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The Thinking Manís Horror Filmmaker: Memories of George A. Romero

by Lee Karr ©
featuring a special contribution from Michael Gornick

A couple of years ago I got an email from the creator of this site, Neil Fawcett, asking if I would write a tribute piece for George Romero. Neil, fearing that Georgeís time with all of us might be coming close to an end, wanted something prepared that would be a fitting remembrance to the man that we all love and respect so much. I thought it over, but decided that I just couldnít do it. I knew that I wouldnít be able to put into words the feelings Iíd have without actually experiencing Georgeís loss. Well, things have obviously changed and Iíd like to share my thoughts about the loss of a humble legend Iíve admired for such a long time.

Like most of you, Iím sure, I discovered George when I was very young. It was in the summer of 1985 and I was 13 years old when I got a brief introduction to Day of the Dead on Late Night with David Letterman, courtesy of an effects demonstration by Tom Savini. From there it was on to reading Fangoria and my education on George Romero was well underway. In fact, it was probably in the October 1985 issue of that periodical that I began to understand, even at the early age of 14, that there was something more to this man and his films. The interviewer, Bob Martin, covered a wide range of topics with Romero Ė everything from characterization to Roman Catholic mythology to the auteurís patented sociological themes. It was obvious that Romero wasnít a paid hack who just wanted to throw some blood around and pocket a few bucks, he was a storyteller and he thought about his films as an expression of art.

It was around that same time that I would watch for the first time what is arguably Romeroís finest work: Dawn of the Dead. It was on VHS, the old school Thorn EMI version. Man, hearing that theme music for the Thorn EMI intro still gives me goosebumps to this day. Now, I donít have to tell you what an amazing film Dawn is; itís a fun theme park ride that simply never gets old. A lot of times youíll hear people reference some of the effects from the early portion of the film - you know, those "scenes of violence which may be considered shocking": the woman getting her arm bit or the shotgun blast to the head. For me the scene which I found most shocking was towards the end of the picture when one of the bikers, played by Taso Stavrakis, gets his stomach ripped open and his intestines squirm out. I had never seen anything like that before in my life. Man, this guy doesnít hold back! But as brutal as that was, thereís a scene from Dawn that sticks out in my mind even more. Itís at the end of the film when David Emgeís character, Flyboy, whoís become a zombie, makes his way up to the loft and is shot in the head by Ken Foreeís character, Peter. The first time I saw that I thought Romero had gone too far. Why show such a graphic death for this character that we had invested in for the entire film? I mean, we didnít see Scott Reinigerís character, Roger, die so graphically. At the time I thought it was a bit much. But what Romero was showing was just how cold and brutal this world really is. It doesnít matter that Flyboyís lover, Fran(Gaylen Ross), the mother of his unborn child no less, is standing right there to witness the act; Peter does it without hesitation. Itís awful, but thatís the harsh, cruel reality of Romeroís apocalyptic world.

Seeing Day of the Dead on the big screen on Halloween night 1985 is still one of the best times Iíve ever had at the cinema. Iíll never forget the experience of standing outside in the lobby, waiting for the previous show to end, and seeing the reactions of the people who had just watched it as they exited the theater. I loved that film so much that one day I would write a book about its creation; with no training or the slightest clue of what to do I set out on making that a reality. Thatís how much George Romero inspired me.

Besides the aforementioned interview in Fangoria magazine, another significant piece of literature that helped me understand the man and artist that Romero is was the monumental book The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh by Paul Gagne - hands down the best book ever penned on the director. After having pre-ordered the book through Fantaco Enterprises, from an ad I saw in Fangoria magazine, I can still recall the day the UPS driver delivered my copy. Thatís how much I was anticipating its release. Itís one of the best reads youíll ever have about a film maker. Romero is so open and so honest you canít help but be on his side. Going back and flipping through the pages of the book Iím reminded of so many things, so many reasons why I enjoyed Georgeís work - and touched as well. Read the first paragraph of the "Future Directions" chapter and youíll understand what Iím talking about.

As the years passed by my passion for Romero and his films never waned. From the mid 1980ís to this very day, regardless of where Iíve lived, Iíve had a Dawn of the Dead one sheet poster hanging on my wall. Originally the red letter version, which was later replaced in 2000 by the rarer green letter version. Any book, any magazine, any television show, whatever it was, if it mentioned George Romero it had my attention. I have no doubt you can relate.

During these past 32 years of fandom Iíve been able to live a fanís dream. I got to know the man on a personal level. No, I wasnít a close friend; Iíd never pretend such a thing. But I have spent time with him in his home. I got to see him when he had a few too many. Hell, George even once asked my longtime girlfriend, Renee, and I if we smoked grass! How many fans can say that? I still have a note George wrote to me on a piece of paper when we were at the Chiller Theatre convention in New Jersey in 2009 in which George gave me permission, on his behalf, to get in touch with the writer of a Pittsburgh play entitled The Chief, which was about the Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Art Rooney. The hopes were that maybe George and his producer could work out a deal for the film rights to this play, since George had a history with the Steelers organization doing sports documentaries in the early to mid- 1970ís. I contacted the writer, Gene Collier, and he and George did speak Ė Collier even sent George a copy of the play in book form. Alas, like many of these things the idea never came to fruition. George even warned me ahead of time not to get too excited. And he was right. Hilariously, after downing a couple of glasses of a favorite adult beverage, George wrote in the aforementioned permission note, that heíd give his "eye teeth" to be able to make the play into a film. That note is one of many precious keepsakes I have related to George.

Another funny memory I have of George is when I visited his home in 2009 for a lengthy interview. During that talk he mentioned in passing how much he loved the original Godfather movies and that there was a cut out there of the first two films that he once saw and heíd love to own it. He told me that if I ever saw it on eBay to let him know! Well, of course, I searched for it days later and indeed found a VHS copy of it on eBay. I was so excited that I immediately called George. Now, this was kind of late, after 10 oíclock at night Iíd say, and George answered the phone. I breathlessly told him I found one for him and his response was, ĎOkayÖí with a long pause and then a chuckle. I wondered, did he even remember that he had told me that? Maybe George later went on eBay to purchase it though - he was just playing it cool.

I got to spend time on his film sets - once as a zombie. Being a zombie extra on Land of the Dead in 2004, which I wrote about for this very website, is and will always be a dream come true. Visiting the sets of Diary of the Dead in 2006 and Survival of the Dead in 2008 as a member of the media is also etched into my memory banks forever. I got to watch the master work firsthandÖI was an eye witness to his work.

If youíre a fan of Romero, if you love his films, itís not because you just like gore. Romeroís work is so much more than that. You watch a film like Day of the Dead, which is an hour and forty minutes long, and youíll see some horrific imagery, no doubt. But that takes up less than 10 minutes of the run time. What the viewer is left with is ninety minutes of story and characterization and theme. George wanted to tell you a story and he wanted to tell that story with intelligence. And he succeeded over and over again throughout his career in doing that. The gore in the zombie movies was like extra frosting and sprinkles on a very well made and delicious cake.

George was known for the sociological takes in his films. I wonít go into some long diatribe youíve heard a thousand times though, thereís no need. We all know about Night and the issues of race, even though that wasnít what Romero had intended originally. We all know about the consumerism angle from Dawn. But what about the personal statement George was making in a film like Knightriders? "Iím not trying to be a hero," Ed Harrisí character, Billy, says. "Iím fighting the dragon!" That traveling troupe in the film was King George and his merry band of filmmakers. George wanted to make movies, but he wanted to make them his way. He wasnít interested in selling out to Hollywood, much like Tom Saviniís character Morgan does in the film. He wanted to put on a show, have some people come out and appreciate it, and then do it again. George fought that dragon for basically his entire career. How can you not respect a man who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk in life? He did it his way, for better or worse.

Religion, thereís another theme in some of Georgeís work that doesnít get discussed as much as the sociological stuff does. Romero wasnít a religious man, but being raised Catholic and spending time in parochial schools nonetheless shaped him into the man heíd become. Watch Martin and the influences from that Catholic upbringing are very apparent. Listen to Terry Alexanderís speech in Day of the Dead when he explains to Lori Cardilleís scientist character, Sarah, that maybe there isnít a scientific answer for the plague humans are suffering through. "You want to put some kind of explanation down here before you leave? Hereís one as good as any youíre likely to find," says Alexanderís character, John. "Weíve been punished by the Creator. He visited a curse on usÖso we might get a look at what hell was like. Maybe he didnít want to see us blow ourselves up and put a big hole in his sky. Maybe he just wanted to show us he was still the boss man. Maybe he figured we was gettiní too big for our britches trying to figure his shit out." And watch Diary of the Dead, the scene where Michelle Morganís character Debra goes home to look for her family and is told by one of her friends that what she finds could be bad. Instead sheís told to look for something personal to her inside the house, like a childhood doll perhaps. She agrees to, admitting the doll would be named Michael, after the archangel. Michael the archangel fought against Satanís armies in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Religion might not have played a part in Georgeís everyday life, but it certainly did in his art.

Realizing that George is no longer with us is unbelievably sad for me. When I heard the news the Sunday he died my first thought was that it was a prank. You see stuff like that all the time: so and so celebrity dies, but it turns out to be some silly internet hoax. But seeing that it was from the L.A. Times and reading the details released from his family and management it began to sink in that it was no hoax. I had known something was wrong with George, but exactly what I wasnít sure. In April he came to Pittsburgh to be honored by the Steeltown Entertainment Project with the Elly award. I got to briefly interact with him after the ceremony and I asked how he was doing, which he responded by saying he didnít know. So, I asked what he meant by that and he said that he was waiting on some test results, but he wasnít sure what was wrong with him. He looked very gaunt and frail. That was the last time I saw or spoke to him. Just a few weeks ago I left a voicemail for him at his home just telling him that we were thinking of him and that I hoped he was doing okay. I hope he got that message. I hope he knew that the vast majority of his fans sincerely adored him and respected him and were thankful for the many gifts he left us. It feels as though a family member or close friend has died. When I think of George laying there listening to the score from The Quiet Man, I canít help but get choked up. In his last moments he turned to something from his youth to comfort him and he was surrounded by people that loved and cared about him. What better way to leave this world, really? George created some of the most famous and well known films in history, all the while remaining just a guy; an immensely talented artist, yet full of humility and never seeking the spotlight or adulation. As my Mom said to me upon hearing of his passing, he led an exceptional life. Yes, he certainly did. And because of him Iíll "Stay Scared" for the rest of my life. Thank you, George.

As I bring this to a close I wanted to include the thoughts of someone who was closely associated with George over his career. Itís one thing to hear the recollections of a fan, someone who admired from afar. Itís quite another to hear from someone who knew George better than most. The person I immediately thought of and who so graciously agreed to open up about George was his longtime director of photography and colleague at Laurel: Michael Gornick. These final words come from his heart...

"Iíve always mentioned that George, in my opinion, was a kind of maestro when it came to motion picture film making. And for me he was so much larger than life. I mean both in physical scale. The guy - as I looked at him - and some of it might just be my image of a George Romero, but he was 6í 6", a very tall guy, very imposing, very impressive. But beyond that, as a personality, heís just so memorable because of his creative imagination; he had such a great intuitive sense about - both in editing and also even on set - storylines.

He had an emotion which superseded anybody Iíd ever met before, great imagination. So, again, he was so much larger than life that I was in awe of the guy and that pervaded my whole experience with George throughout the years. I could best liken him to, like maybe, a really older brother. I had such respect for him. And I would qualify what many might see as a friendship or an association, but I looked to him in terms of ways to better my trade: be it filmmaking, as a photographer, an editor. I never learned, I never came to grasp of his writing skills, which are just phenomenal. Again, he had such an intuitive sense about dialogue. His dialogue, I thought, was impeccable in most cases, as I read.

Aside from all of that, I saw the most gracious man that Iíve ever known. You might laugh when I liken him to almost like a Mother Theresa, but he was. When it came to the public, he would stop and talk to anybody on the street about any topic. I remember accompanying him from the parking lot on Ft. Pitt blvd to the building and pan handlers coming up to George and George would give them twenty dollars a clip, on a daily basis. He loved people, he had such a heart. Iíve never seen such compassion and such graciousness in any individual. Be it the Federal Express man or the mail man he would welcome with a smile, he would involve them quite often, even, in some of his projects and gather opinions. He was a peopleís person, I thought. And I just genuinely loved the guy, couldnít imagine where heíd come from. I found him, again, larger than life. He must have just descended from above because he was just that strong a personality."

George Andrew Romero
Sunday, February 4, 1940 Ė Sunday, July 16, 2017

This photo was taken the night I first met George in person which was in July 2000 in Chicago for a screening of Bruiser at the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute. My smile was genuine enthusiasm in finally being able to meet the legend.

This is a wonderful behind the scenes photo during the filming of Knightriders in the summer of 1980. From left to right: writer/director George Romero, sound man John Butler, and director of photography Michael Gornick just hitchin' a ride.

A great shot from the set of Day of the Dead in December 1984, the day they shot Pilato's classic demise on screen. From left to right: 1st A.D. John Harrison, director of photography Michael Gornick, actor Joe Pilato, and writer/director George Romero.

The last time I saw or spoke to George. This photo is from April 2017, three months prior to George's passing. George was honored by the Steeltown Entertainment Project with the Pioneer award at the Elly awards ceremony in downtown Pittsburgh. He was presented the award by Greg Nicotero.

I love this photo. This is a shot of George's coffee table the day I travelled to Toronto in 2009 to interview him for this site. His trademark glasses rest on top of the copy of The Chief which George would have loved to have adapted into a film. Seeing the random items on the table - a glass of scotch, the phone, notes he had made - are such wonderful little details.

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