July 17-- George A. Romero died Sunday, and the undead weep for their most devoted caretaker. The social media realm has buzzed with fond tributes to the filmmaker, and reminders that the Bronx-born writer-director-producer, who lived until 77, created an entire body of work outside the movies begun in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead." Among them: "Martin"; "Creepshow" (love that E.G. Marshall cockroach saga); "The Crazies," earlier on, when the Vietnam War was still grinding through its paces and infecting commercial moviemaking in all sorts of bizarre ways.
Romero's relish for the right kind of gore, with the right kind of high/low wit, sprang from a sensibility indebted to the horror emporium EC Comics and "Tales from the Crypt." It's important to acknowledge the filmmaker's influences, and everything Romero accomplished. It's equally important to talk about the film that he made first, though, which is the film that made him in return.
I was afraid to see it, for years, though I saw bits of it without paying. Sunday nights when I was a kid we'd drive back to Racine, Wis., from dinner at my grandparents in Kenosha, my folks and my brother and I, in the Ford Fairlane wagon, the low-slung auto that looked vaguely like a hearse. We traveled north along Sheridan Road, which meant sneaking a few fleeting seconds of whatever was on the screen of the Mid-City Outdoor drive-in just past Kenosha.
One time it was "Angel in My Pocket," with Andy Griffith. Another it was a few seconds of something with stewardesses in it, and not much clothing. And once, equally scandalous, I saw a few seconds of "Night of the Living Dead," from the scene of a strangely contemplative feasting, as the undead "ghouls" of the story (the movie did not use the word "zombies") chewed on their victims in a weirdly lyric interlude.
In grubby 35mm black-and-white, shot in Butler County, Pa., a long way from Hollywood slickness or the usual monster movie fare of the time, it was scary as ever-loving hell. I saw it for real eventually, but not until college. When "Night of the Living Dead" first came out I was into "Laugh-in," not gross-out. Still, decades before "The Walking Dead" and so many other hungry knockoffs came to dinner, co-writer and director Romero's astounding debut feature snuck into a rattled nation's movie houses and drive-ins in October 1968 and the world hasn't quite been the same since.
Romero's debut carried no rating and, hence, no real warning of its peculiar intensity and considerable gore. The Motion Picture Association of America's Classification and Rating Administration hadn't yet been set up. So here was this movie, made on a spartan production budget of $114,000, about a zombie apocalypse, and for a few weeks kids of all ages were going, unsuspecting, and coming out traumatized. The trade publication Variety worried over "the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism."
Roger Ebert was there for an early Chicago screening. "The kids in the audience were stunned," he wrote. "There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying." At the same time, families were going en masse to see John Wayne in "The Green Berets," a movie only slightly less appalling (though not in the same way). When the MPAA ratings system began, "The Green Berets" was blessed with an all-ages G. And that was America and Hollywood in 1968. Romero's achievement, a harsh and troubling vision, had nothing to do with Hollywood. Then Hollywood, smelling a profitable maverick, came to Romero.
The year before "Night of the Living Dead," "Bonnie and Clyde" deployed a newly vivid and prolonged use of screen violence, in color, to send a mass audience out onto the sidewalk shellshocked and eerily quiet. Audiences at the end of Romero's film came out all mixed up, nerves jangling, jittery, shaken up in a different way. The movie wasn't "fun." Romero invented a zombie genre, more or less, and with its African-American leading man (Duane Jones) dying not at the hands of the undead, but at the hands of paranoid, rifle-toting rednecks, it all felt very close to the war at home in America.
A decade after "Night of the Living Dead," Romero made "Dawn of the Dead," and set it in a mall, and the result was one of the simplest, greatest concepts ever laid on a satiric horror movie. Blunt, wildly bloody, heavily into dismemberment and mindless indoor consumerism run amok, it was a lovely, spattery snapshot of the '70s, just as Romero's first "Living Dead" picture captured so much about its own time, place and national head-space.
On July 5, 11 days before he died, Romero tweeted: "#HappyIndependenceDay." His best movies came from a truly independent spirit and an imagination both sly and-appropriately enough-grave.
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