By George: How Romero became the underground hero for a whole generation of cult kids, loners and outsiders
Shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I watched a dodgy bootleg copy of Day of the Dead (1985). The worn-out VHS jumped, wobbled, and crackled its way to the last scene, and despite the tape’s poor quality I had been transfixed throughout. I knew its bloody presentation would have to become a big part of my life. Not since I first saw James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) a few years earlier had I ever felt such an affinity. Viewing it made me realise that part of me wanted to stay this grubby, straggle-haired fifteen-year-old forever.
There was something about that grim tale with its ridiculously unpleasant ending that I knew was designed just for me. With it, I could walk the crappy streets of my tiny hometown, ignoring the shouted insults, knowing that I would never really be alone. Not when I could escape to the cooling shadow of the local cinema or the sticky-floored confines of the corner shop with its racks and racks of cheap gaudy video horror. It was the start of my journey into hell and I couldn’t wait to get going. My guide would be a bespectacled American-Canadian director named George A. Romero.
At the beginning of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Johnny (Russell Streiner) utters the words, ‘They’re coming to get you Barbara’ in an immediately recognisable Boris Karloff voice. This off the cuff remark when viewed now, seems to both acknowledge the past and act as a rallying call for the new horror. The old world had served its purpose and much of it would be consigned to the grave for good. This is underlined by the fact that Johnny is done away with seconds later, not by a traditional monster such as the Hammer vampire or werewolf, but by a manic flesh-eating zombie. In that second movie fans were introduced to the way that cinematic scares were going to be from then on.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Romero’s first feature. Though the new wave of horror had arguably begun with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and might trace its beginnings back to the early sixties with Psycho (1960) or the bleakly graphic French thriller, Eyes without a Face (1960), Night of the Living Dead must have appeared to have come out of nowhere, it was not based on any existing source material and was not helmed by already established filmmakers like Franju or Hitchcock. As shocking as Polanski’s piece was, it was a mainstream feature produced by corporate picture house Paramount and by comparison, Night... was an edgy independent low budget piece of exploitation cinema.
It became a hugely popular non-major studio hit, confounding the views of many critics who had derided Romero’s bloody tale of ‘blue-collar monsters’ as too extreme. But from the get-go there was something about the director’s output that would always appeal to the outsider or misfit, his grim allegorical presentations, mixing politics and social commentary with shock and awe. They balanced the fine line between Arthouse and Grindhouse, and became counter-cultural gory manifestos for the weirdo demographic.
Like the original Alice Cooper band who would gain popularity a little later, who, incidentally, claimed NOTD as a huge influence, Romero would also target many of America’s hypocrisies, and whereas the former addressed them via a deviant form of pre-punk rock-n-roll, combining elaborate stage shows with top ten hits and subversive feminine imagery, the latter sought to attack using his custom brand of late-night scary movies. Both band and director appealed to the same brand of loner kids and horror freaks - much like the future me, the ones who might smear their faces in make-up before catching the midnight double-feature of blood, guts, and Grand Guignol.
Though, in the wake of his directorial debut, he would attempt more sedate material like romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and the sublime proto-feminist supernatural thriller Season of the Witch (1972), Romero’s stock-in-trade would be his continuing run of violent genre shockers. The Crazies (1973), now an incredibly prescient piece about a government’s failure to contain a deadly virus, sought to double down on his zombie credentials, his ‘plague’ victims reduced to marauding loonies, unthinking and out of control. The production seemed to solidify many of the tropes audiences would come to expect of Romero, particularly during that classic phase of his career. As in NOTD, The Crazies presented us with ‘the beleaguered mob’, a strong black male character, and placed science in opposition to a militant, uninformed authority. The two films also riffed on an idea that would become a key factor in the director’s work - that of the ‘monster’ being far less of a threat than the other ‘civilised’ humans.
Romero became adept at exposing the fragility of respectability or accepted societal norms. In his first feature, he not only highlighted the racial tensions of the age, but he also sought to vanquish preconceived notions about traditional cinematic narratives and the status quo. The young couple of the piece are not presented as saviours of the future; instead they die prematurely, while the nuclear family is re-framed as the ultimate dysfunctional unit when a father is attacked and eaten by his own cannibalistic daughter.
With Martin (1977), a brooding low key take on the vampire legend, cinemagoers were offered not so much a classic monster movie but a kitchen sink style, serial killer flick. It’s seedy anti-hero, a troubled and delusional young man, stalks the Pittsburgian streets, the urban concrete of the industrialised landscape, replacing the castles and crumbling ruins of old-style gothic chills. In a sense, it drove a stake not just through the unfortunate protagonist, but also through the all too restrictive perceptions of the low budget horror feature and what it might do on a discernible artistic level. It of course again appealed to a peripheral audience of cynical adolescents and outsiders, it’s raging condemnation of the class system and suburban isolationism, is another example of Romero inviting the disaffected quarter into his welcoming fold.
Dawn of the Dead (1978), the belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead, is possibly the directors most fondly remembered production, and its carefully constructed satire on mindless consumerism has been much discussed, however, the third part of that franchise Day of the Dead (1985) would see Romero engaging with a whole new generation, and that generation certainly included a young me. Whereas in the past, he had played in the arena of the sixties college dropout, the late-night stoner or draft-dodger, almost twenty years later, he could now aim the latest instalment of his zombie trilogy at an ever-growing new crowd of Goths and rock kids, his return to form coinciding with a new wave of heavy metal, and a spate of ever more graphic X-rated video store splatter.
Day of the Dead, easily his most stomach-churning effort, largely thanks to the make-up jobs of long-time collaborator Tom Savini, offered myself and kids like me a bleak and blood fuelled cold war thriller, with loads of cool effects and memorable lines. The squabbling between the meagre squad of humans represented the public’s sweated paranoia, as the increasing threat of an actual nuclear war, seemed devastatingly more real with each passing day.
Romero would continue to produce dark features until his death just three years ago, leaving behind him a trail of notable entries such as Stephen King collaboration Creepshow (1982) or the underrated Monkey Shines (1987), he would even return to his zombie creations with three more living dead sequels. But his reputation, at least on a mainstream level would never reach the heights of contemporaries like Spielberg or Scorsese, his unique brand of cheap thrills marking him as a throwaway hack in certain misinformed critical or cultural circles. And while the continued neglect of this genre master, outside of the horror community is galling, it is also strangely comforting. Those not initiated will never really understand, and that’s okay because he was never for them, he was always for us. Always there for that never ageing fifteen-year-old part of me, still hell-bound and still loving it.
There's Always Vanilla (1971)
Dir: George A. Romero | Cast: Johanna Lawrence, Judith Ridley, Raymond Laine, Richard Ricci | Writer: Rudy Ricci (the film was made from a story and screenplay written by)