Remembering George Romero, Pittsburgh’s zombie king

I‘m not sure if Night of the Living Dead is the first horror film I ever watched, but it’s definitely the first one that made so much of a impact on me that I still remember my initial viewing. A friend had brought over a VHS copy of it when I was probably 13 or thereabouts, and we watched it late at night at my house after my parents were in bed.

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

And with that an obsession was born. Night of the Living Dead — written and directed by George Romero, who died Sunday at the age of 77 — was the film that opened the floodgates. I spent the rest of my teen years making my through most of the horror section at the local video-rental store. And the coolest thing about it? It was made by a local guy! I grew up in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, about an hour from Pittsburgh, where Romero called home. Born and raised in New York, he went to college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and remained in the city after graduating. He basically shot all of his films in the surrounding area, from Night in ’68 up until the 2000s when Romero relocated to Toronto. There’s a scene in The Dark Half, a solid 1993 Stephen King adaptation, that takes place in a convenience store in Washington, Pennsylvania that I used to stop by for snacks during every single drive home I made from college. We simply called it the “Dark Half store.” Such was Romero’s influence on me and my movie-loving friends.

And why wouldn’t that influence be huge? And not just because you root for your hometown guy, but also because of Romero’s output. Dawn of the Dead belongs on any list of the best sequels ever made, and if push came to shove I’d admit it’s even a better, more nuanced (and certainly bloodier) film than the original. Day of the Dead took the series in exciting new directions. (Bub is such a great character.) Romero co-conspired with King not just on The Dark Half but also the delightfully macabre Creepshow. He also produced the latter’s fun sequel. Then there’s The Crazies, Martin, Knightriders and Monkey Shines. It’s an impressive body of work from a guy who largely worked local, outside of the Hollywood studio system.

I longed for the oft-rumored fourth Dead film in much the same way we all once yearned for Star Wars sequels. Remember when it was going to be called Twilight of the Dead? That title teased at the “what if” part of my brain for so, so long. When the movie finally got made in 2005, it was called Land of the Dead (not as good!). And though I never took to it — and was bummed it was shot in Toronto instead of Pittsburgh, where it’s set — it was still a joyous occasion to see Romero return to a genre he basically invented. True, there were “zombies” in fiction before 1968, but they were usually mind-controlled living slaves, victims fallen prey to voodoo or some other sorcery. It was Romero’s vision of the dead risen up to stalk the living that led to The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead and the modern zombie genre that shows no sign of losing the public’s interest.

In the end, Romero never escaped his legacy. There were remakes of his earlier films both great (Dawn of the Dead ’04) and awful (pretty much everything else) that he wasn’t involved with past a paycheck. Following Land, he only directed two other movies, both micro-budged Dead films — Diary of the Dead in 2007 and Survival of the Dead in 2009. Diary is terrible. I’ve never actually seen Survival. Maybe age caught up with Romero. Maybe it was just diminishing returns on a genre he had already birthed and redefined. It’s too bad he never got a chance at making one more big non-zombie horror film. That I would have liked to have seen.

Still, for us here in Pittsburgh (after a detour to the South, I moved to the city’s suburbs 12 years ago), Romero was always our guy. I unfortunately never met him, but I’d still get excited when I’d see stuff like the exhibit in his honor on display at the Heinz History Center.

At the time of his death Romero was planning yet another Dead project, this time with one of his long-time collaborators, Matt Birman, who was slated to direct. He always seemed a working-class guy, perhaps a byproduct of the city he called home through the most successful part of his career. So it’s no surprise Romero went out still grinding away, trying to wring every last insight he could out of the genre he unleashed onto the pop-culture universe.

Lord knows his characters never rested in peace, but I sure hope George does. He work has inspired so many and will no doubt continue to inspire more well into the future.