Search this blog and The Mike's favorite blogs!

October 9, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (3/10) - George A. Romero

As I continued my personal journey to determine the True Heroes of Horror, I pushed myself to focus on folks whose achievements in horror outweigh some of the lower points of their careers.  Sometimes, it's not the most consistent performers that really make things happen, it's the people who put everything on the line and manage to make a couple of ground-shaking changes in their field.  With that in mind, I'm happy to present....
George A. Romero.
Who is George A. Romero?
Born in New York City in 1940, George Andrew Romero is most known for the time he spent in the Pittsburgh, PA area after attending college at Carnegie Mellon University.  It was after his graduation that Romero began making short films and - in a twist of strange fate - became inspired to make horror movies after directing a segment about a tonsillectomy for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.  Near the end of the 1960s, Romero made his first movie - and the rest is history.
George is most known for....
Inventing zombies.  Yeah, I know the dude didn't exactly INVENT zombies...but if you ask most people that's the general idea they have.  The point is that those zed-words have become the horror fans' favorite monsters over the past fortyish years, and that craze began when Romero and his friends made a cheap black-and-white horror film in 1968.
His first three zombie films (and it STILL feels weird to realize the man now has six zombie films under his belt these days) have served as the template for dozens of horror stars, directors, and fans that would follow them.  Night of the Living Dead set the tone, Dawn of the Dead showed off the power of social commentary in horror, and Day of the Dead reminded us that people aren't always the good guys.  They're three wildly different films in plot and execution, which is a testament to the director's willingness to adapt over time.  But the message is the same - George A. Romero is the King of the Zombies.
Other Horror Hits....
Romero hasn't been as active as some horror directors throughout his career - he's only directed 16 features to this point - and his biggest hits are primarily those Dead films we already talked about.  But Romero's had some other winners to his name, primarily his vampire drama Martin - which is his personal favorite of his films - and the Stephen King collaboration Creepshow, which perfected the horror anthology formula.  His other horror films have had mixed results, and his last three zombie films have inspired plenty of mixed reviews among horror buffs.
So, why's George A. Romero here?
Despite what I mentioned earlier about George being known as the king of the zombies, that isn't why I have him as one of my heroes of horror.  Sure, I respect the heck out of the man's role in basically creating a staple of the horror genre but that's not why I love his movies, particularly Night and Dawn. 
If there's one thing we've learned in horror recently, it's that any jackass can make a zombie movie.  If I were to list the worst horror movies I've seen in the last decade, at least 3 of the bottom 10 would have zombies in 'em.  I'm sure that number would go up if I was interested enough to hunt down most of the zillion independent and DTV zombie productions that have come out in the past ten years, but thankfully I'm not a glutton for punishment.  Zombies have become a walking cliche to the point of being spoofed lovingly in the widely worshipped Shaun of the Dead and the point of becoming the thing people add to video games when they get bored.
There's even a video game zombie version of George A. Romero.
What's this got to do with George A Romero, who some might claim has become one of those people who just do zombie stuff to get a rise out of people?  Let's go back to the two movies I mentioned two paragraphs ago, Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.  There is zero doubt it in my mind - none, nilch, nunca, nada - that they are the two greatest zombie films in existence.  And I'm struggling to say anything else is close.  Sure, I love Zombi 2 and yes I Walked With a Zombie is a classic and yes, some people do consider the Evil Dead films to be zombie films. I will not be swayed on this matter. For me, zombies start and stop with Night and Dawn.

But the zombies - while iconic in their own ways - aren't the things that matter to me about these two masterpieces.  Dawn of the Dead, on one hand, is a rare horror epic that's all about the characters and how they react to the apocalyptic events around them. Dawn's about an hour longer than most zombie movies, but there's little to no filler as we follow four folks who have to fight to survive despite the knowledge that the world around them has gone mad.  It's one of the most thought provoking films in horror, and the creatures that eventually fill the fated Monroeville Mall are simply tools that push these characters' stories forward.
In the meantime, Night of the Living Dead is what I consider to be the prototype for a perfect horror movie.  Romero's original classic is filmed effectively in black-and-white and written with plenty of sharp jabs at human relations, as the director creates simple, but realistic characters to fill different roles in the film's dramatic arc.  The characters would become a template for future horrors - including the slasher genre and plenty of movies that didn't include zombies - and Romero's simple approach to telling his horror tale (he keeps the film free of unnecessary explanation or Hollywood heroism) has become a standard outline for screenwriters.  I'm not trying to say it's the best horror movie ever made - it does have some problems, like how poorly the catatonic Barbara character has aged - but if someone comes to me who's never seen a horror movie and asks for an example, I'm saying Night of the Living Dead.  It feels exactly like the movie you'd want to throw on at midnight when the witching hour calls.

Romero is known for his zombies, but it is his vision of horror and how it fits into the human world that I will remember.  These two films - supported strongly by Creepshow and Martin, which I could ramble about if I wanted to make this the longest thing I've ever written - show off what George A. Romero is all about.  These days he's widely (and correctly) recognized as one of the most iconic figures in horror, but it's important to remember that his stamp on the genre spreads far beyond a few shambling corpses that hopped out of their graves.  George A. Romero knew what horror meant to the people in his films, and it's his attention to these details that has made me forever grateful for his work.  As those jackasses I previously mentioned have proven, zombies are cheap.  Great horror films like George A. Romero's best works, on the other hand, are truly treasures of the horror genre.

1 comment:

Kev D. said...

Nice piece on the master.

Night's still my favorite.