George A. Romero redefined horror
George A. Romero died Sunday, and the undead weep for their most devoted caretaker. The social media realm has buzzed with fond tributes to the filmmaker, and reminders that the Bronx-born writer-director-producer, who lived until 77, created an entire body of work outside the movies begun in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead.” Among them: “Martin"; “Creepshow” (love that E.G. Marshall cockroach saga); “The Crazies,” earlier on, when the Vietnam War was still grinding through its paces and infecting commercial moviemaking in all sorts of bizarre ways.
Romero’s relish for the right kind of gore, with the right kind of high/low wit, sprang from a sensibility indebted to the horror emporium EC Comics and “Tales from the Crypt.” It’s important to acknowledge the filmmaker’s influences, and everything Romero accomplished. It’s equally important to talk about the film that he made first, though, which is the film that made him in return.
I was afraid to see it, for years, though I saw bits of it without paying. Sunday nights when I was a kid we’d drive back to Racine, Wis., from dinner at my grandparents in Kenosha, my folks and my brother and I, in the Ford Fairlane wagon, the low-slung auto that looked vaguely like a hearse. We traveled north along Sheridan Road, which meant sneaking a few fleeting seconds of whatever was on the screen of the Mid-City Outdoor drive-in just past Kenosha.
One time it was “Angel in My Pocket,” with Andy Griffith. Another it was a few seconds of something with stewardesses in it, and not much clothing. And once, equally scandalous, I saw a few seconds of “Night of the Living Dead,” from the scene of a strangely contemplative feasting, as the undead “ghouls” of the story (the movie did not use the word “zombies”) chewed on their victims in a weirdly lyric interlude.
In grubby 35mm black-and-white, shot in Butler County, Pa., a long way from Hollywood slickness or the usual monster movie fare of the time, it was scary as ever-loving hell. I saw it for real eventually, but not until college. When “Night of the Living Dead” first came out I was into “Laugh-in,” not gross-out. Still, decades before “The Walking Dead” and so many other hungry knockoffs came to dinner, co-writer and director Romero’s astounding debut feature snuck into a rattled nation’s movie houses and drive-ins in October 1968 and the world hasn’t quite been the same since.
Romero’s debut carried no rating and, hence, no real warning of its peculiar intensity and considerable gore. The Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration hadn’t yet been set up. So here was this movie, made on a spartan production budget of $114,000, about a zombie apocalypse, and for a few weeks kids of all ages were going, unsuspecting, and coming out traumatized. The trade publication Variety worried over “the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.”
Roger Ebert was there for an early Chicago screening. “The kids in the audience were stunned,” he wrote. “There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying.”
Film director George A Romero makes an appearance at the NFT as part of the BFI’s “Gothic” season to present his classic zombie film “Night Of The Living Dead” in London on Nov. 8, 2013.