Monday, July 17, 2017

RIP, George Romero.

I remember the first time I saw George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.  It was Halloween night (in 1976, if I remember correctly) and the movie was showing on the Oregon Public Broadcasting station here in Portland.  My mom probably wasn't too happy with my desire to watch a film about the dead coming back to life and consuming the flesh of the living.  But she couldn't mount an argument against my viewing this horror classic, as it was on the same station that showed Sesame Street and other educational programming.

The film was shown unedited, so all the gore was left intact, including the corpse at the top of the stairs, the gut munching moments, and even the nude zombie backside.  It was intense, graphic and as harrowing as I imagined it being, based on the countless times I'd read about the film.  Yet, I was unnerving more by the dismal view of humanity Romero infused into his film.  Rather than band together in the face of a cataclysmic event, the human microcosm within the boarded up farmhouse unraveled further.  One could see the characters of Ben and Harry attempting to shore up their tribes, power bases from which they could exert control over the survivors. 

Putting aside the racial overtones of the final scenes, the ending was one of the most nihilistic I'd ever experienced.  Though the threat of the undead was considered under control, I knew Romero's message was that humanity was doomed by the shortcomings within our nature, ones we would never attempt to control.

I rented Dawn of the Dead the day it arrived at the local video store, and several times in the following months.  Though I didn't understand what Romero was saying at the time, as I was floored by the jaw dropping gore provided by Tom Savini, I knew SOMETHNG was there, and was happy to re-watch the film again the next day so I could focus more on the story and understand what Romero was saying.

As more films were released unrated in the early 80s, my local theater screened Day of the Dead and I was able to see my first Romero zombie feature on the big screen.  It was beautiful, grimy, gruesome and just as bleak as his previous films.  Though the last two films in his trilogy ended with the protagonists find a small refuge from the storm, the endings were pessimistic at heart.  Human existence was a constant struggle, not only from the obstacles placed throughout our life, but the internal struggle of not giving in to our baser nature.  And that battle would never end until we died.  Only as the dead, whether buried in the ground or roaming the Earth looking to feed, will the evil that dwells within us be extinguished.

This message was hammered home as Romero's zombies slowly evolved to reflect of the better parts of human nature.  Despite Dr. Logan's treating his star pupil as a pet, training him to behave with the promise of food, Bub shows both remorse and a desire for revenge, simple human emotions that might seem childlike, but are pure compared to the conflict between the human factions within the shelter.  In Land of the Dead, Big Daddy musters a zombie force and attacks the residents of Fiddler's Green, but not with the intent to conquer, or even feed.  His only desire is only to protect his zombie brethren, needlessly slaughtered by human aggressors.  Once again, the zombies are not the real threat.  Instead, our actions bring about the punishment inflicted by the zombies.  And we deserve what we reap.

But it isn't just his zombie films that I love to this day.  I remember introducing my friends at Western Washington University to his EC comic on celluloid, Creepshow.  It was a late night favorite in our dorm, even among my friends that hated horror films.  Martin remains one of my favorite modern vampire movies, a creepy look who might be a real bloodsucker or just a young man who's delusion is fueled by others.  I first watched Monkey Shines with my mother, who ended up admitting the movie was pretty damn freaky at times, which was high praise from her.  As for my father and brothers, it was Knightriders.  Somehow, I was able to introduce a George Romero film to most everyone I knew in the 80s.  And that felt good.

Like many others, I will remember George A. Romero as the father of the modern zombie, the man who changed the face of horror.  But I will also remember him as a unique filmmaker who transcended the limitations imposed upon him by a system seemingly designed to thwart his every move.  But rather than capitulate and work within those constrains, he sought to break through them and express his vision of the world, regardless of the cost to his career.

In an ideal world, he would be considered a national treasure, not a genre figure.  He was a true artist, uncompromising, relentless and fierce in his desire to not conform or make his audience feel comfortable in their theater seats.

RIP, Mr. Romero.  Rest assured we will never forget you.

And thank you for the zombies.

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