Sunday, July 16, 2017

George A. Romero: 1940-2017

"...and now the darkest day of horror the world has ever known."

That was the tag line for 1985's Day of the Dead which, at the time was billed as the completion of writer/director George A. Romero's Dead Trilogy.  Sadly, it's pretty fitting today...

Starting with 1968's Night of the Living Dead and continuing with 1978's Dawn of the Dead, Romero reshaped the Horror genre with just three films.  Of course, he had a 50-year entire career of 20+ films he either wrote, directed, produced or, in some cases, performed all three tasks.  Each of his films carried his unique vision and style, allowing him to put his stamp on whatever it was he was trying to say with that particular film. 

Although I never knew Romero as a friend or a colleague, his career has touched my life deeply.  As a fan, I've appreciated his work from afar, while also getting a few chances to personally thank him for the films he's made.  Over the last nearly 20yrs, I was fortunate enough to meet George a few times and express my appreciation for his work.  He was always a kind and thoughtful gentleman when such a chance came up.  To say I'm crushed right now is definitely a massive understatement.

Starting with 1982's Creepshow, I got my first taste of Romero.  As I've said here time and time again, many of my earliest nightmares came from Romero's first collaboration with Stephen King and, even though I didn't know it at the time, a linear path leading right to this very moment and the way I'm feeling had been forged.  

The next Romero film I experienced -- because, let's face it:  as a Horror fan, Romero films are an experience -- was, of course, Dawn of the Dead.  Sure, at the time of that first viewing, I probably didn't have enough sense in my then 5yr old brain to fully comprehend what I was witnessing or becoming a part of... but it definitely happened that particular night at my older cousin's house.  Some people remember where they were they saw (insert famous athlete here) hit/score/dunk that winning shot/basket/goal/whatever or where they were the moment they first heard (insert favorite band name here) . . . me?  I'll always remember where I was and what I was doing when I was first bitten by the Dawn of the Dead bug.  It's really that simple:  for as long as I can remember, I've felt the same way about George A. Romero as any other kid who may have had posters of Michael Jordon or Alex Rodriguez on their bedroom walls or wore jerseys with their #'s on them.

Romero's work fully took hold when I was 11/12/13yrs old.  You see, I'd just completely jumped headfirst into all things Dawn-related and, had quickly come to the realization that this is who I was at heart -- a Monster Kid (or, in layman's terms, a Horror fan).  At this point, I'd seen that film countless times as it quickly became my all-time favorite; to this day, I'm at a loss for just how many times I've seen it!  In the summer of '95, my parents took me to my first Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors where I was able to meet Dawn star, Ken Foree for the first time.  You wanna talk about the thrill of a lifetime, the age of 12, that was certainly the biggest thing I'd done!  

And, in fact, I remember the exact instant that I later came to embrace my new identity . . . a short time after that convention, I attended a classmate's birthday party and was sort of holding court, recounting my experience at the show recently.  Adolescence is the time where we're supposed to be awkward and unsure of who we are or who we're becoming . . . and, yeah, of course I had my share of teenage awkward moments (Hell, I still have awkward thirty-something moments!) . . . but in that very instant as I was describing meeting an actor from a Horror movie I loved so much, I realized THIS is who I am!  Perhaps if a ball of some kind or a musical instrument replaced a VHS tape when I had my eureka moment, maybe everything would have been completely different, eh?

Pretty quickly, with my sights set on high school and beyond, I came to the realization that I pretty much wanted to be like George A. Romero.  From that point on, my goal in life was to become a filmmaker and write and hopefully direct Horror films.  That sort of became my identity throughout the rest of my school years . . . everyone encouraged me along that path, though, looking back I don't think I knew just what was required to reach such a goal.  But it seemed like a great (unlikely?) dream to chase, as it became a carrot for which I'd continually strive for. 

Beyond my hopes and aspirations, my Horror fandom itself grew on a daily level.  Sure, as a kid, there was obviously Freddy Krueger and the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (and eventually the other three from the Big 4 Slashers), but Romero and, specifically, Dawn of the Dead sucked me into dissecting every possible element about a film and the Horror genre itself -- specifically on the career of Romero himself.  Being that this was all happening in the days before the internet, locating information on various films extended to library visits, thumbing through books and magazines for old interviews or reviews of his films, and even long-distance phone chats with an adult fan in Michigan!  

Outside of the Horror genre, Romero's influence pushed me into Film classes (my first being Introduction To Film at Raritan Valley Community College . . . during the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years in high school), where I'd learn the in's and out's of the craft -- as best I could without actually, ya know, doing it.  Through all those years, that education awakened a sort of Third Eye in me to the point that it's sometimes difficult to just WATCH a movie without reading into it all the time (much to the annoyance of my loving wife, Sandee, at times!).  During my final year at Rutger's University, I even wrote two back-to-back papers on Romero and Dawn of the Dead (one for a film class as, what essentially was my Senior thesis and the other for Creative Writing: Non-Fiction); it was at this point that I threw down some coin to finally -- for the sake of great reference material while writing said papers -- pick up a copy of Paul Gagne's incredible (and pricey, as its been out-of-print forever) Romero tome, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh

Listen, I could go through each and every one of George's films here in this very piece . . . but that's not what I'm here to do.  I'm here to pay tribute to a man whose work has made such an impact on my life.  There have been many incredible road trips to the Pittsburgh area to pay homage -- with most of our time being dedicated, of course, to Monroeville.  With Sandee at my side, I've done and seen some incredible things all because of George A. Romero.  

On the surface, Romero's work has brought so many hours of enjoyment and escapism to my life either from watching his films, reading about them, or talking about them with other fans and friends.  

Most importantly, one final thing that the work of George A. Romero has brought me is the wealth of deep-rooted friendships with people all over the world.  Most are fans just like me; our paths crossed because of one particular film of Romero's -- most likely Dawn of course, but really, it could be any one of his films.  In fact, in the very early days of my budding, long-distance relationship with Sandee, we watched Dawn together over the phone!  That was one of the moments when I knew she was a keeper!  Other meaningful friendships extend to people who actually worked with Romero -- a good deal of them from Dawn itself even!  It's still an incredible honor to call them friends.  All because a Bronx-born filmmaker based out of Pittsburgh was at the center of a group of like-minded friends who wanted to make a Horror movie about the dead returning to life in 1968!  

Sandee and I with George the last time we met him, at the Living Dead Fest 2014 in Evans City, PA where Night of the Living Dead was filmed.
My favorite memory of Romero comes from the last time Sandee and I met him.  It was in Evans City, PA for the 2014 edition of the Living Dead Fest, a convention/hang/reunion/tribute to all things related to Night of the Living Dead.  George was on-hand not exactly as a guest per say, but he was there to help dedicate the newly-fixed chapel at the Evans City Cemetery; while he was there, he also sat and posed for photos with every single fan in attendance...

But the moment that I'll always cherish was getting to the Edco Park location early, probably not too long after George himself had arrived.  There we were -- me and a handful of others who were direct staff/crew for the event -- standing in the parking lot, chatting with George and his wife Suz.  I realized something incredible in that brief moment . . . with a lot of celebrities, there are always stories about how kind and generous they were to their fans [and believe me, there are millions of stories just like that with George - ED].  However, standing there in a gravel parking lot chatting with George on that sunny, late October morning, with very few other people around us, I felt as though we connected on a human to human level and not just as the typical fan to idol separated by a table scenario of a convention.  Sure, George was always charming and friendly when I'd met him previously, but at that very moment, I felt as though I had stepped beyond the barrier of the silver screen and, like I said, was chatting human to human with The Man.   Looking back at it, it's a bit of a surreal moment that I'm not sure I'm even perfectly explaining here...  

With all that being said, it's taken me a good chunk of this afternoon and evening to find the words to pay tribute to a man whose work I've admired for so many years.  My heart aches that he's gone.  I'm still stunned on his passing and will probably never forget where I was the moment I heard the news.  It pains me to think of George in the past tense and to associate "RIP" with his name now.  Although he himself may be gone, his films will live forever (not unlike his living dead creations), inspiring & terrifying generations to come and awakening budding Horror fans the world over. 

For many, many years, Romero was famous for tagging autographs with "Stay Scared!"  Oh yes George . . . I did and I always will!  Thank you sir.  Rest In Peace.

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