Director. Titan. Trailblazer. Story Teller. Sociologist. Anthropologist.
These are all appropriate titles referring to George A. Romero. Romero died Sunday, July 16th after a short battle with lung cancer. He may me gone, but like many of his characters, his legacy will live on.
Many of Romero’s movies (especially those involving Zombies) told stories about society. These stories just happened to appear against the backdrop of the Horror genre. Many times the scariest ghouls in his films were humans.
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Romero broke into the business and made his directorial debut on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Strange, but true.
After honing his chops on PBS, Romero put himself, the city of Pittsburgh, and a new Horror sub-genre on the map with his 1968 release Night of the Living Dead. Zombies – at least in the form of undead, cannibalistic former humans – had not been introduced to American public. After the release, there was no going back and 47 years later it is difficult to turn on the television without seeing a zombie program.
Tonight I am going to attend a free screening of NOLD at The Campus Gateway. NOLD is widely regarded as Romero’s masterpiece, which is why The Gateway is offering this screening. However, I believe the title of Masterpiece belongs to NOLD‘s unofficial sequel Dawn of the Dead – which I will discuss briefly later in this entry.
NOLD tells the story of a small group of Americans who are trapped in a rural Western Pennsylvania farmhouse during a zombie uprising. These Americans come from different backgrounds, generations, and races. At it’s core, NOLD is an allegorical play depicting difficult race relations in 1968 America.
Ben – The lead and moral compass in the farmhouse (America). He is black, young, smart and brave and takes control of the situation. Ben represents the civil rights movement.
Barbara – A shell shocked young woman whose brother has been attacked, but not infected, by zombies. Barbara represents young white generation who are scared of America’s changing society (zombies).
Harry and Helen – A older married couple who represent the American establishment. Helen often begs her husband to listen to Ben, but due their age difference and Ben’s race, the two have difficulty working together and fail to make the Farmhouse (America) a safer place. This comes to a climax when their infected teenage daughter Karen kills Helen.
Tom and Judy – A young and hip white American couple who are willing to work with Ben and at odds with Harry. Tom and Judy represent American generation which is not scared of change.
Because this film was released 47 years ago, I feel the spoiler statute of limitations has expired. Everyone in the farmhouse dies during the night, except for Ben. Ben survives until morning when he leave the house and is ‘mistakenly’ shot a member of the sheriff’s posse. It is implied to the viewer that Ben is shot – at least partially – for being black. Regardless of his status or black or a zombie, he represents a threat to the sheriff and his posse.
Simply put, NOLD was groundbreaking. Directed by a Latino, it featured a black lead who physically fought and then justifiably shot a white man. There was nothing like it at the time and there still is not a lot like it now. NOLD had guts and brains (both literally and physically) and something to say. America needs more of that.
Romero could right his own ticket after the success of NOLD. He would end up making many different horror movies. Not all of them had zombies, but they all had something to sat about society.
There were five films related to NOLD and directed by Romero. They are:
Dawn of the Dead – A film about American consumerism that introduced many Americans to the concept of an indoor shopping mall. Although released in 1978, Romero saw the 80’s coming and he knew what American morality and values would be during this decade. Here is a poster my wife would like to remove from our basement:
Day of the Dead – This film concerned nuclear holocaust and introduced the world to Bub, perhaps the most intelligent and iconic reanimated character in American cinema. Say hello to Bub, he is domesticated after all.
Land of the Dead – The last great Romero film was an allegory for America’s was in Iraq. There is a green zone (complete with a shopping mall and cleverly titled Fidler’s Green), soldiers with PTSD, black markets for medicine, and conflict between social classes. John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper are both particularly good in this movie.
Diary of the Dead – Another film that was ahead of it’s time. DOTD foretold the problems with America’s ‘Selfie’ culture, social media, and the need to film and broadcast the most mundane aspects of our lives.
Survival of the Dead – On the surface this film is about warring Irish families, but they allegory pertains to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Other favorites you may want to check out are: Martin, Knightriders, Monkey Shines, Creepshow and The Crazies (1973).
In his later years, Romero directed less, but stayed busy with doctoring screen plays and getting involved in video games and graphic novels, both of which more popular than they have ever been.
It is certainly sad that Mr. Romero is gone. His legacy has many pretenders (I’m looking at you, Robert Kirkman) and no contenders. Modern Horror – at least to me – misses many opportunities for social commentary. Maybe its because the viewers don’t care, which may be the scariest tale of all.
ADDITIONS & SUBSTITUTIONS
- Romero now joins the other favorite directors of my childhood – Harold Ramis and John Hughes – in the great hereafter. These three gave me an incalculable number of hours of happiness in my childhood. Thanks for everything, fellas.
- Romero seemed to always have a good sense of humor about the Night of the Living Dead royalties he lost from a copy writing error. Here is the scoop.
- It would have been a real treat to sit next to Mr. Rogers during the screening of Dawn of the Dead. That would be like sitting next to the Pope during a Willie Nelson concert.
- Fritz is showing Night of the Living Dead at both Studio 35s this weekend. One night Grandview and the other night Clintonville. Both showings are free. He is also showing Dawn of the Dead on Black Friday during the upcoming holiday season. Fritz gets it.
- If you haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead (2004) check it out. Directed by Edgar Right, it pays homage to Dawn of the Dead with a ton of Easter Eggs.