Remembering George A. Romero by Stephen Romano

The heroes.

The great heroes of our lives.

They all seem to be leaving us now.

It’s all so strange.

In my short life, I have never experienced a time such as the one we are living in now—where so many of the people who have inspired us have been called home at the same time. Both young and old, timely and untimely, these passings remind us that we are human, that we are not immortal, that nothing human can truly stay. And then comes the loss. The pain. The hurt in our hearts that makes our eyes flood and our lives cold and empty. But in this moment, we must remember something important: What these great people leave WITH US is what really DOES makes them—and US—immortal: the experiences we shared with them, the legacies they left behind. Most importantly, we must honor them with the stories of our OWN lives. Because we were touched, influenced and shaped by those legacies. I write these words now in a bit of a daze—it’s been not even a year since I eulogized Wes Craven, only a bit longer since I mourned the passing of my good friend Angus Scrimm. But here’s the thing: These don’t have to be dark times. Our lives needn’t be cold and empty. The great heroes of our lives are not really dead.

As long as we remember them.

So let me tell you how my life was changed forever by George A. Romero. Please take this with you. And know that it was his gift to all of us. As are your stories. And the stories our children will tell.

I was 13 years old. It was winter of 1983. I sat in the smallest auditorium of a tiny little multiplex in the parking lot of the Alameda shopping mall in Houston, Texas. I was there with my friend Noah. We were gonna see Dawn of the Dead for the first time. I felt like a man about to be shot out across the universe on a cannonball. That’s really what it felt like. It was like some kind of joyful dread mixed with the high excited anticipation of an explorer on the edge of everything. At that time, I didn’t know from zombies. Nobody did, really. I had never even seen Night of the Living Dead. All I knew was that this sequel film was apparently so gory that the Motion Picture Association of America wouldn’t even give it a rating. That was where the feeling of dread came from. Up until that night, the very idea of gore in movies was replant to me. Oh sure, I had loved ALIEN. Oh yeah, I had been obsessed with Halloween. But this? This was something else altogether. This was an invasion of cannibal freaks who ripped you apart in the street. This was blood and guts supreme. This was being shot out of a fucking cannon, people.

But the real shock that night?

Beyond, I mean, being so blown away by a single motion picture that I was finally moved to study the craft of special effects, filmmaking and screenwriting and BECOME ONE OF THESE MAGICIANS MYSELF ONE DAY? Yeah, beyond all of that, my friends.

What was the real shock?

The real shock came from knowing I had seen something that defied classification and extended beyond the confines of its genre to become something more than a simple horror film—or a simple any kind of film for that matter. In fact, there was nothing simple about this at all. I had been shown an adventure movie, a complex human drama, a rollicking comedic farce, a savage cautionary tale—and, yeah, a pretty kick ass horror film—all wrapped up in some kind of berserk freewheeling comic book freakout which still managed to be so intellectual on the edge of its own infamy that every punch to the gut came in under the radar, below the belt, and straight to the heart. And every image stayed with me. Every. Single. One. Mostly, I remembered those exterior shots of the shopping mall, that vast consumer temple where all the zombies went to worship what they could no longer understand. And the zombies . . .

The zombies in Dawn of the Dead were the most terrifying monsters I had ever seen. They were clumsy. They were idiots. They fell down stairs and bumped into each other. They were also unpredictable. Weirdly human. And highly dangerous when not taken seriously. To this day, they are the most real zombies for me. The most utterly convincing in every way. They key to that may be that they actually are real people from real life, doing what they “normally” do through a fractured lens—but the weird Technicolor tempera paint blood and bizarre green makeup used by Tom Savini somehow managed to combine with Romero’s zany camerawork and film shredding editing style, along with the surreal mash up of music on the soundtrack, to power one incredible sweep of unified cinematic language that lined up in that film—and that film ALONE—for one brief, exciting, perfect moment in the history of the medium. After Dawn of the Dead, nothing was ever the same. For me and the world.

Since then the zombies have gotten cooler looking, maybe even more “realistic” in terms of makeup and gore . . . and there will always be “Bub” . . . but there will never be zombies like these again. Nor will there be a moment in film history when an apocalypse survivor looks off into space as the world ends on TV in front of her and finally actually realizes that she IS an apocalypse survivor, whispering “It’s really all over isn’t it?” And just then, we hear a GUNSHOT from the next room, as her comrade dies . . .

That is my favorite moment in all of movies.

When I met George Romero for the first time many, many years later, I told him about that scene and how it had affected me. I told him how his film made me want to tell stories. I told him about how I had been dropped off at the mall for that midnight showing of DAWN in 1983 and how I emerged at half past 2 in the morning a changed human being. My friend Noah and I had been dropped off there that night by a buddy who later got wasted and passed out, leaving us stranded in the cold after the movie was over. We waited there until 4 in the morning to be rescued. We almost froze to death. But all I could think about that night . . . the ONLY THING that was on my mind . . .

Was that mall. Those zombies. That adventure that had changed everything.

I got to tell George that.

Truthfully, I have always been wary of meeting my heroes. You don’t want things ruined, you know? I never made an attempt to seek out and befriend Romero, as others who are paying tribute here did. But I also never missed a chance to “rap” with him when I could. That first time was at a Fangoria convention in 1998. He sat with me in the bar for two hours and talked to me about everything. He was so fucking cool that he wouldn’t even let me buy him a drink—though I downed more than a few and offered many times. He kept getting his assistant to buy him scotches, and I noticed he’d taken up smoking, after being quit for years. He told me the reason he’d started up with the cigarettes again was all the Hollywood runaround. “I’ve had so many great years financially since The Dark Half,” he said. “But I just never get to make movies anymore.” That was a dark time for him—when he was being paid millions to write scripts that never saw the light of day. One of them was for Tarzan of the Apes. I sat, transfixed, listening to so much wisdom and frustrated genius and good humor flow from him. And I could tell that he was continuing to offer these pieces of himself to a total stranger—only because he knew it meant something to me. I’ll never forget that. I shook his hand. I called him George. I gave him a copy of my first novel and he asked me with a big friendly grin: “So who owns the movie rights?” Amazing.

My next encounter with George was strange and I will keep it mostly to myself—but it was also kind of amazing. Steve Barton from Dread Central was there that night. It was the world premiere of Survival of the Dead here in Austin where I live. This time George had come to my town. Even more amazing.

And hey, Steve. Know you’re feeling this one. So am I. Love you, brother. You too, Debi.

The last time I met George was probably the best time. It was at the first annual ZOMBCON in 2010, where we were both guests. By then I was a professional screenwriter and author, with the respect of my peers. I got to hang out with Chuck Palahniuk that weekend also and we talked about our upcoming books. I rode to the airport with John Amplas from Martin and he asked me to get him work on my next movie. I sat next to Vince Neil on the plane home and said absolutely nothing to him. You don’t want things ruined, you know?

It was kind of a magic weekend, really.

My final time with George was filled with laughs and good humor. I told him again how that scene in Dawn had changed me. He nodded and told me thanks. I asked him if he could make any movie right now, what would it be? He said Tarzan of The Apes. I almost cried right in front of him.

I wanted to tell him I would not be an artist without him.

I wanted to tell him Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders were the greatest movies ever made by human hands.

But he knew what I wanted to say.

Thousands of people like me—millions, even—had already said it with their words, their eyes, and their work, which will live on long after his death. After all of our deaths. This makes me more glad than I can adequately express in words. So I will stop here. And please know that I have told you all these things with a heavy heart—yet a heart that is full and rich and grateful . . . for it was touched and will always be touched by the Great Heroes of our Lives.

Thanks, George.

You are our hero.

You belong to all of us.

George A. Romero

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Stephen Romano

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