What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say that name?
Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first of several zombie genre movies to follow. Dawn of the Dead. Day of the Dead. Land of the Dead. Diary of the Dead. Survival of the Dead.
The godfather of zombies. One of the holiest of holies in the world of horror.
I think of those things, too. How can one not?
But I think of something else….
The very first film I ever worked on was a zombie film.
I was hired as a costume designer. A few weeks before we started filming, the FX artist dropped out. The director asked me if I could make zombies. I said, “yea, totally I can make zombies”. I couldn’t make zombies. I’d never done effect make up before. My first zombie was made using oatmeal, food coloring, and the charcoal dust from an old grill.
The film was called “A Zombie Death (in 20 minutes or less)”. It was a short film, first time for the writer/director, first time for me, first time for my partner who acted in the film. By the end of the three week production, I was costume designer, stunt coordinator, choreographer (don’t ask), make up artist and actor. Even got a producer credit because I ponyed up the money to finish the film when the cash ran out.
We went on a publicity tour to try and get people interested. We found ourselves at Horrorfind, a local horror con where George Romero was the guest of honor. We thought, “if anyone will see any value in the film, it would be him”.
So we got in line for three hours, waiting to meet him. We brought a demo disc from the production and a copy of the script, hoping maybe he might be interested in it. We dressed my partner up as a lounge singer zombie based on the original BUB from Day of the Dead. I don’t know what we thought was gonna happen, but we never expected what did….
George saw us. He started calling out to my partner to come over. He literally called us out of line to talk to us because he was so amused. He posed for pictures with my partner, signed stuff for us, and talked to us about the film we were making. He graciously accepted our promo pack, and gave us his email. He said to send it to him when it was finished because he wanted to see it.
We walked away from that day on clouds, let me tell you. George was so kind and earnest in his interest in our crappy little production.
The film was never finished. Long story.
Two years later, at another horror convention, I saw George was the guest of honor. I wanted to meet him again, just because he was so nice. I was in costume this time, dressed as a cross between Elvira and Morticia Addams.
Do you know he recognized me? As soon as I walked up to him, he immediately starting asking about Zombie Death. How did it turn out? Did we get it done? When were we gonna send it to him?
I couldn’t believe it. Two years later and this man remembered us and our crappy little zombie short film. I told him how it never got completed, and he expressed his condolences. He explained how that sort of thing happens all the time and that I shouldn’t be discouraged by it.
He told me about all the stuff he went through shooting the original Night of the Living Dead. He had a lot of the same problems we did. It felt good to know that the godfather of zombies had been where I was at the time, and he was nothing but supportive.
Years went by. I used the images and video from that aborted project to get work as a costume designer and FX artist on a number of other films. Films that are now in international distribution. Films that introduced me to a cabal of filmmakers and artists with whom I have worked consistently ever since. Films that gave me the experience and opportunity to refine my skills as a make up artist to the point where I don’t even make costumes anymore.
I finally got to a place of making my own film. I chose a zombie film for my first project as a writer and director. A farce called TRAILER PARK OF THE LIVING DEAD. I based so much of the story on what I had learned from George’s movies – the way zombies move, the amount of time you allow to go by, the use of certain language. I tried to write a story that, like George’s films, addressed modern social issues. In my case, it was a film that spoke to classism and elitism.
We even reference George by name in the film. Two characters on a roof, counting zombies, deciding what the collective name for a group of zombies would be. FYI – more than three zombies in a group is called a Romero of zombies.
George Romero will be remembered by most as a horror icon, the man who gave us a genre of films, the man who set the standard for all the films of that genre that followed, whether made by him or by others. And that is a legacy he rightfully earned. His place in pop culture will be forever, and future filmmakers will see his work and be inspired.
But to me…..
I’ve never forgotten the kindness and advice I received from George. I would never have made it to where I am today if he hadn’t been so helpful.
So I feel a bit like an orphan today. The godfather of zombies was basically a godfather to my entire career. His encouragement and kindness kept me moving forward when it would have been so easy to just give it all up.
This is how I remember him. I know I’m not the only one who met that George Romero. So in addition to his legacy as a great filmmaker, let his legacy as a good man survive, too.