On Sunday, July 16th, the horror world was rocked with news of the death of legendary director George A. Romero. When Bill Paxton died last winter, I found that talking it out with my buddy and fellow Cinedelphian Dan Scully was a great way to cope with the grief. We decided to give Romero the same treatment.
Andy: Romero was obviously known primarily for his Dead trilogy. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. Three movies, each made in a different decade (60’s, 70’s, 80’s), forever turning the horror genre into something that actually had something meaningful to say, in addition to being a gory good time. My first experience with Romero was watching Dawn of the Dead back in the mid 2000’s. I had seen Zack Snyder’s remake and thought it was the absolute shit, so I wanted to see the original. I remember feeling confused, unimpressed and a little disappointed. After Snyder’s adrenaline rushed, Hollywood blockbuster style, I was unprepared for Romero’s bizarre mixture of tones. Fortunately as the years went on I was able to see it with fresh eyes, and see it for the classic it is.
What was your first experience with the master?
Dan: First, allow me to say that in honor of Bill Paxton, I named my cactus after him. I name my plants. Deal with it. Billy P, as I like to call him, is thriving.
My first experience with Romero is one of absolute purity. When I was about nine or ten years old, I caught one of those TV programs that counted down the “scariest movies ever made.” I came across it pretty early on, just when it got to Night of the Living Dead. I remember having two distinct images burned into my brain. The first was the little zombie girl killing her mother. The second was a group of zombies ravenously feasting on flesh. The talking head narrating this segment went on to describe how the effects were done. Most notably, they spoke about how slices of chicken and turkey breast were used to simulate flesh.
Guess who stopped eating chicken and turkey breast for a while…
Not long after, I was at a yard sale and I stumbled across a VHS copy of Night of the Living Dead. I asked my mom for a dollar so I could purchase it. She relented when I said it was a rare find (little did I know it was one of infinite copies – at this point the film had become public domain). I brought the tape home, filed it away on the shelf, and every once in a while I would sneak a peak at the cover art (a colorized screen shot of an approaching zombie horde), and then I’d get so freaked out that I’d put it back on the shelf and try to think happy thoughts.
To this day I have never watched that tape.
It wasn’t until I was maybe 13 or so that I ended up catching the entire movie on TV. I was a bit older and much more into the idea of getting scared on purpose, but it still shook me pretty hard. The next time I went to the video rental store I searched for Romero by name. Not only did he introduce me to zombies, not only did he program a love of horror into my DNA, but he marked my first trip down Auteur Theory Lane.
And that’s when I found out he was more than just a zombie slinger…
Do you have any Romero favorites outside of the Dead series??
Andy: I’ll never forget seeing Martin at the Exhumed 24 hour horrorthon in fall of 2015. This 1978 horror flick is about a boy who thinks that he’s a vampire, and goes around sedating women with narcotics and drinking their blood. But the world of Martin is not a horror movie world in which vampires, ghosts or zombies exist, and the film never really confirms for sure whether he’s a vampire or just a depraved young man. He moves in with his uncle, a super old school priest who is convinced that Martin is indeed a vampire- and sets out to try and cure the young man through fire and brimstone. It’s a character study of a tortured young man who does terrible things- and a total indictment of a church that offers judgment instead of help and compassion. Its got one of the most brutal endings in horror movie history. And it was filmed super cheap in the town of Braddock, PA, where I used to hang out and play shows with my old band some years back.
Then there’s Creepshow, which I have to admit I am not a big fan of. It’s a horror-comedy anthology film, made with the input of Stephen King- and while that should work on paper, horror-comedy is a delicate thing. I was talking the other day with our mutual pal Doogie Horner about the difficult balance of horror comedy, and how it doesn’t usually turn out well. Fortunately Edgar Wright came along many years later and kind of mastered it. I also watched it by myself in the middle of the day, so I would need to see it again.
What are your thoughts on the 2000’s Dead trilogy?
Dan: Add Martin to my list of shame. Damn, that does sound good. And I must use this opportunity to speak real quickly about my love for both Creepshow flicks. Stephen King is my favorite writer, and while the combination of his and Romero’s brands of horror is admittedly goofy, it is very much in tune with the EC comics which inspired it. I didn’t see either Creepshow until I was a teenager, but I’ve been a consummate Tales From the Crypt reader/watcher since long before I was old enough not to be deeply horrified by them. So for me, Creepshow tickled one of my favorite nerves in an anthology horror package. And anyone who knows me knows I LOVE anthology horror. And Creepshow 2, despite being the inferior entry, has The Raft, perhaps my favorite horror short ever made.
Try to sleep after watching The Raft. I dare you. I never don’t think of it when I’m in a body of water.
As for the 2000s Dead trilogy, I’m mostly a fan. My assessment is in full view of the knowledge that Romero had a difficult time finding funding for anything that didn’t say “of the Dead” in its title, meaning that I know he was compromising to some degree. Land of the Dead is my favorite, mostly because it came out during the height of the neo-zombie craze, which shows in the film’s style. The genre reboot clearly got Romero’s gears turning in a big way, while also gaining him some extra funding. As a zombie fan (and a passionate 21-year-old horror hipster of sorts) a piece of me loved that in a new world of fast zombies and kinetic filmmaking, old school zombies were still being represented.
I also like that Romero, who made so many of the zombie “rules” was now trying to expand upon them. Throughout the trilogy he morphed his hordes into less of a monster and more of a new, misunderstood species. The most notable development is in Survival of the Dead when the zombies develop a taste for horse flesh. Odd that in the midst of a swell of cynicism in horror, the Dead legacy should end on a high note. Human/zombie coexistence is now a possibility.
I know Diary is supposed to be bad, but as a found footage apologist, I appreciated the experiment. I do think I should revisit it. I don’t remember it much.
So uh, Monkey Shines. Probably my favorite Romero flick. Your thoughts??
Andy: Don’t feel bad about not seeing Martin– it’s hardly available anywhere. Not on any streaming services and physical media is rare. Which is part of what makes seeing it quite special. By the way, I’ll trade you a Martin shame card for a Monkey Shines shame card. Never seen it.
I enjoyed the latest Dead trilogy. Land of the Dead was a major viewing experience- I believe I saw it at the Union Station movie theatres in Washington D.C. that summer of 2005. You’re absolutely right that the zombie revitalization craze made it possible- and it also highlighted what made Romero special. In the end, while I love fast zombies, slow zombies simply are a more pure expression of Romero’s original artistic vision. That of the zombie as a mindless consumer. Fast zombies are not mindless consumers- they are basically an aggressive disease. While I do love the original trilogy, as a gorehound I admired how nasty Land of the Dead was. There’s a scene of a zombie pulling off a guy’s face like he’s pulling off a t-shirt over someone’s head. That image still haunts me a little. Way to go George Romero! That movie came out when I was 18, so it became a fairly regular re-watch in college.
Diary of the Dead– I remember enjoying it when I saw it in theaters. In college though, nothing zombie related could do wrong for me. There were several years where I had intense zombie nightmares. Something about the concept has always gotten to me. And if the massive success of The Walking Dead is any indication, it’s clearly struck a chord with America in general.
I finally caught up with Survival of the Dead a few years ago. It’s not bad! It’s not good either. I would still rather watch Romero do zombies more than just about anyone else.
One special thing about him is his Pennsylvania roots. Obviously the first two Dead films were set in our fair state- Martin and The Crazies take place on the outskirts of Pittsburgh as well. What do you think of Romero as a PA director? Does he do right by our state, or at least, capture it appropriately?
Dan: As a relatively new PA transplant, I’m not really equipped to say whether or not he does right by our lovely state, but the general consensus surrounding his work locally is one of pride, and I’m happy to throw my hat into that ring as well.
You should frontline Monkey Shines. Partially because it was created during Romero’s “bottle of vodka a day phase” (a term coined by Patton Oswalt — no idea if it’s true or not), and as such it is appropriately bonkers. In addition, the star went on to join and then subsequently leave the Church of Scientology. It also has the distinction of being a movie that many assume is based on the Stephen King story The Monkey when in reality it is based on another author’s work. Michael Stewart penned Monkey Shines and the script is a Romero original. Unlike the Stephen King tale, this has sparing supernatural elements (if any — it’s open to interpretation). Instead it’s a rather straightforward tale about a quadriplegic and his helper monkey, whose relationship grows violent and rotten. It also has probably THE best use of stuffed animals standing in for real animals in film history. Roger Ebert stated that somewhere in this two-hour mess is a 90 minute masterpiece. I agree, but I can’t imagine I’d be able to make a cut without breaking my own heart.
A later effort of Romero’s that brings me joy (despite being kinda lame) is Bruiser. It’s about a scorned man who one day wakes up with a white mask for a face. His new found anonymity grants him the freedom to seek petty revenge on those who have wronged him. Ever seen it??
Andy: It’s interesting how much George Romero and Stephen King were two peas in a pod. Both were as invested and passionate about Americana as they were about horror. I would go so far as to say that those two, along with John Carpenter, found a way to make our horror films feel distinctly American. Romero’s horror films were absolutely about our country’s fears and obsessions. Fear of the other. The need to consume. Fear of nuclear holocaust. His films are internationally revered yet I don’t think they translate as well to other cultures.
Dan: What a great way to put that. It’s perhaps what I like best about both King AND Romero: their love of Americana. It’s also what makes me lament the niche into which Romero was unwittingly carved. Had he been able to really break out of the “Of the Dead” franchise, who knows what social thematics he’d have explored? Can you imagine a horror movie based around police brutality seen through the lens of Romero? Or how about an environmental thriller? Heck, he’d probably have pumped out a hammier version of Get Out if given the opportunity! At a time where fear of the “other” is a highlighted concept (of which I believe we are witnessing the violent death throes), a storyteller like Romero could have easily channeled the unrest into some novel and intangible horror that many see on the news but only the unfortunate can experience. It probably also would’ve been syrupy with blood and guts.
That’s what I miss most about Romero and the era he represented: the ability to walk the line between exploitation and class flawlessly. Day of the Dead is perhaps my favorite example of this. It’s a disturbingly gruesome movie. It’s often hilariously funny. AND it speaks to the human condition in a raw, unfiltered way. So many horror movies lean heavily into (or purposefully away from) the gore and grue. Often they either aggressively embrace or completely fail to acknowledge the morality play inherent to the genre. Or they just go full meta and try to tear down genre conventions. It’s so rare that a horror flick can do all of these things in equal measure, and with both Romero and Wes Craven departed from our world, I wonder if we’ll see it again with such purity.
Andy: That’s a perfect way to end it!
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.