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George Romero's True Legacy Is Heart, Not "Brains"

Getty Images / Laura Lezza

Forget Hollywood zombies—what fans loved was the filmmaker's brave spirit.

“The Father of the Modern Zombie Film” passed away on Sunday. Of course, he was so much more than that, but legacies are tricky things. He’ll always be celebrated for his imagination and his many groundbreaking films, but he was also a father, a husband, a warm and welcoming friend, a patient teacher, a kind soul.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, an aspiring filmmaker my entire life, growing up beneath the comforting shadow of "Night of the Living Dead," arguably the most famous film to be made here—a small group of people trying to survive a shuffling horde of flesh-eating “ghouls” (the term “zombie” had not yet been applied), by genuine Pittsburgh independent filmmakers. It was staple viewing, and thanks to the infamous copyright error forcing it into the public domain, the movie was also ubiquitous on TV and VHS. It launched George’s career, spawning the sequels, "Dawn," "Day," "Land," "Diary," and "Survival." The latter three came late in his career, but growing up we horror fans devoured the first three and hoarded the scarce memorabilia, the Fangoria and Cinefantastique movie mags splashing the gory bits across the covers.

Between "Day" and his “comeback”, "Land," George created a number of fun and oftentimes terrifying films. He was one of the very first filmmakers to study the vampire story from outside the mythological trappings in "Martin," with John Amplas giving a marvelous turn to a troubled young man who suffers from a blood-drinking addiction. George’s elegiac "Knightriders," about a troupe of pseudo-Renaissance actors on motorcycles traveling to fairgrounds and staging jousting matches on motorcycles, is probably his most personal work, featuring standout performances by Ed Harris and George’s protégé, Tom Savini, who’d created all the imaginatively-disgusting gore effects for "Dawn," "Martin," and "Day."

I could go on about how Hollywood co-opted his flesh-eating ghouls time and again without paying tribute. Indeed, at the very time "The Walking Dead" became a money-making phenomenon for AMC and comic creator Robert Kirkman, Romero struggled to find financing for zombie films of his own. When the expensive remake of his seminal "Dawn of the Dead" splashed across theater screens across the country, his own modestly-budged "Land of the Dead" could find only limited distribution. The irony was only lost on the suits in charge. The man who created the demand for the remake couldn’t find cash for his own unique ideas. There was more value to be found in the rehash, not the continuation.

More on George Romero (1940 - 2017)

But it was "Land" that showed me who the man was through the eyes of those who loved him. My own personal encounters with the gentleman were largely professional. I’d see him at conventions, having known his manager for many years, having shared mutual friends for most of my own career. My first personal introduction came via his son, Cameron, with whom my wife and I had developed a professional relationship that had burgeoned into a friendship. At a Pittsburgh horror convention, where George and Cameron were promoting a unique proposed horror-musical titled "The Diamond Dead," Cam embraced us warmly and said, “This is my Dad.” George treated us like we were longtime friends of his own. But we were quickly interrupted by the demands of his time and from the long line of other people desperate to meet their hero.

In 2005, my wife Amy and I got to participate in the biggest love letter any son has ever given his father. Cameron and his business partners threw a gala for the premiere of George’s latest, his return to the zombie genre he’d helped create and certainly developed. It was well-known that "Land" hadn’t been his first choice for a career return—he’d tried unsuccessfully for years to develop a ghost story titled "Black Mariah," and "Land" was from a script titled "Dead Reckoning," paired down from its originally apocalyptic imagining. But it was still a huge deal for fans, who by now numbered thousands of other filmmakers including the British inheritors, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (both of whom appear in the final film as very recognizable zombies).

Cameron wanted Pittsburgh to know how great a debt the horror film industry owed to his father. Over the course of a very few weeks, Cam and his partners contacted every major industry player they could think of. For the premiere at the opulent Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, ushers were made up as rotting ghouls and a red carpet was rolled out for the visiting dignitaries, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Pegg, Wright, Savini and his own made-good prodigy Greg Nicotero (now one of the principal show-runners on "The Walking Dead"), effects artist and director Robert Kurtzman, and, later, basketball great Michael Jordan. The auditorium was filled front to back to balcony with giddy fans. When George was introduced, he received a standing ovation.

And it was humbling. Nearly three thousand people from all walks of life—fans, pros, admirers—standing and applauding for a humble man in comically-large eye glasses, a gentle, smiling grandfatherly type who’d spent most of his life trying to figure out new and spectacular ways for people to die. A man who knew that horror without content was just shock. His characters suffered great losses, but always something else was going on. "Martin" was more about untreated schizophrenia and xenophobia than it was vampirism; "Knightriders" was about living up to impossibly-high personal standards of righteousness and community at great risk to self and safety; his classic ghoul trilogy is about the degradation of a society ill-equipped for cataclysmic change—the zombies could have been a metaphor for damned near anything and everything and critics have been making arguments for and against since 1969. This isn’t even to mention his frequent collaboration with horror author and phenomenon Stephen King, particularly their own love-letter to EC Comics, the garish four-colored anthology film, "Creepshow," which many hold as their favorite Romero film. There are also "The Dark Half" (another King adaptation), the creepy "Monkey Shines" (about a quadriplegic held at the mercy of his psychotic helper monkey—it’s scarier than it sounds), and his most bizarre and least accessible "Bruiser," about the ego-crushing world of magazine publishing (possibly, the film is fairly esoteric and was not well-received).

In the end, Hollywood had determined that a remake of "The Crazies" would be a better financial move than hiring the original director to do something unique. Romero would struggle hard even to get money for the “found footage” zombie film, "Diary of the Dead" (which felt more like the master aping those who’d come after him); his final film, "Survival of the Dead," plays more like a western than anything else, where the zombies are the victims this time, caught in a feud between two families. More than one critic has pointed out that it seemed Romero was far more interested in the familial interplay—the “Western” elements—than he was in doing yet another chapter of the shuffling, shambling corpses now developing a sentience of their own. His creations were still evolving, even if the genre itself was starting to stagnate. Without the metaphor, zombies are just targets or a biting mass of threat. Romero gave them back their souls.

None of that mattered in 2005. Only the applauding throng, there because a son loved his father more than he could express through words. They’d had a complicated relationship, but even that didn’t matter during that moment, with George on stage, blushing from the applause.

As filmmakers, we couldn’t help but feel George’s influence. In our first film, we payed direct and unsubtle homage to "Night of the Living Dead," shooting our opening sequence in black and white to best emulate one of the most famous openings in history: siblings Johnny and Barbara visiting the graves of their mother, only to be beset by a gaunt walking corpse, the late Bill Hinzman. But as human beings, we saw George A. Romero the fellow human being, the elder statesman whose art had affected the uncountable. Whatever Hollywood had taken from him and never gave back, nothing was missing from him that night. He never snubbed a fan, never accepted a compliment with arrogance. People who knew him better will be paying tribute over these next few difficult days of shock and grief; I only knew him as an artist and a man whose son idolized him.

And I feel grateful enough for that.

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