he was just about to go through one of the lows. He had left Laurel after finishing Day of the Dead to work more as a freelancer, at a point where his reputation was still strong as a director of horror films.

Continuing to work in Pittsburgh, he was contracted by the Hollywood company, Orion, to make two films.

The first was Monkey Shines in 1988 – and then a Stephen King adaptation of The Dark Half in 1993. In between, he made Two Evil Eyes with Dario Argento.

Unfortunately, none of these films made their money back; Orion was already suffering from financial difficulties, and part of the problem was how The Dark Half was distributed. However, this would have been a stressful experience for Romero, as part of his good reputation as a filmmaker was that he had always paid off his debts to investors, rather than ever claiming bankruptcy.

He ended up stuck in what film business people call ‘development hell’ – where the afflicted is getting paid to write scripts, but none of them get turned into movies; and the more time that passes without a new film, the more the person’s audience starts to ask, “Hey, what’s happened to that guy? He hasn’t done anything new for ages!”

But following the old Christian Science adage, that when you are going through hell, the best thing to do is to keep going, Romero finally pulled himself through by relocating to Toronto, Canada; teaming up with a new producer, Peter Grunwald, who he had first worked with on Monkey Shines; and making a very strange but interesting film called Bruiser.

Zombies in the New Century

The release of the British film 28 Days Later in 2002, followed by a remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 – marked a new wave of zombie films; where the directors had evolved the creatures, allowing them to outrun their victims – and although Romero would sometimes grumble about this in interviews, that zombies shouldn’t be able to run, the success of these Olympic sprinters allowed him to keep going with his own particular breed of slowpokes.

Over the next ten years, he would make three more zombie films. Land of the Dead in 2006, Diary of the Dead in 2007, and Survival of the Dead in 2009. There is one more currently in production, Road of the Dead, that Romero’s co-writer and director, Matt Birman, has resolved to try and finish, even though Romero is no longer with us.

Romero’s Legacy

George Romero passed away in March 2017, after a short, but aggressive battle with lung cancer.

Following this news, there was a great outpouring of tributes, not just from fans around the world, but also from many of the cast and crew who had worked with him throughout his life. He had always been described as a loyal person, and you got a sense of this, noticing the same names always turning up in the credits of his film.

Without Romero, there would be no The Walking Dead, no annual zombie walks, no Resident Evil, or World War Z.

But his legacy is much more than that. He one time criticized the horror film genre for never having enough good writers working in it, but he was actually one of the good ones, with the ability to communicate to an audience things that were of a great significance to their everyday lives.

On a more personal note, Romero is one of the few people who I never feel I’ve outgrown. I can still remember riding my bike down to the newsagency where I did a paper-run on Sunday mornings, and going past the videoshop, and seeing in the window a poster for Monkey Shines.

Twenty years later, one of the greatest moments for me was watching Season of the Witch, one of his very early films at the Melbourne International film festival where he was the Guest of Honour. It was like something completely new had opened up for me – like an archaeologist finding a long lost manuscript – and I hadn’t felt that excited by a film for a long time. Even though I was no longer just a horror-loving kid, this film was still full of great meaning.

If you took the horror out of his movies, you would still find a great story – and this has always been the mark of a true talent.

He was also an originator; a creative and intelligent man, working in the same way that many others had before him, from Edgar Allan Poe to Val Lewton, articulating a new angle on American life through a dark lens.

He will definitely be missed by everyone, who at some point in their life, has been thrilled or frightened by one of his films.

George Romero, Rest in Peace.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Tony Williams book Knight of the Living Dead, Lee Karr’s The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, and most of all, The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh by Paul Gagne, which have all helped me with my research.

Thanks to my friends Shawn Parke, Kim Henninger and Eleanor Gray for their regular encouragement.