I was having dinner with a good friend the evening of July 16 when I heard the news. As most folks do these days, my dinner guest and I occasionally glanced at our phones to check notifications and create replies on social media during our meal. Don’t judge. We’ve known each other for a long time now, and we’re comfortable that way. At one of her Twitter checks, my friend turned to me and said, “Some big horror person named George has died.” The name that automatically appeared in my head and from my lips was, unfortunately, the correct one. The father of the modern zombie apocalypse, George A. Romero, had passed away at the age of 77 after a brief battle with lung cancer.
It wasn’t long before the Twitterverse exploded with tributes, all well deserved.
Contrary to many kids of the 1970s and 1980s, my first encounter with Romero’s work was not an airing of Night of the Living Dead on late-night independent television. I believe the first Romero movie I ever saw was 1982’s Creepshow, the EC Comics tribute collaboration with Stephen King. I think I saw it in a hotel room while on a trip with my parents. The hotel in question just happened to have HBO – I believe that it was HBO, anyway – and that particular night HBO just happened to be showing Creepshow. I was both amused and terrified, and I think that might have been the point that I became not a fan of Romero, but of King.
I am ashamed to say that I learned little about Romero in the years after I first saw Creepshow, aside from what I later read in a mass market paperback edition of Stephen King’s 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre. I don’t know whether I should attribute that to my own teenage horror fan laziness, or the fact that Romero was routinely shafted and rebuffed by the larger film industry, so I was less likely to notice him. It was not until I started college in the very early 1990s that I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead. I believe I saw it on an episode of the Joe Bob Briggs B-movie showcase Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, back when it aired on The Movie Channel, which was Showtime’s other cable property at the time. Briggs aired Night of the Living Dead as a double feature along with the 1990 Tom Savini remake of the same name, bookended by interviews with some of the original cast.
Over time, Romero has developed an enormous iconoclastic reputation in horror filmmaking, and his films have been dissected over and over as social commentary. Although I was of college age the first time I saw the film and attending a liberal arts university, I didn’t at first get the apparent 1960s subtext of Night of the Living Dead. I grew up partially in the me decade, so I suppose my natural instinct at that time of my life was to try to make the films I watched somehow about me. And so it was with Night of the Living Dead.
My early college days were a dark time for me. Yes, the United States was engaged in the first Gulf War, and rushing headlong into an economic recession. However, above all that for me was the fact that I knew my childhood was officially at an end. In my youth, I doubt anyone could ever have accused me of wanting to grow up too fast. I was happy being a kid. At the time, my impression of being a grown up meant nearly killing yourself every day to make ends meet, feeling like you were a failure at family, and being angry all the time. I figured that was no way to live a life, but I could also see no way out of that eventuality. I knew that once I graduated college, the immediate expectations for me would be to nail down a comfortable salaried job, start a family, and buy a house. It was the American dream, yes, but it wasn’t my dream.
Watching Ben and Barbra board up that old farmhouse while the apocalypse shambled toward them, ready to eat them and their futures alive, felt like a metaphor for my existential crisis in those days. I was Ben and Barbra, furiously attempting to maintain a small pocket universe of normal by closing up any portal to the outside world I could find. I was building walls where walls were not supposed to exist to keep out the reality that was ever so slowly closing in on me from every side of my simple little existence.
If I wanted to extend that metaphor today, I would add that attempting to build such walls is useless. The world scrambles over those walls. In Night of the Living Dead, it comes through in emergency broadcasts on the radio and the television. It breaks through even more forcefully with the arrivals of Harry, Helen, Karen, and Tom, the extended emergency family of Ben and Barbra, who bring with them their wants and desires that are antagonistic to the dream of preservation pursued by Ben and Barbra. They are united in their desire to keep the dangerous world out, yet divided as to both the why and the how of it.
“That cellar’s a death trap,” Ben says when Karl insists on squirreling his family away in the lowest portion of the house. It turns out to be prophetic for Karl and family, but not for the reasons Ben fears.
After I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, I immediately wanted to watch it again. Fortunately for me, I had recorded that episode of Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater. Not only did I enjoy both versions of the film over and over again while I was in college, but I returned to that tape many times in the years after I graduated. Perhaps I wanted to remind myself of what I had been so afraid of turning into back then. Maybe I wanted to tell myself that turning into what I feared is still and always will be a genuine danger.
I haven’t owned a working VCR for many years, but I’m pretty sure I still have that old VHS recording of Joe Bob’s Drive-In stored in a drawer somewhere. I’d love to dust it off again in memory of the man who, unbeknownst to him, helped me face some genuine fears in my past.
Thank you, Mr. Romero. The horror-loving world’s everlasting gratitude might not be enough to make up for the shaft you got from the film industry many times over, but in my heart, I do hope you understand what a difference you made in people’s lives; in mine, anyway.
Rest in peace.
(Photo of George Romero from Geek Tyrant. Photo of Isaac Thorne from the author.)
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He’s the author of several short tales of dark comic horror. He’s a nice man who simply wants to provide you with a few fun frights. Over time, he has developed a modest ability to spin a good yarn. Really. He promises. His collection of short tales of dark horror, Road Kills, will be available in both paperback and ebook formats in October of 2017.