George A. Romero 1940-2017

George A. Romero died on July 16th, 2017 of lung cancer. He was 77 years old.

In a world where the term “icon” is often thrown around too loosely, Romero is an artist to whom the designation truly fits. Best known for his cycle of “Dead” films – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead – Romero established a new, modern zombie mythos that has had an enormous effect on contemporary pop culture.

Romero’s work extended beyond the zombie genre, however, including such films as There’s Always Vanilla, Knight Riders, Martin, and Monkey Shines. Whatever subject matter he worked with, Romero’s standpoint was always subversive. He had a contentious relationship with mainstream Hollywood, preferring to make most of his films independently. Regardless of whether he was working within or outside of the system, Romero always brought an outsider’s perspective to his movies; a perspective that was sympathetic to the oppressed and the marginalized. His films championed minorities, women and the disabled, placing them in central, heroic roles that allowed for the demonstration of their strength and potency, even if ultimately their stories ended in tragedy.

Although his films were always critical of racism and consumer culture, increasingly, toward the end of his career, Romero’s perspective became more and more cynical concerning humankind and the fate of the world. In films like Land of the Dead, he imagined a world in which the rich cruelly exploit and dominate the poor. Diary of the Dead ends with the narrator posing the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving at all, while in his final film, Survival of the Dead, Romero depicts an assortment of entirely despicable humans, stubbornly feuding and fighting with one another over nonsense. As he neared the end of his life, Romero’s outlook became progressively bleaker and more dark, with humankind, rather than undead zombies, playing the part of villains.

Night of the Living Dead played regularly on a local late-night program called Creature Features when I was a kid. It took me a few tries to work up the courage to watch the movie all the way through, but once I did, I was hooked. The world that Romero created in this film was intriguingly bleak and strange in comparison to most mainstream horror films. The African-American hero was strongly sympathetic, but ultimately flawed and misguided in many of the decisions that he made throughout the movie. The ending was depressing, offering no hope or redemption. There was no real explanation for the terrifying course of events depicted, and everyone that we were led to care about died in horrible ways. This was not Hollywood film making.

About 10 years later, in 1979, Romero made Dawn of the Dead, the follow up to Night of the Living Dead. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and I recall being so excited about the release of this film that by sheer force of will I overcame a fairly severe cold so that I would not be kept from going to the opening night screening, which took place at some sketchy movie theater in South San Francisco. Dawn of the Dead was released without an MPAA rating, a rebellious move on Romero’s part, motivated by his displeasure at initially being awarded an X rating for violence. His decision to release DOTD unrated meant that most mainstream theaters would not exhibit the film, almost assuring financial suicide. Nevertheless, against the odds, DOTD became both a financial and critical success. Romero’s mix of extreme gore and social commentary set an example that has been copied and developed (in both the movies and on TV) ever since. His success at releasing his film unrated also encouraged others to resist the taken for granted authority of the MPAA.

One of my prized possessions is a hand written letter I received from George Romero in response to a fan letter I sent him after I saw Dawn of the Dead for the first time. In it he answered my questions about the film, expressing a nihilistic sentiment that has stayed with me and influenced my own perspective over the years. In response to my curiosity about the cause of the zombie epidemic he replied, “…the cause doesn’t matter, since it is beyond the realm of human understanding anyway.” Quite right. We constantly try to master our world through the explanations offered by religion and science, but we often forget that the world as a whole far exceeds the power of human understanding. Our hubris always comes back to bite us, like the zombies in Romero’s movies.

I learned about Romero’s death when my wife and I were chatting with a friendly rockabilly clerk at the local supermarket. When he mentioned Romero’s passing, I was stunned, and I told our clerk that he had instantly ruined my day. After confirming that the report was true, I was overwhelmed with a mood of quiet melancholy that lasted the rest of the evening. My entire life has been lived during a time when Romero was also alive and actively making art. Now that he is gone it just reinforces the reality that a whole generation of cultural innovators is aging and moving toward death. In fact, my wife later informed me that Martin Landau also died on the same day as Romero.

Soon, they will all be gone.

Playing at being a zombie on the escalator at the Monroeville Mall.

A New Year, Life Itself, and Being-Toward-Death

life-itself-poster1-404x600My wife and I saw the film Life Itself the other evening. Watching a movie about death was our way of welcoming in the new year and the start of a new school semester; a way of reminding ourselves that as time continues inexorably to pass, we are all inescapably hurtling toward oblivion.

Life Istelf is about the life and death of the Chicago Sun Times movie critic Roger Ebert. I became familiar with him when I was a kid and would religiously watch the PBS television show called Sneak Previews that he hosted with Gene Siskel. It was a one of a kind program consisting of two guys (Siskel and Ebert) sitting around and arguing about the latest motion picture releases. Often the arguments got very passionate, which was part of the fun. Despite their emotion, the exchanges between these two hosts were never superficial. They always gave considered and reflective reasons for admiring or loathing the various films under review, engaging one another in intelligent discussion that always was tinged with a sense of humor. It was clear that the two of them were rivals; however this rivalry contributed to the program’s edgy, yet good natured, character.

One of my most vivid memories of Sneak Previews was the episode during which the two critics reviewed George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. When it was first announced on their program that they would, the following week, discuss this film, I was so excited. As a kid, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was one of my favorite movies of all time. I was a freshman in high school when Dawn of the Dead was released, and for me this was the most exciting event of the decade. The problem was that due to issues with the ratings board, Dawn of the Dead was to gain only a very limited release. The MPAA had decided that its violent content warranted an “X” rating, which Romero refused to accept, so he ended up defiantly releasing it without any cuts to content and without any rating. This, however, meant that many theaters would not show the film; and this in turn meant that many fans might not be able to see it.

The fact that a national program like Sneak Previews would review a film like Dawn of the Dead, which was on the margins of the mainstream, was actually quite extraordinary. What was also notable was that both Siskel and Ebert, who often had widely differing tastes, both gave the movie a “thumbs up,” as they both admired its brash and intelligent social commentary. With this episode, my admiration for these two critics was cemented, and in me they had a fan for life.

large_kdLnGFkGLk1hijuFX7RmUaxxQVvEbert’s life, as chronicled in Life Itself, was very full and unusually unified. I was fascinated to learn how single-minded he was throughout his career in pursuing a single passion: writing and talking about films. He began working as a newspaper reporter at the age of 15, and in college he was the editor of his school newspaper while also working at the Chicago Sun Times, where, after graduation he eventually became the in-house film reviewer. In 1970 he worked with Russ Meyer, scripting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  In 1975 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism and also started the TV program Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel. After Siskel’s death from brain cancer, Ebert continued his movie review show, which still airs today as At the Movies. His entire life seems to have been incredibly focused with no real distractions or side-tracks. If the film is to be believed, the only really dramatic setbacks he ever experienced involved a bout with alcoholism early in his career, and his fight with cancer at the end of his life.

Life Itself begins with scenes of Ebert in the hospital as he undergoes treatment for the disfiguring cancer that will eventually kill him. Due to radiation therapy that he underwent as a child, Ebert ended up contracting cancer of the thyroid and jaw when he was in his 60s, going through increasingly aggressive surgeries until his entire lower jawbone was finally removed. Remaining was a flap of skin, roughly defining his lower lip and chin, which remained hanging beneath his upper row of teeth. Looking at the front of his face, you could see through this flap to his chest. Where his tongue and throat once were, nothing remained. The manner in which the remanent of his jaw hung, lax and loose, made it appear as if he had a perpetual smile on his face, masking what must have been been a great deal of pain and discomfort.

The imagery of Ebert’s disfigured face really stayed with me after watching this movie. The face is the most unique and distinctive aspect of a person’s appearance, and to have it progressively sliced away and disfigured must be terrifying and depressing to a degree that I just cannot imagine. As the title of the film hints, perhaps the fact that Ebert was willing to go to such extremes in order to salvage a chance at life extension is evidence that nothing about the physical body is really as precious as “life itself.” I’m not sure if I was in the same circumstances that I would have the bravery to go through with such aggressive surgery.

It was, in any case, extremely heartwarming to see how Ebert’s friends and family continued to treat him, after his surgery, with a sense of humor and love. His grandkids gave him a toothbrush for a Christmas gift – something that was utterly useless to a man lacking a lower jaw – and Ebert, unable to speak, accepted it by rolling his eyes upwards and hitting himself over the head with the gift in mock outrage. He obviously appreciated the joke, just as it was obvious that his wife and grandkids loved him dearly.

Life Itself was a very moving film. For me, the most powerful thing about it was to see how Ebert and his family faced not just death, but Ebert’s progressive surgical disfigurement with resolve and courage. While Roger Ebert’s writing and movie reviewing are what defined his career, the way that he faced his death is what imbues his story with themes of universal human interest.