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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

my thoughts on.... the passing of George A. Romero

In about 1995, I was hip deep in my self education on film history. I had taken, what was once a personal course of studies, and decided to make it a reality by entering film school. About that same time, I was working at a local video store and taking full advantage of the large archive of films I had at my fingertips. Bringing 6 or more movies home a night, I was quickly expanding my film vocabulary. This was before the days of the modern internet and IMDB was in its infancy. Therefore, everything I was doing, was based off of books about film, that I owned, and old issues of Fangoria magazine. For some unknown reason, I brought home something called 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978). I had no idea, that this harmless little VHS tape, would change the course of my horror landscape forever. To be honest, I don't even think I realized that it was the sequel to 'Night of the Living Dead', which I hadn't even seen at the time. After it's 2 hour run time had ended, I sat there in front of the television, unsure how to process what I'd just seen. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before and it blew my mind wide open to a whole different world of what was frightening. Not that the zombies, themselves, were terrifying, but the situation the protagonists were in was horrifying to me. The fact that the world was overrun by an army of the living dead put a new fear into my head. Creatures that didn't need to sleep and that were relentless in their need to feed, at any cost. Maybe they were slow moving and purely working on instinct, but when you have that many things coming at you from all sides, there is no escape. It was incredibly effective and at that moment, my whole view on horror and even a little bit on life, changed. This was all because of one man, George A. Romero, the father of the modern zombie.

Today, that same man, shambled off this mortal coil. Born George Andrew Romero on February 4th, 1940, he finally lost his battle with lung cancer, at the age of 77. Born in The Bronx, New York, George had moved to Pennsylvania to go to college and ended up staying there, where he started his career in film making. In 1968, at the age of 28, he gave birth to the zombies that we all know and love today, when he co-wrote and directed 'Night of the Living Dead'. Widely considered a modern day horror classic, it still stands as a testament to what independent film making can produce. Made on a minimal budget, by friends and family, that were learning their craft as they went, it is just as potent today, as it was when it was released. He also was laying the groundwork for all of the mythos that we use to make our zombie films of today. Prior to this, zombies were merely people under the spell of voodoo priests and priestesses, that were more like henchmen, rather than undead killing machines. He was also doing something else, that hadn't been done before.... he was creating something the world hadn't seen before. Up to this point, the monsters in the movies, were the stuff of novels written in a different time. Stories that had been created, sometimes, before film making even existed. George, however, was creating something new and the world welcomed it with open arms. From that humble beginning, he segued it into a lifelong career in film. Although, he made other movies that had nothing to do with zombies, he always seemed to come back to the well time after time. Using each chapter in his ongoing 'Of the Dead' series, as way of commenting on society and the very real fears that plague all of us. The zombies were simply metaphors on those themes. Up until his early passing today, he was continuing to carry on his legacy and it saddens me to think that there will be no more films from the man who started it all.

In Romero's world, zombies were slow moving. Relying on sheer numbers to overcome the remaining survivors of the apocalypse. They weren't skeletons rising from the grave and over time, their bodies would decay to a point where they could no longer function, but that didn't stop them from trying to get the flesh that they all seemed to crave. The fact that his monsters could only be killed by a shot to the dead or some kind of blunt force trauma, made them that much scarier. No matter what other methods you used to try and stop them, only that one thing would guarantee that they would be stopped for good. The problem was, that for every one you brought down, there were always more, waiting to take its place. Not too mention, that every person that was still alive, had the potential to join the ranks of the living dead either by dying or being bitten. It was a never ending cycle and eventually, the dead would overtake the living. It was a bleak world that his characters inhabited, but yet they continued to persist. Never wanting to give up hope that humanity could one day be restored. The only thing that would get in their way, aside from the undead, was man itself. As seen in all of his films, there were other human beings that took advantage of the situation or were selfish. These people were as much of a problem as the zombies themselves. In a world where you have to band together to survive, there can be no room for those who aren't willing to put aside the way the world was, in order to make a brave new world. This was a constant in all of the stories he told. Man's inhumanity to man. We could all learn something from George's work and thankfully, even though he's gone, his legacy lives on.

From the day I saw 'Dawn of the Dead', I fell in love with the zombie genre. It became my bread and butter and I carried the banner high and with pride. I began to seek out all of his other work and then expanded my search to see what else the world had to offer on the subject. It became a bit of a passion. So much so, that in 1999, I made a pilgrimage to Monroville Mall in Pennsylvania (where they filmed 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) ). I wandered the mall, taking photos of the places that were still recognizable from the original film. It was like my Mecca. That day, I was in zombie heaven. After that, it started to bleed into my work as a writer, artist and I even attempted to make my own zombie film. George A. Romero had a huge impact on my life and he gave me a monster that I could relate too. Over the years since then, zombies have become part of mainstream pop culture. Infecting television shows, countless Hollywood and indie films, comic books, novels, board games, toys and video games. Any more, you can't throw a rock without hitting something containing a zombie. It's as if they've become a reality. They have overwhelmed the populous and become the norm. No longer do they while away the hours in obscurity. Zombies are now woven into the fabric of everything. It's gotten to the point where they are almost looked upon as being passe. A fad, a joke, something that people scoff at when they see another take on the story that was started so many years ago. For me, I'm a die hard fan for life and revel in the fact that they've become so popular. It makes me proud to have been there early on and happy that George lived long enough to see his monster invading all aspects of the world culture. From it's humble beginnings as a seedling he planted, with a little film he made on a shoestring budget, to a modern media juggernaut. My only regret, is that even though he is credited with the creation of the zombie, he never really got the true recognition he deserved. Maybe in our circle of horror fans, he was looked upon as a hero, but in the world at large, he was somewhat of an unknown. However, from seeing interviews with the man, I have a feeling he was okay with this. For him, I think just knowing that something he created was sparking the imaginations of generation after generation of artists, was enough.

Rest in peace, George. Thank you for everything you've given to me and the rest of the world. You will never be forgotten and your legacy will continue to live on forever, just like the undead monsters you created.