Even Heroes Die......
I was 8 years old. I had already discovered Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, & Chucky. I was already using my own money for the newest issue of Fangoria. My fragile little brain had already responded to the fright I had suffered at the werewolf transformation in Michael Jackson's legendary "Thriller" video at the tender age of 4 by doing the healthy thing- facing my fear and embracing the horror.
Still, my Mom made reference to the one movie that she couldn't watch. She had seen it at the drive-in, you see. It terrified her in a way that she had difficulty explaining properly. She said that one viewing would lead to weeks of nightmares. She said it got into your head and stayed there. I can clearly recall the look in her eyes when she spoke of it. Can you guess what it is? I bet you can.
I'm speaking, of course, of George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead".
I was transfixed. I still am every time I see that movie. My experience with horror until that point had consisted of monsters that couldn't possibly be, hulking killers who defied physics. Horror was safe, in a way. It was dream killers and possessed dolls and aliens. In short, it was shit that couldn't possibly happen.
The Father of the Zombies blew that shit right out of the water. He presented a truly frightening alternative in the form of a POPULATION of monsters that were feasible and grew in number with each victim. They were your neighbors and your family. They wanted to eat you alive. The death would be extended, painful, & outright hideous!
It was the first time (at least until I saw "The Exorcist" a year later) that I was genuinely scared. I spent a lot of time looking out of the windows at night to be sure the yard was empty. It got inside my head, too. Mom wasn't exaggerating. It really fucked with my head, so I immediately sought out the rest of Romero's "Dead" films.
If you know one thing about me it's my absolute, undisputed favorite movie of all time- "Dawn of the Dead". It is THE great American horror film. The groundbreaking gore, beautifully dated score (The Goblins!!), & biting social commentary rank it as one of the most important horror films ever. You'd think it'd be hard for a film to mix the feel of a live-action comic with insane gore all while making you feel like a real shitheel for ever wanting to shop at the fucking mall, but Dawn does it all in spades while giving you characters you genuinely care about. It's the movie that shows how underrated Romero was as a filmmaker.
I could go on and on about his amazing filmography. He made movies that went on to be on massive genre hits with his "Dead" series (Night, Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, Survival) and "Creepshow". He made classics like "The Crazies", & "The Dark Half". He made underrated gems like "Martin" & "Monkey Shines". He made a weird-ass movie about a medieval reenactment troupe on motorcycles called "Knightriders" (starring a very young Ed Harris). He even shit the bed occasionally with movies like "Bruiser".
I'm not here to discuss his catalog, though.
George A. Romero was my hero. He was a director of television commercials who took a shoestring budget and a ragtag crew (and the balls to cast a black lead in 1968) and birthed a genre. Think about that for a moment, if you will. How many writer/directors can you think of that literally created an entire genre? I'll wait for the answer.
There aren't any that I can think of.
Are you a fan of "The Walking Dead" or "Fear the Walking Dead"? Thank George A. Romero. It exists because of him. How about "Resident Evil"? Ditto. All of the campy and amazing "Return of the Living Dead" films? Yep, those too.
The very concept of the modern zombie (whether slow or fast) are here because of Romero. The nightmare idea of the horde of flesh-eating friends and neighbors turned brainless killing machines that will tear out your kids guts right in front of you is a part of your deepest fears thanks to that man.
He was a real maverick of film who did shit his own way and didn't sacrifice his vision. You have to admire that. He started by changing the game and creating a genre out of thin air and he didn't sell out. That takes balls. He compounded that by crafting each "Dead" film with a theme, a moral commentary. Racism, consumerism, nihilism, the "haves" versus the "have-nots"...he didn't shy away from making you think on a deeper level. He pulled no punches.
He was truly the miner for a heart of gold. He saw our flaws and wanted to believe in us anyways.
The thing I take away, though, is who the man himself was. When I went to my very first horror convention (Texas Frightmare Weekend 2008) it was all about finally meeting my hero. I didn't care how long we stood in line; it would be worth it. I didn't care what it cost; I'd pay it. This was fucking GEORGE A. ROMERO!! Even if he was a dick it'd be worth it.
So, here we are in a ludicrously long line on the last day (and in the waning hours) of the con. As we get to where we can really see him you can see the fatigue on his face. He's been at it for 3 days straight. He looks beat. Add to that the fact that Gracie (who was 4 at the time) is grouchy as fuck and hungry. My wife is getting a little stressed, but she is still infinitely supportive. It's only when we get to close to him that I realize we are the very last people in line! This isn't an ideal scenario.
The moment finally comes. I can barely find my voice or the right words! He shakes our hands....and then he hones in on Gracie. She is smiling for the first time in a while. He smiles a wide, yellow, and cigarette stained smile and I could literally feel her loosen up and relax in my arms.
"Well hello, sweetie. What's your name?" he asks my grouchy 4-year old.
"Gracie!" she says excitedly.
"You look as tired as me. Are you hungry?" he asks my no-longer-grouchy 4-year old.
"Yes, sir!" she says.
"Well, I've got a fruit basket here. Do you like bananas?" he says with a grin.
She's nodding like a bobble-head as she squirms out of my arms. He pats his knee and she jumps right up into his lap! I could only stand there with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face as my idol, the man who made me want to write/direct horror in the first place, proceeded to feed my kid and have a nice little conversation. I was a borderline out-of-body experience.
What really struck me is how he not only seemed to perk her right up but the way she seemed to energize him. He told us more than once how beautiful she was and what a sweet girl she was. He was simply genuine and not at all what you'd expect out of a legendary director.
Gracie has never forgotten this. I know I never will.
We saw him twice more at later TFW events, and he was always supremely cool. That first time, though.....it was one of the best moments of my life. Meeting your hero is a bucket list kind of thing, for sure. Finding out he is as genuinely cool as he seems is perfection.
There was a kid named Eddie Walker that my wife and I went to high school with. When Kurt Cobain of Nirvana shot himself Eddie went into a period of mourning and even open weeping that (tell the truth and shame the devil) made me laugh. I didn't pick on him (he was a friend), but I just didn't get it. Why would you be that grief-stricken over a celebrity? That struck me as some silly shit and I laughed inside at Eddie. I just didn't get it.
I get it now.
Rest in peace, George. Thank you for your inspiration and your art and all of the nightmares it produced. And thank you for making a horror-obsessed kid's dream come true. Your absence is a void that no one will ever fill.