Ge­orge A. Romero re­de­fined hor­ror

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Local/nation - By Michael Phillips

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.”

SARAH LEE/EYEVINE/ZUMA PRESS

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.

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