Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When We Dead Awaken: George Romero (1940-2017)

Filmmaker George A. Romero died this past Sunday, July 16, at the age of 77.

Everyone who has had a nodding acquaintance with the popular culture of the past quarter-century or so knows what zombies are. Zombies, which are often called “walkers” or “the infected” or just anything but “zombies,” are people who have died only to be resurrected as inarticulate, humanoid beasts. Decaying but still animate, they are ferociously hungry, and they feast, cannibalistically, on those still living. If they kill someone and leave enough of the corpse intact to rise and stagger about, that person too becomes a hungry zombie. Once a zombie plague has begun, either because of a new fast-spreading virus or a scientific experiment gone wrong or for no detectable reason at all, the countdown to apocalypse is well under way; as the Lord of the Underworld puts it in one of William Messmer-Loebs’s graphic novels about the Greek philosopher Epicurus, when the dead and the living go to war, the living always lose. Once transformed, zombies may make a beeline for those they loved in their former lives, either because of some innate tracking system or just because of their close proximity, but they cannot be reasoned with and have no sentimental feelings, or any feelings of any kind except hunger; the living are nothing but a food source to them. And they can be deterred only through complete physical annihilation – the destruction of their brains, along with as much else of them as possible – which can make for some pretty gory filmmaking. We know all this thanks to Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 horror movie made in Pittsburgh by the director George A. Romero and his screenwriting partner, John Russo, on a budget of $144,000.

Like many young boys who unaccountably did not become serial murderers, I grew up infatuated with monsters and monster movies. Being raised in a rural area before the advent of streaming and without the benefit of even cable and home video, I didn’t get to see most of the classic American monster movies until I was in twenties, so, as a kid, I spent a lot of time reading about them. I was interested in the different kinds of monsters, in their respective strengths and weaknesses, and had a practical scientific interest in what to do should one of them come barging through the door one night. Scholars and fans ranging from Carlos Clarens (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film) to editor Forrest J Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland) provided a thorough body of research from which one could learn that Frankenstein’s Monster was poignant and tragic and might leave you alone if you left him alone, that vampires were sexy and cunning but could be held at bay by the sight of a cross, that mummies are vengeful and lovesick and slow-moving, and that werewolves are tortured souls who have no control over what they become when the moon is full. But when it is and they sprout hair and claws and go into full berserker mode, they’re propulsive killing machines that cannot be reasoned with, and that will rip out your throat with their teeth and disembowel you with their bare hands. Unable to imagine any way that my ten-year-old self might survive a werewolf attack, I resolved that if one ever got inside the house, I would spare myself terror and pain and deny it the satisfaction of the kill by locking myself in the bathroom and drinking bleach. As Warren Zevon once put it in one of his songs that does not mention werewolves, there ain’t much to country living.

I was aware that there were also monsters called zombies, and I was eager to bone up on another potential source for fresh nightmares. But what I learned about classic movie zombies, I was soon disheartened. They were the put-upon working stiffs of the monster world, shambling, colorless thugs with no free will or agenda of their own. The classic movie zombie, seen to best advantage in the compellingly seamy Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie (1932) and the 1943 I Walked with a Zombie (which producer Val Lewton conceived as Jane Eyre with Voodoo chants), is just a tool of whatever human necromancer is pulling its strings. Other classic monsters, including King Kong and even the lower-rent Creature from the Black Lagoon, inspire audience empathy. People sympathize with them as misunderstood outcasts and unloved freaks, or envy them as ruthless celebrants of their lustiest antisocial urges. Zombies were too colorless even to feel sorry for. Another Vietnam-era zombie film, Bob Clark’s Deathdream, has perhaps the first undead protagonist with feelings and some tragic stature, but that movie remains a one-of-a-kind outlier on the landscape of modern horror. Night of the Living Dead permanently altered pop culture by liberating zombies from the yoke of the Voodoo taskmaster and turning them into free agents. 

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Night of the Living Dead is an exploitation movie made in the shadows, and it’s also a demonstration of what a tawdry little genre movie can turn into if it’s made by someone who thinks on his feet and takes full advantage of not having a boss who can say no to him. Romero always said that he hadn’t written the lead role – an intelligent, resourceful man who takes charge among a small group of people sheltered in a barricaded house when the hungry dead go on the march – for an African-American actor, but cast Duane Jones (Ganja and Hess, Losing Ground) because he “simply gave the best audition.” But Romero wasn’t na├»ve enough to not notice the way Jones’s skin color gave a special tension to the scenes in which the house’s inhabitants bicker over their best plan for survival, and the unholy edge it added to the final scene, when his character, having survived the night, is shot down by a “posse” of white lawmen and hunters. Critic Richard McGuinness wrote that the film seemed to have been “made in a state of frenzy,” and a lot of hungry young directors who would have been willing to push the gore envelope and strive for that kind of frenzy would have looked at Duane Jones and rethought the final grainy photo montage of his body being handled with grappling hooks and loaded with other corpses atop a pyre to be burned. It’s like a news magazine spread on the aftermath of a lynching.

Night of the Living Dead's grimly heartfelt depiction of America turning on itself and tearing itself limb from limb, the "frenzy" McGuinness wrote admiringly about, is what makes it endure as a snapshot of its times – a snapshot that periodically seems as timely as an unhinged old man’s latest tweets from the Oval Office. (Decades after it was made, A. O. Scott sees a metaphor for Barack Obama’s presidency in the fate of Jones’s character: “A calm and competent African-American saves the white people from their own rashness and stupidity… and is destroyed.”) What makes it and Romero’s other best films endure as movies is the director’s showmanship, which gives the material a sick, thrillingly demented lift that transcends the very real limits of Romero’s technique as a filmmaker and the uneven quality of his casts. Romero was a real independent moviemaker – or, to use a term that has fallen out of use, a regional filmmaker, who for most of his career was reluctant to stray outside his base in Pittsburgh, let alone use his films as a calling card for Hollywood work. (Romero didn’t make his first studio movie until the late ‘80s, when he did a couple of films for Orion Pictures. This Hollywood sojourn didn’t go very well for him; Monkey Shines was recut without his consent or even his knowledge, and the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half, probably the best-acted of all Romero’s movies, was stuck on the shelf for two years due to Orion’s bankruptcy.)

Romero, who modeled his anthology film Creepshow and the syndicated TV series he created, Tales from the Darkside, on the four-color moral tales told in EC horror comics, loved those comics for the punchy, gory pungency that got publisher William M. Gaines hauled in front of a Senate committee and led to the creation of a “Comics Code Authority” designed to drive him out of business. (Gaines said that one of the CCA’s first acts of business was to issue a list of words that were banned from approved comic books, and that every word Gaines used in the titles of his comics was on it.) The scenes in Night of the Living Dead of zombies scarfing down what are (convincingly) meant to be fresh human organs: this is what you get when capitalism gives comic books like those to a smart, gifted child, and the agents of repression swiftly take them away and put him in the position of dreaming about them until he grows up and gets the chance to fill the void. Romero was so committed to this brand of juicy, gleeful nihilism that he turned down a distribution deal with A.I.P. because it would have meant softening the gore and sweetening the ending.

A scene from Dawn of the Dead (1978).

This kind of – oh, hell, let’s throw caution to the wind and just call it artistic commitment – helped make Romero’s unheralded little gorefest a midnight movie attraction that ran for years, establishing itself as a modern American perennial while flying under polite society’s radar. For those who did get on his wavelength, his achievements were made all the more lovable because their disreputability extended to the mainstream critical community. Throughout the '70s and '80s, Romero’s movies were spottily distributed, their release barely acknowledged in the press. Aside from the ones that joined Night of the Living Dead as hits on the midnight circuit the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead and Martin, an extended, ingenious riff on vampire mythology and the dangerous, dementing power of popular art – his ‘70s movies quickly slipped into the memory hole. The most mainstream attention Night received at the time was a Roger Ebert piece that was reprinted in Reader’s Digest.

In it, the future Pulitzer-winning TV star reports on seeing Night with a Saturday matinee audience of kids who thought they were going to get to see something “scary” but, you, know, fun. “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them,” Ebert tsked, reaching for the smelling salts. “I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater.” (Ebert, who had a history of backtracking whenever it appeared that he had come down too hard on something that had been voted into the pantheon by a great many others, later championed Romero’s work and claimed that he had not meant to denigrate Night such things were apparently fine just so long as, you know, they could be properly regulated – but his traumatized tone was so close to the attacks on comic books from twenty years earlier that it must have made Romero want to hug himself.) A decade later, New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin wrote a four-paragraph “review” that consisted of boasting that she “was able to sit through only the first fifteen minutes of Dawn of the Dead, George Romero's follow-up to Night of the Living Dead, which Mr. Romero directed in black and white in 1968. Since then, he has discovered color. Perhaps horror-movie buffs will consider this an improvement.”  Dawn of the Dead enlarged Night’s canvas in the most ironic way imaginable – this time, the heroes fleeing the zombie apocalypse take refuge not in a house but in the world’s largest shopping mall, whose exterior is soon ringed with zombies drawn there by (as one of the survivors speculates) “a kind of instinct… This was an important place in their lives.”

It was Dawn of the Dead that really turned Romero’s consumerist zombies into what people call a trope on the internet, infiltrating the culture and spreading so far and wide that it’s familiar even to people who’ve never seen a Romero movie, only offshoots such as The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later and burlesques like Shaun of the Dead and Fido. (The movie released between 1968 and 1978 that most clearly shows the influence of Night of the Living Dead is Romero’s own 1973 The Crazies, which takes the final moments of Night the ones that reveal that the government forces coming to save us are no less a threat than the monsters – and runs with it.) Romero had hoped to round things off with a spectacular third chapter, Day of the Dead, planned as “the Gone with the Wind of zombie films.” Unfortunately, Romero had become just famous enough that it was getting harder for him to work in the shadows, and the mid-1980s was a terrible time for people trying to push open up new trails in popular culture on anything remotely approaching a grand scale, and the film’s backers crippled the production by slashing its original budget in half when Romero refused to guarantee that the final results would be sufficiently restrained to receive an R rating. Night of the Living Dead itself had been allowed to slip into the public domain through a clerical oversight, which meant that Romero didn’t get to cash in on its second (or third) life as a home-video collectible. Perhaps as a result, he spent much of the last several years of his career trying to monetize his best-known creation through new Dead movies, comic books, video games, and remakes of both Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies. (Romero had no involvement in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.) Overall, the effect was kind of sad: reviving the dead, once a source of fun and inspiration for Romero, had become an investment, and a job.

Since George Romero died on July 16, a lot of ink has been spilled in tribute to his role as the father of the modern zombie movie. There have also been a few conscientiously huffy pieces complaining that this reduces his legacy by ignoring the “ideas” that gave his movies their socially redeeming qualities and his status as a maverick independent, not to mention those films of his that don’t have anything to do with zombies. There’s a point here, but it’s a point most likely to be made by people who don’t understand what a thrilling accomplishment it is for a horror-movie lover to invent a new kind of monster, one that has such resonance that a few decades later, it feels as if it’s always been around. Lots of other people have made good movies; before he died, George Romero was just about the only filmmaker alive who’d done that.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

1 comment:

  1. A good assessment of Romero's career and influence on populer cuture.