In the summer of 1980 I was nine years old. My parents and I were visiting my Uncle Gus and Aunt Virginia in the small Ohio town of Massillon. One day, quite unexpectedly, my mom announced that we were going to visit my brother Taso, who was working nearby. I idolized my brother because he had accomplished an incredible, impossible feat: he had appeared in a MOVIE.
To me, at that time, this was beyond miraculous. When I was a kid, movies were made by gods. Movies came from somewhere else, distilled from a dream-world akin to Valhalla or Olympus where people like Sinbad or Luke Skywalker could slay dragons, battle saber-toothed tigers, or grapple with Imperial stormtroopers and Tusken Raiders. They could zoom between planets or battle armies of skeletons or dodge dinosaurs on Skull Island. As an ordinary little boy, it was my lot to sit in a darkened theater and wish that I could escape my humdrum existence; that I could somehow slip sideways through the screen and join the heroes in some fantastic adventure.
The movie my brother had worked on was called Dawn of the Dead.
At nine, I didn’t yet have any idols. My personal pantheon consisted of a series of vacant niches in my mental cathedral, newly-constructed altars waiting for deities worthy of mounting the empty pedestals. Colonel Steve Austin, the Amazing Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk were awesome, but they didn’t count. They were from the other side of the screen, the magic side. Idols had to be real people you could look up to. I had strict standards.
Thanks to a garish new magazine called Fangoria I learned the names of the sacred figures who had taken up residence in my mental shrine; foremost among these names were GEORGE ROMERO and TOM SAVINI. By association with his best friend from college (who turned out to be Tom Savini himself) my big brother had somehow breached the veil of the silver screen and become – to me, at least – a sort of demigod.
Alas, my parents determined that I was too young to actually see Dawn of the Dead. I never did see it in a theater, though I became intimately familiar with the story by reading and re-reading the novelization, a copy of which Taso had brought home. In 1979 I definitely used the word “zombie” more often than any other kid at my grade level.
And now, Mom explained in the car, Taso was working on another movie by George Romero.
“Really?? Where? When?” I asked, stunned.
“Now!” Mom replied cheerfully. “We’re going to see him working on the movie.”
My synapses fried. I knew from a blurb in Fangoria that Romero was working on a picture with a medieval theme, tentatively titled Knights…but it never occurred to me that regular people like us could go and watch a movie being made.
Later this summer, Mom would finally relent and take me to see another movie upon which my brother had worked, Friday the 13th. That one was fun – sort of like a 90-minute summertime Pepsi commercial with a creative murder thrown in every ten minutes – but it wasn’t in the same league as the Romero story. George Romero didn’t just throw garden implements at horny teenagers; he built entire worlds and then filled them with monsters.
After a 90-minute car ride during which I could hardly contain myself, we pulled into the turnout of a little clubhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside, a place called the Outdoor Life Lodge. Scattered around the area were several large trucks full of equipment. Nearby stood some Renaissance-style tents and a row of parked motorcycles with metal shields mounted on the handlebars. As we climbed out of the car – or leapt out of the car, in my case – we saw Taso approaching, his hair longer than I’d ever seen it, wearing a bright red t-shirt with a phrase spelled out in iron-on lettering: MINOR MANIAC.
Ambling along beside him was a very tall man, a bearded giant with longish, graying hair and a big toothy grin. I heard him chuckle as they drew near – a rich, hearty laugh that seemed to emanate from the very ground beneath his feet… a Tom Bombadil laugh.
He extended his hand. “Hi! I’m George,” he said. My small hand was engulfed in his as this big guy greeted me like a friendly uncle I’d never met before. I stammered an introduction, amazed that this person would stop making his movie long enough to greet us like family.
Uncle Gus had fun checking out the motorbikes; Mom snapped photos with her little 110mm camera, most of which ended up featuring the end of her finger. Aunt Virginia chatted with Taso’s girlfriend Patti, who had a featured role in the movie as a rebellious teenager.
Me? I followed George around, asking questions like a pesky nephew. He chuckled again and hunkered down to my level.
“Go over and sit in the King’s throne,” he said, pointing to a pair of magnificent wooden chairs on a nearby dais. “That’ll be a great picture!” So I did. I’d never met a grown-up who seemed so much like another kid. He was instantly my best buddy.
It was five years before I met him again, though I followed his exploits religiously – zealously, in fact – in the pages of Fangoria and Fantastic Films and Cinefantastique. Occasionally I’d get lucky and catch an appearance on TV when a new movie was being released. He was considered something of an anomaly at the time, an outsider who was more than happy to avoid becoming entrenched in the Hollywood jungle; another two decades would pass before he was recognized as a legitimate artist.
For a man who has always invariably been described as either a “gentle giant” or a “big teddy bear,” George had a rapier-sharp wit, a keen sense of social observation, and a healthy mistrust of the establishment. Poking the status quo was what he did best, and he did it with a big grin and a mischievous gleam in his eye.
In later years I would learn the details of his youth and how they informed this outlook: a middle-class childhood in the Bronx; inheriting his father’s artistic sensibilities; his propensity for spending time in front of a movie screen instead of at parties or dance halls. This was a young man who, having rented a tux and made all the necessary arrangements, skipped his own senior prom to sit through the same movie twice in a row by himself.
Accustomed to watching his world through this filter, George’s greatest gift became his ability to make his audience identify and empathize with the outsider. By the end of Dawn of the Dead we pity the poor zombies, who only want to window-shop. We understand King Billy’s outrage at the sleazy commercial interests that threaten the tranquil existence of his troupe of jousters. We come to love Martin, despite the fact that this handsome young man harbors dark and terrible secrets. George Romero knew and felt what it was like to be different; to be a big, awkward kid with a “spick” name who occasionally overcompensated for his innate shyness by acting like Cyrano de Bergerac or Jimmy Cagney.
His ability to visually and thematically communicate this perspective makes him more than a schlock director of exploitation movies; it makes him – and he’d cringe and laugh his big hearty laugh if he were to read this, but it’s true, dammit – an auteur. He was an artist who had something to say, and his films (and his paintings, drawings, and fiction) said it for him. Andrew Sarris recognized this decades before the mainstream decided that zombies were an acceptable subject for prime-time television.
An unrepentant iconoclast, George was the John Ford of horror, though he bristled at being confined to one genre (and was the antithesis of Ford’s tough-guy public image). In later years, his sad refrain was that he couldn’t get a producer excited about a project unless it included zombies. In the 1990s he was resigned to dancing on a string held by the studio system he’d rejected for so long, writing draft after draft of one story or another – some of which were blatant knock-offs of his own material, like Resident Evil – only to have the carpet pulled out from under his feet time and again.
And yet he remained essentially optimistic. Despite the knocks he’d taken, he was always upbeat, his sense of irony as keen as ever. At one point in the early 2000s, George took a phone call from John Milius, who expressed an interest in making “one of those Return of the Living Dead movies.” George politely explained, “That’s not my thing, man,” not the slightest bit perturbed – or surprised – that the guy clearly hadn’t done the slightest bit of homework before making the call.
My favorite moments with George were the small ones; the moments where that big kid I’d met in 1980 came shimmering to the surface. Discussing our mutual love of film scores, for instance, or picking apart the latest cinematic travesty. “The Blair Witch Project was brilliant,” he said to me once. “No budget, tight storytelling, lean and mean. And look what they did with the sequel! They completely went in the opposite direction! How can you screw up something so simple?” (I’m paraphrasing; the actual conversation included many more expletives.)
In 1998, George, his assistant (and my friend) J.B. and I drove to Easton, PA to edit a proof-of-concept video, a tongue-in-cheek “reality show” about professional wrestling. During the course of that long weekend a small moment touched my heart and lodged there forever.
In this strange house, where the three of us were spending the weekend with the guys who were doing the cutting on computers (George’s first experience with digital editing), I found a guitar in the next room and started strumming a tune I’d taught myself years before: the “Bravery” theme from Knightriders, the movie I’d watched George and his beloved family of collaborators making nearly twenty years before.
I played slowly and quietly, taking pains not to disturb the editing process in the other room, which had already been underway for something like ten hours. I’d needed a distraction, a change of pace. George, though, had stayed awake for something like 48 hours while the rest of us took turns sleeping and cutting. This was his process, I’d heard. People would describe with awe how he could stay awake for literally days on end until he was happy with what he’d cut together. This new process must have been incredibly frustrating for him, unable to actually hold the footage in his hand, having to instruct the techies where and when to make their virtual splices. Still, he never lost his patience.
He heard what I was playing. Without turning his head, he spoke softly.
“Faster, Chris.” I could see his foot tapping in time to my strumming.
That he would take the time to recognize and acknowledge what I was playing even as he was concentrating on his own project moved me nearly to tears. Here, again, was that friendly giant, the one who made you feel like family regardless of whatever else was going on. Here was the guy who stayed awake into the wee hours of the morning responding personally to every post on his online bulletin board, who responded to a silly parody of Kubla Khan I’d posted there by writing a silly poem of his own about me.
The big-hearted knight for whom creativity was both his shield and his sword.
I can’t imagine a world without George. I miss him already.
– Christian Stavrakis