I was struggling to find the best way to air my feelings as well as pay tribute to a filmmaker as prolific as George A. Romero who we lost this past Sunday at the age of 77. A colleague, notable author, and pittsburgh filmmaker, Mike Watt, wrote a fantastic tribute to Romero for Pittsburgh’s City Paper that I highly suggest you read. While I could very easily give a rundown of his films, I think the best way to pay tribute to George would be to discuss how his work influenced me and my thoughts on his legacy.
I’m not originally from Pittsburgh. I ended up moving around a great deal as a kid and when I was around 9 years old my father, who is a native Pittsburgher, moved our family to Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania (which is a suburb of Pittsburgh 45 mins north). Cranberry at that time was just beginning to blossom into a yuppie paradise. It still retained portions of the rural past, but farm land was quickly being replaced with strip malls and Starbucks.
Now you might be saying, well why is this relative to George Romero? Well, for me my first exposure to Romero and his work was partially due to the fact that down the street from my house, along a twisting back road was Evans City; a town that would become synonymous with Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies. I had always been a horror movie fan, but knowing that the modern day zombie was birthed so close to my house immediately drew me to Romero and his work. I wanted to know how someone could create something so iconic in such an obscure place.
As I grew up and decided upon film as a career path, I looked to George Romero as an example of how a filmmaker could become successful without being part of the studio system. George played by his own rules and never compromised his vision. He made films that entertained but made us look at ourselves and the world around us through critical eyes. The beauty of this messaging is that it wasn’t heavy handed or preachy; it was subtle enough to acknowledge but it never compromised the narrative of the film. In fact if you were to ask George, Russ Streiner, or John Russo if they planned to inject so much meaning into NOTLD they would laugh and explain that their goal was to make the best horror movie they could with the money they had at their disposal.
One of the biggest things I respected about George Romero was his ability to remain true to his roots. After NOTLD blew up it would have been very easy to say, “Hey, I’m going to move to LA and make movies out there.” That isn’t what he did. With the exception of his later films starting with Land of the Dead, almost all of his films have featured locations in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. I’ve always believed that the main reason we have a film tax credit in Pennsylvania is because of the fact that Romero noted the cost savings available in Toronto over Pittsburgh during the production of Land of the Dead.
Being in Pittsburgh, you typically are one degree separated from either someone who worked on a Romero film or knew him personally. My college professor, Tony Buba, was a sound engineer and actor on Dawn of the Dead. I had met and grew friendships with people like Russ and Gary Streiner and John Russo. But meeting George himself remained elusive until a few years ago.
I had followed Gary Streiner’s efforts to restore the chapel featured in NOTLD that had become dilapidated within Evans City Cemetery. After years of raising funds and restoring the chapel, George Romero agreed to come back to Pittsburgh to dedicate the chapel. Most celebrities would have come, done their photo op and left, but not Romero. Remaining true to form, he stayed as part of Gary’s Living Dead Weekend to meet and take pictures with fans for free. In the world of mass marketed horror conventions, this is unheard of and speaks volumes about the character of the man.
My brother and I waited patiently for 3 hours to meet Romero and when our time came he greeted us with a handshake and a smile. There wasn’t a sense of ego or a feeling of contempt for fans in his eyes. There was only reverence for what fans have done for his work. George Romero knew he was a product of his fans and was willing to give back.
As many have alluded to in countless tributes since his death, there will never be another George A. Romero. We are survived by his work that forces us to look into the dark side of ourselves and our world.
Brian Cottington | Producer/Host – The Cinema Psychos Show