Nino Rota “Love Theme”
 Victor Young “Isle of Innisfree”
I believe I speak for the masses when naming July 16, 2017 as a day we’d all much rather strike from our calendar. You see, this was the day when horror truly lost a family member in the magnificent visionary that director was, and always will be, George A. Romero. Such loss is almost too immense to calculate right now and it has taken three days to even entertain putting pen to paper, as words feel insufficient when speaking of such unparalleled majesty. We may not have been related by bloodline, but the term Godfather of The Dead couldn’t have been more fitting as he was never far away right through my filmic development and, through his unmistakable art, did more than enough to justify being referred to as family. While my birth father was teaching me how to become a man, Romero was opening my eyes to the world around me in a different way entirely, his chosen means being to populate said earth with zombies and supply pointers on how to remain one step ahead of their every shuffle. And nobody did it half as good as George.
Seldom has 77 years felt so inadequate a time for a light to shine as, while his body eventually gave up its courageous fight against the cancer in his lungs, his mind was still every bit as fresh as it was when Night of the Living Dead was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences way back in 1968. On receipt of the heartbreaking news, it took numerous double takes, then a lengthy period of numbness, one of flat-out refusal to deal, and another of painful acceptance to arrive at the place I find myself now and it is my goal to touch briefly on what his many works meant to me on a personal and spiritual level. You see, he developed an almost otherworldly knack for tapping into my innermost matter and did so on occasions almost too numerous to tally. This certainly wasn’t exclusive to zombie cinema as he was far more versatile than ever given due credit for. It’s worth noting that, to this very day, Creepshow remains my all-time favorite anthology, and Martin, my most eternal vampire film.
Somehow each of his features felt like an intimate address to yours truly and I’d imagine the feeling is mutual to anyone reading this now. That’s not to mention the dignified manner in which he always conducted himself, despite the industry poaching its pound of flesh faster than he could carve it and repeatedly leaving him with an empty plate while others less worthy scoffed their faces around him. Many other distinguished directors have thrown in the towel over studio interference and shut-off avenues but not George. He has continued to roll up his sleeves and fight the good fight as it were, indeed George had stokes in the fire at the time of his untimely departure. Whether his best laid plans for Road of The Dead come to fruition posthumously depends largely on whether the world is ready to recognize him as, not only one of the horror greats, but also just one of the greats. Period.
What Romero has spent the past six decades grafting on tirelessly is a legacy to us all, the likes of which ensure him the life after death he always swore blind was possible. Life without George may appear incomprehensible right now as it’s still so goddamn raw but it was he who wrote the survival handbook and I’ll keep mine by my side right up until the moment when I draw my final breath. From the very first moment I heard the words “they’re coming to get you, Barbara”, I knew that ours was going to be a special relationship and it has proved to be precisely that and then some. Indeed, what he achieved with his long-running Dead series alone is extraordinary as each entry has captured the thoughts and fears of its respective generation, but done so without ever once coming across as preachy. There’s a decidedly fine line between educating and entertaining your audience, but Romero knew just how to walk it.
Social commentary aside, one of the things that made his films stand out to me was his peerless ability as a screenwriter. It’s all too easy to paint characters as black or white, but George was far more fascinated in the shades of grey that exist within us all. A fine example of this is his final feature, the grossly overlooked Survival of The Dead, whereby two feuding Irish families – the O’Flynns and the Muldoons – locked horns over how their precious Plum Island should be run. While neither group show themselves in a particularly favorable light, Romero left it to his audience to assume their own side and never looked to swing our vote either way. Moreover, the token black guy had no place in his movies and African-Americans were provided just the same slim chance of survival as anyone else. This also extended to gender and these kind of bold moves spoke volumes for his character, back when cinema was in such a period of transition.
One key word with regards to George A. Romero’s legacy is family. There are two types of filmmakers – the kind determined to go it alone and those who appreciate the importance of surrounding themselves with the right people and holding onto each of them dearly. Romero belonged to the latter strain and his 1981 film, Knightriders, touched on this quite beautifully. Undoubtedly the most intimate of all his works, it used modern-day jousting as a tool to speak of his own hopes and fears with regards to those nearest and dearest. The offers were rolling in from all sides, allegiances were being tested, and Hollywood continually refused to recognize his achievements and open further doors. The King Arthur of his piece (a career best performance from Ed Harris) was very much a representation of Romero himself and still he didn’t lionize Billy as this wasn’t simply an exercise in ego-fueling. His flaws were no less pronounced than his royal subjects, indeed a number of his actions were defective, but the purity of his soul shone through in much the same way that Romero’s did and we never once left his side.
Talking of intimacy, his 1978 film Martin had a profound effect on me growing up thanks, in no small part, to a beautifully understated turn from John Amplas as the titular blood sucker. In fact, George left it up to us to suss out whether or not Martin actually was an 84-year-old vampire as he claimed. As the words “there’s no real magic… ever”, spilled from his rosebud lips, I had my answer. It’s funny, I’m something of a cat lover and there was never any shortage of them in horror looking to recruit me, mostly dastardly I might add. However, it was actually Amplas who convinced me to bat for Team Kitty and Romero who coaxed a feline performance out of the 27-year-old. Just like a tabby, Martin was not averse to purring when his fur was stroked the right way. However, rub him up wrong and his back arched instantly. In addition to ensuring I left a dish of milk on my doorstep each night for any thirsty strays in my zip code, Martin taught me the art of marrying performance and direction and was the chief reason I attended film school.
As for Creepshow, well I defy anyone to say a crossed word about this glorious five-piece anthology. As an Englishman, I’d been reared on the portmanteaux of Hammer and Amicus, and served rather splendidly on that count. But I came of age during the eighties and American cinema was already well in the ascendancy when Romero and the similarly legendary Stephen King joined forces. Not only did it succeed as a compendium first and foremost, but King is quick to cite Romero as his favorite collaborator and few others have been able to bring the gap between page and screen with this man’s work so effectively. Once again, it was our man George on crème de la crème duties and I’m astonished that the Hollywood suits couldn’t spot this polished diamond amidst the rough. While Lucas had an open cheque book at his disposal, his namesake wasn’t provided the bankroll his vision warranted and I find that pill the most bitter to swallow.
At any rate, this has to be about commemoration, not indignation, as a positive soul like George would want it no other way, of that I’m certain. It can be hard to see beyond what we have lost at present as, let’s face it, this was the news none of us desired to hear and it still doesn’t ring at all true days later. But I prefer to zone in on just what we have gained as a result of this man’s passion, commitment, and above all else, generosity of spirit. Horror may feel like a barren wasteland without him, but it’s thanks to his boundless efforts that it will always feel like home. It is therefore not only my duty but distinct privilege to remember him, to honor him, and cherish him dearly. It seems most fitting then that I close with ever-comforting words from the Godfather himself as I prepare to one day shake his hand as I’ve always dreamed – “I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!”
George A. Romero (February 4, 1940-eternity)