ComingSoon.net’s Chris Alexander remembers his time spent with maverick filmmaker George A. Romero
I had known my friend, my hero George A. Romero was sick for a bit. Not for long, as his illness, lung cancer, had hold of him quickly, reaching stage four and with little hope of it being fixable. The news was a shock. When those people we revere, whether it be an artist we admire, a friend we respect or a relative we adore, leave us, the idea of them not being here is inconceivable. Because their life and their influence is tied to our own existence. Their words and thoughts and comfort are linked to happy moments and memories, sometimes their presence in our lives have actually saved our lives. To think of them gone is simply a reminder that nothing lasts…even us.
And so it is with George. I can call him George. Because he was my friend. And as I type this, hours after learning that he had succumbed to his illness at the age of 77, I’m mourning my friend, that kind, funny and warm-hearted raconteur, who lived for cinema, both making it and watching it. Whose tales of adventure in and around the fringes of Hollyweird held me in wonder on the many nights I spent drinking Scotch with him in his little condo he shared with his amazing wife Suz in Toronto on The Esplanade, or over sushi dinners in the little joint down the street. So comfortable and wonderful were these times that I would sometimes find myself forgetting that this was the man who had made my all time favorite film of any genre, anytime, anywhere, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. That film – first viewed at a pre-teen slumber party – leveled me, scared me ( I had night terrors for a year), made me aware of music in cinema (Goblin, the scratch library tracks) and made me aware of just how evolved and grandiose and sweeping and HUMAN a horror film could be and how ultra-violence could be used as a tool to disorient and even amplify that very humanity.
But it wasn’t just Dawn. I mean, George made so many films that were so deeply ingrained in my adoration of art and culture and cinema and were so much a part of the fabric of my life and essence as a person that often didn’t stop to truly consider how essential they were. Creepshow. Jesus, I must have seen Creepshow 50 times as a very little boy, the first time with my mother at the age of eight on pay-TV and later, when my baby sister was born, it was one of the first VHS tapes I bought and would show her daily – at her request – before she’d even started kindergarten. Sounds perverse, I guess, to show a gory R-rated comic book horror movie to a toddler, but my sister has grown into a fine, sophisticated mother and professional and is one of the kindest people alive. Thank George in part for that. And hey, she still loves Creepshow…
And Martin? Hell, I have that Martin fanged razorblade on my arm, my first tattoo in fact. As a kid in Toronto, I had only been allowed to see the butchered Canadian edit of Day of the Dead (15 minutes shorter, NO gore!) but I STILL loved it. When Blockbuster Video came to Canada years later, I found the FULL unrated cut of Day for rent and had my mind blown and promptly switched labels on my hacked up Canuck cut, returning that copy and keeping the Blockbuster copy. Only thing I ever stole in my life, in fact. Thank George for that too. And of course, Night of the Living Dead, which I saw AFTER Dawn, purchasing it on VHS for $9.99 at K-Mart with my own money and a film that astonished me with its nihilism. My 8 year old son Elliot just watched the film and marveled at not how scary it was but, ultimately, just how “sad” it was. With George, it was always about the humanity first, geek show second.
The list goes on and I can say that every single Romero feature film is somehow tied to pivotal points in my life.
But back to the friendship.
As a kid, I read FANGORIA. You did too, probably. I knew George was the Prince of Pittsburgh and Hell, Pittsburgh might as well have been Mars for a little boy on the outskirts of Toronto. But I have learned in my 42 years, that when you love what you love passionately, sometimes life just works out. As I grew up and learned more and started talking about movies and then writing about movies and then when my job became talking about movies and writing about movies, that mythical world of the men and women who made all these amazing motion pictures started to become less surreal and more tangible. Suddenly, in 2004, after Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake came out, people started to care about zombies again. A lot of people. And then Romero’s long in gestation 4th “Dead” movie Land of the Dead was green-lit and – shock of shocks – it was being made…in Toronto! I couldn’t get close to the set. I was still just a bush league scribbler (maybe I still am, I dunno) but it was exciting to know that the man was HERE. In MY city. Then, soon after I found out that Romero had moved here. HERE. George A. Romero lived in TORONTO. Mind blown.
In 2006, when production was prepped for his 5th “Dead” film, Diary of the Dead, I was in good enough professional shape that I begged Tony Timpone at FANGORIA to let me cover the movie for the magazine. He said yes. Not only did he want three features for print, he hired me a union crew to film an on-set television segment for FANGORIA TV. It was insane. And yet, it happened. I know, because I was there. And somewhere that documentary exists. Somewhere…
I remember meeting George for the first time in his trailer on set. I was terrified. He was huge in every way and yet so sweet, so funny and self-deprecating. Those big glasses. That bigger smile. It was clear I was a fawning fan hiding in the guise of being a “journalist” but he made the time for me. He answered the questions he had been asked thousands of times like it was the first time. Like every fan who meets George, I felt special.
Because George valued his fans. He was humble and I’d say even a bit insecure about his work. But he understood the impact his movies had on the people who loved them. It was like seeing the Wizard behind the curtain and then being invited into Oz and treated like you mattered. I’ll never forget it.
After that set visit – which saw me going back 3 or 4 times and even penning a piece for The Toronto Star on the experience – George and I stayed in touch. When he prepped his Diary follow-up, the misunderstood Survival of the Dead, I was asked to come on set and be a zombie. I went on set but it was SO cold, I declined being a ghoul. I came back on set a few times but the window to be zombified had closed. What an idiot I was. I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.
When Survival was done, I remember going out for lunch with George and since John Harrison had dropped out of scoring the film, George asked if I wanted to compose the music.Me! I accepted, of course. The production ultimately went with another composer, but I didn’t care. I was asked to score a freaking Romero zombie movie by Romero himself. It was insane. Impossible. But it happened. I was there and I swear that it is true.
Very soon after I took over as Editor-in-chief of FANGORIA and my first feature as EIC was an interview with George about Survival of the Dead and a feature wherein I had George comment on every movie he’d ever made. It was a lyrical moment for me because without George there would BE no FANGORIA. It was that article about Dawn of the Dead in FANGORIA #1 that so revolted and fascinated readers that the publisher chose graphic horror as the course the mag would take. So it was kismet that my first piece in FANGORIA was a George article and that my first piece as EIC would be a George article. And when I took over I started a new line of mags called FANGORIA Legends and the first issue was a tribute to George.
I remember George and Suz asking me over for scotch and sushi after I got the job as EIC to celebrate. We just talked about movies all night. I know plenty about classic cinema. George knew more, naturally. He was an encyclopedia. Nevertheless, we spent the evening trying to out-trivia each other. This war continued for years via email, with George and I signing off as different, obscure characters in films and then responding based on characters and actors linked to that film. It was a game. I have all these emails saved, of course. Because I could not believe what was happening was actually happening. But it did happen. It was real. Maybe I’ll publish these bizarre, Scotch fueled correspondences one day…
George was my friend. I loved him. And I like to think he cared about me. I enjoyed his company. I like to think he enjoyed mine. He was always available for me and I was always there for him. He made a very silly and very cool sculpture where he is holding my severed, bloody head. It was part of a line of merchandise he was making and I was the prototype. The line never went anywhere but I have that amazing sculpture in my house. It’s real. My kids are freaked out by it. I’m looking at it now. And I’m still that little boy. Being swept away and dazzled by dark, beautiful works of sound and vision made by a man who was and remained to the end, horror cinema’s true maverick and true independent. As George loved to tell me, Night of the Living Dead instantly made him an “above the credits guy” and contractually, he always had final cut. Every movie he made, even the adaptations of other people’s works, they were HIS movies. Made his way. With his people. His written words. His politics. His humor. His love of film, music, art. His cynicism. His joy. His spirit.
I could go on and on about the many gifts George A. Romero gave me. I never took him or the time I had with him for granted. Before he passed we were working on a new magazine and I had hoped that we would get it to print before we lost him, so he could see all the love I had for him, that all his friends and colleagues had for him. I wanted to present a final love-letter to him so he would know.
Tonight, I expressed this very sentiment to George’s longtime friend and producing partner Peter Grunwald, to which he responded, “He knew.”
I like to think that Peter’s right. I think George did know that he was loved. Even when he was ripped off or manipulated or taken for granted or forgotten. He knew he was loved. And I think he knew as he passed quietly with Suz by his side that he was one of the lucky ones that would continue to be loved and reborn and discussed and adored forever and ever, as long as the earth turns and maybe – who knows? – beyond.
Goodnight Ramirez. Thanks for all of it.