George A. Romero is Lord of the Dead

Horror god George A. Romero looks back on four decades of fright. By Chris Norris
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Horror god George A. Romero looks back on four decades of fright. By Chris Norris
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The basic traits are well-known. Their speech is unrefined. They dress poorly. They eat the living and congregate in malls. And while they usually stagger around shedding body parts, some have been known to run.

Right?

“Wrong,” says George A. Romero, shaking his head. “If they’re zombies, they move slowly. Their muscles have atrophied, some rigormortis has set in. Plus, it’s just scarier that way: When they’re slow but unstoppable.”

The 68-year-old dean of Zombie Studies is weighing in from a plush sofa in Toronto—hundreds of miles from his beloved former home of Pittsburgh, 40 years from the low-budget film that cemented his status as horror mandarin. His oversize glasses, scraggly beard, and ponytail suggest a tenured radical at office hours.

Forty years ago, on October 1, 1968, Romero’s debut film, Night of the Living Dead, first rose from the gurney to give birth to the modern horror film. In his memoir, Stephen King demarcates the time before and after “George Romero’s ferocious indie Night of the Living Dead came along and changed everything forever”—setting a new standard of explicit gore, primal terror, and social relevance that was soon taken up by a shock troop of young indie filmmakers like Wes (The Last House on the Left) Craven, Tobe (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper, and John (Halloween) Carpenter, establishing the core syllabus.

Today “of the Dead” knockoffs number in the hundreds, and zombies gnash their way through films like I Am Legend, Shaun of the Dead (which Romero loved), and 2004’s 28 Days Later (which he did not, but abided since the fleet-footed monsters aren’t dead but “infected”). Stalking through comedy sketches, music videos, Wii games, Facebook avatars, and undead flash mobs, the zombie remains the alpha-monster of the new century. But to Romero the undead aren’t monsters but a métier. He himself reanimated the concept several times after Night—once to critique mindless consumerism (1978’s hallowed Dawn of the Dead), once again to explore military groupthink (’85’s Day of the Dead), and later to take on class warfare (2005’s Land of the Dead). “I end up coming back to this franchise whenever I want to make a comment or take a snapshot of the time,” says Romero.

Earlier this year, Romero released Diary of the Dead—his fifth installment in the opus that makes up his life’s work. The film revisits the spirit and ideas of Night from a contemporary perspective, presenting itself as an ad hoc documentary by students at the University of Pittsburgh who—like a band of fledgling Romeros—were out shooting a student horror film when news of a grisly current event abruptly changed their focus. According to his longtime friend and collaborator, splatter effects guru Tom Savini, “He has not lost his ability to see what’s going on in the world and incorporate it as a subtext into his film.”

Romero’s creative reflowering occurs at a poignant time. As he nears 70, Romero knows full well that Diary appears a bookend to an era and a life in American horror. These days audiences are more likely to get their frights from torture-porn creepfests like Saw and Hostel than Romero’s nuanced, socially conscious offering. The recent film may examine the fracturing babble of the new-media world (the apocalypse seen via cameras of college film students), but its undercurrents lap up against something just as real and a bit more terrifying: death itself, which Romero happens to be viewing from his best vantage point thus far.

George Romero was born in the Bronx in 1940, the son of a Cuban-American commercial artist and a Lithuanian mom. “My father was Cuban, so I was considered Latino,” he says. “In an Italian neighborhood, I was the Shark among Jets.” Romero grew up in the age of Gothic studio horror films. “Traditional scoring, traditional spooky settings, haunted houses—something just jumps out of the dark at you. It’s that primal idea that something’s in there—don’t open the door, don’t go in the attic—those tried-and-true values that still really work.”

As a teenager Romero was transfixed by the lavish 1951 cinematic opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, and soon he made a habit of renting a projector to take out a print from the Janus movie house. “There were only a few places that you could do that,” he recalls. “And if Tales of Hoffmann was ever out—and this was a movie no one took out—it was always this one kid who had it. This kid Marty Scorsese.”

Like his beetle-browed Manhattan counterpart, Romero picked up directing early. For his 14th birthday, he received an 8 mm camera that soon led to his arrest for throwing a burning dummy off a roof—part of an early directorial effort called Man From Meteor. (“It wasn’t worth it,” Romero says. “The shot wasn’t very good.”) Romero doesn’t remember any unconscious hobgoblins from the time other than the era’s standard nightmare. “What scared me was the bomb,” he says. “I lived in New York and was in the zone that Ed Sullivan would show in concentric circles—‘This part is certain death,’ ‘This part is probable death…’ We were sort of in the third ring, so it was a tossup.”Romero studied art and design at Carnegie Mellon University, then learned the film craft shooting commercials, industrial shorts, and one particularly hair-raising segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—a clip that captured Mister Rogers’ tonsillectomy, a work that some consider Romero’s entrée into horror. By the later ’60s, he began toying with an idea for a narrative film. “I thought about dead people coming back to life,” he says. “I thought about how other people would find it hard to believe, how they would refuse to believe it, how they wouldn’t know how to respond to it, how they’d try to ignore it.”

Night of the Living Dead used stark black-and-white images of staggering corpses and lynch-mob posses to create an eerily plausible vision of plague and social disorder that merged seamlessly with news footage of Vietnam, civil-rights rioting, and other real-life nightmares of the 1960s. The film hits the gas the moment one shuffling figure in an overcast cemetery stops and—as UC Berkeley professor (and leading academic in the field of horror) Carol J. Clover says—“turns into a horror icon with one sudden whirl toward the camera.” And the assaults on convention just kept on coming.

Mixing social realism, shock-value gore, and the kind of creepy ambiance possible only in grainy, high-contrast black-and-white, Night of the Living Dead not only became a horror classic and one of the most profitable films ever made but also wound up in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry—one of the essential works in American cinema.

But not without putting its own curse on the director. “Our original title was The Night of the Flesh Eaters,” he recalls. “But there had been a movie called The Flesh Eaters. So when the studio picked the film up, they changed the title…” He trails off and takes a drag of his cigarette.

Thus began…?

He nods slowly and gives a rueful smile.

Thus began his nightmare.

* * * *

This would not be the nightmare that befalls seven strangers trapped in a zombie-besieged farmhouse, but the one that befell the director shortly after his debut feature was released. When the studio made the last-minute title change, it neglected to include a copyright notice. Thanks to this omission, Romero now owns no rights to a movie that launched an entire subgenre of film and grossed more than $30 million worldwide—of which the director sees not a cent.

In a way this Kafka-esque typo inaugurated Romero’s lifelong career as an outsider, somebody who identifies as much with the zombie—whom he calls “the blue-collar monster”—as he does with the healthy, happy, witless humans. And while he maintained a steady career—working with Stephen King on Creepshow, directing the King-penned The Dark Half, making 2005’s big-budget Land of the Dead—Romero has shared the fate of his hero Orson Welles, who lived his career in the shadow of his debut, Citizen Kane.

“George does not suffer fools lightly,” says Tom Savini. “He sits in meetings with these asshole producers, and if they say stuff that’s off-the-wall ridiculous he’ll just walk out. The idea that he’s made so much of what he’s made outside of that system is amazing.”

In one crowning irony, the revolution Romero launched has since ossified into a Hollywood gore factory that’s a nearly perfect inversion of the movement that made it possible: an army of film school dweebs with black dye jobs and studio budgets who crank out hit horror movies with none of the wit, invention, or social resonance that made the ’70s classics cool in the first place.

When I ask Romero to pitch one of the contemporary box office hits, he pauses for a moment. “I think it would be Guy With Torture Implement,” he says. And as trailers keep arriving filled with the same closeups on twitching eyeballs, the same greenish lighting, the same oscillating film speeds and grainy production, it seems that horror itself is embalmed.

Yet the films just keep coming. “I meet hundreds of young people that are out shooting movies,” says Romero. “And they’re all horror! It seems like everyone who’s shooting a little independent thing tries first to do a horror film. They’ll all say, ‘Oh, I love the gore, man.’” In late February, the American Film Institute hosted a 40th-anniversary screening of Night of the Living Dead and held a question-and-answer session afterward. “They were the same questions from the audience I always get,” Romero says. “‘Where do you think it’s all going?’ Beats the shit out of me. ‘Why are you so fascinated by zombies?’ I’m not—any disaster would serve as well; zombies are just my ticket to ride. ‘What scares you?’ That’s always a biggie. And it’s always the same answer.”

Romero’s demons are, as ever, current events. “I’m blown away that a civilization with the size and wealth of the U.S. still has a populace that wants an Oral Roberts type to be their fucking president,” he says, perched on his sofa. “Or the fact that if you don’t have marquee personality or charisma you don’t stand a fucking chance.”

Indeed, the most terrifying horror story of all may be the one that’s writing itself right now. It’s an apocalyptic tale about an entire nation that slowly morphs itself into a lumbering, parasitic, multitentacled life form—called Hollywood. “I don’t have any supernatural hobgoblins that I worry about,” says the master of fear. “What scares me is life.”