Sleep Well, Mr. Romero …

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on it, I wanted to get some thoughts down on George Romero. How I got into his work, what it’s meant to me & why this hits harder than other Director’s deaths have.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I got into Horror, but it was a gradual progression from an interest in Science Fiction. I remember taking out Sci-Fi movie books from the library & watching old gems with my Father on Saturday Night at the Movies (Elwy Yost was the Host with the Most), and like most kids, I was into aliens and the idea of life (or afterlife) that we cannot see, but believe in all the same.

I always wanted to impress / please my Father with great gifts for his October birthday (Halloween Month FTW), but he hasn’t always been the easiest to shop for (that said, I’ve been on a roll the past few years). I knew he liked old black and white movies, and we’d enjoyed watching stuff like Bride of Frankenstein & The Creature from the Black Lagoon together, so you can imagine my excitement when I read about a movie called “Night of the Living Dead”. It was apparently a Classic (we always had a Leonard Maltin Movie Guide in the house), it was Old & it was Black and White, how could it fail ??

I bought him a double VHS release, which included a second tape of “Special Features” (what a time to be alive). It even had a fold out cover with an essay on the film itself. Surely I had knocked it out of the park with this gift ! I can imagine what was going through his head when he opened up that gift, seeing my face beaming and excitedly waiting to watch it with him. I remember showing the tape of Features to my friends, and we all enjoyed the original trailer, with it’s over the top narration and classic use of musical cue …

Having been internally convinced that I’d gotten the perfect gift, you can imagine my delight when Mr. Maltin let me know that there was not only one, but TWO sequels to NOTLD ! I immediately hatched a plan to get him the second film for his next birthday, then to complete the trilogy on the birthday after that. Once again, I tracked down a double VHS (with fold out cover) at Music World (RIP), and I was EXTRA excited to give him his gift that year.

Watching him open that gift, I couldn’t help but sense (even at a young age) that he wasn’t nearly as thrilled to receive it as I was to give it. But how ? Surely he had loved the previous film, it was old and in black & white ! Still, I was excited to watch this new film with him, and I bided my time as it sat unopened on or VHS shelf, week after week. Eventually I broke down and became determined to watch the film, with or without him. Even though he hadn’t cracked open the plastic yet, I was determined to find a way …

When I was growing up, we ran a year round campground / resort in cottage country. The year I gave him DOTD, I was probably around 12 or so. My parents very rarely got to go out for non-family dinners, and since I was finally old enough to look after the place (after close) for a few hours, they left me alone on a cold January night, with my dog … and an unguarded VHS copy of Dawn of the Dead ! After I was sure they were gone, I snaked the movie off the shelf (where it had lived for months) and I got a knife and went to work, slooooowly cutting enough of the plastic that would allow for me to slip the main tape out of the box.

I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I’d given him WEEKS to open / watch it with me, and my little heart just couldn’t wait any longer. I popped the tape in and let the movie wash over me. That is, until about halfway through, when I heard the unmistakable “crunch, crunch” sound of two people walking through the snow, in our backyard, in the middle of nowhere, with no family members anywhere nearby, and me alone, watching a scary movie, with no curtains drawn on the back window. I sat there, paralyzed, unsure what to do first. They KNEW someone was home, as I hadn’t closed the curtains. But we lived in the middle of nowhere, in the dead (cough) of winter. Who COULD it be ??

I slowly reached for the remote and shut the movie off, then I heard a slow knock on the sliding glass door on our back deck. Still terrified, I walked over to the back room and turned on the porch light. Standing on our deck were two HUGE men, dressed in large winter jackets and staring at me. I knew they wouldn’t just go away, but I had no weapon, apart from a part Lab / part Border Collie named Bart. I reluctantly walked towards the door, unlocked it and slid it open a few inches. It turned out to be two russian men who had walked across the lake, seen our lights, then come to see if we had any liqour for them, to “warm them up”.

Thinking quickly (and having seen many PSA’s, thanks Bert and Gert !), I told them my Father was in the shower, but that I would go and check with him. My dog was growling the entire time, which was honestly my only consolation for the intense fear of the situation. I closed the door, went to the kitchen and considered my options. I ended up waiting a few minutes, then going back and telling them that my Father doesn’t drink … but that I was pretty sure that the (rival) resort down the road had plenty of alcohol (I’m not proud, but it worked). I closed and locked the door, shut off the light and waited. They didn’t move for a minute, but gradually the “crunch, crunch” of them walking away put me at ease, and 10 minutes later, I resumed the film.

In watching that film, I soon came to realize that my Father had NEVER been a fan of Horror, and most likely never knew how to let me down easy. I had been able to slip the tape back into it’s case, and “skillfully” add some scotch tape to the cut area (genius), and shockingly, it NEVER came up. Almost as if he never touched that movie again after setting it up on it’s shelf, where it beckoned to me all those months. This revelation lead to me purchasing the third film, Day of the Dead, but not for my Father this time … but for myself.

It pleases me that my love of the Father of Zombies will always be linked to my own Father, even if he was never a fan of the man’s films himself. He always respected my love of Horror, even if it’s not a genre he could ever love himself. As I grew older and discovered other Romero gems like Martin, Creepshow & The Crazies, I grew to appreciate what an indelible mark he had left on the genre. Not dissimilar to the way my Father had helped shape me into the man that now types these very words.

In the years that have passed since that fateful NOTLD gift, I have seen literally countless Horror films, but my absolute favourite is (and always will be) Creepshow. As a huge fan of 50’s Horror Comics, Romero (and King) absolutely nailed the tone, and I love everything about that film. I’m pleased to have seen it on the big screen, though dismayed to say I passed on a chance to see it again on the big screen this year, with Romero in attendance. That said, I did see Night of the Living Dead on the big screen for the first time this year, and it was a surreal mix of emotions, almost equal to those I’m experiencing now.

It’s been said of Romero that he was unbelievably kind and humble, grateful to have touched so many souls with an oeuvre that is the envy of the average filmmaker. He shaped a genre that still thrills us today, with ideas and films that will live forever, even if the man himself could not. I’m sad I never got to meet him, but through a love for his films and his spirit, and through the eyes of so many others, I feel like I knew him very well.

The outpouring of grief and kind words seen in the past 24 hours is truly inspiring, and speaks well to the imprint left by this man. George was larger than life, larger than the afterlife even. As a fan of the Remakes of NOTLD, DOTD and The Crazies, it’s astounding to me that even re-imaginings of his work can work on different levels, another testament to his genius. While he never got all that was coming to him, financially AND credit wise, his legend will only grow from here on out, and I look forward to remembering the man and his work.

To George A Romero, the creator of the best birthday presents a boy could want …

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