If you grew up in Pittsburgh loving horror movies, you knew who George Romero was. Even if you didn’t grow up here, you knew. Night of the Living Dead, his initial effort, made a lasting impression on not just the horror genre, but American film. It took awhile to create the follow up, Dawn of the Dead, which to me is the superior film. Sure, it’s rote today when you look back at it — zombies are consumers! — but in 1978, it was groundbreaking. From Tom Savini’s splatter gore to Goblin’s music to the tagline “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” Dawn remains one of the finest horror films ever made, decimating the 2004 remake and any zombie movie Romero would make after.
I’d been meaning to write this as a series — and as part of my rumination on how someone was so vital to my younger days, it seems so negative — but Dawn casts a long shadow on Romero’s career. I love his work before it came out — The Crazies, Knightriders and Martin are really good — but Day of the Dead suffers from being half the movie (and the budget) that Romero intended. I know plenty of folks who love it, but I’m not one of them, save for Bub and the great acting of Richard Liberty. It’s too dark, too pessimistic and too far removed from the perfect balance of Dawn. But that’s OK. I was growing up and learning what I love about film. Romero got me to my first stage, before I discovered Bava, Carpenter, Cronenberg, John Waters, Jodorowsky and more.
That’s not to say that he didn’t have some good films afterward. Creepshow remains one of my all-time favorites, the closest an EC Comic has ever come to being filmed (and that’s coming from someone who counts the Amicus Tales from the Crypt close to my heart). I like parts of his collaboration with Argento, Two Evil Eyes. And his Tales from the Darkside holds a special place in our DVD collection.
A transplant to Pittsburgh after attending Carneige Mellon University, Romero worked in advertising (directing one of the early “Ancient Chinese Secret” commercials for Calgon Soap) and even filmed several shorts for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (another local Pittsburgh personality, the beloved child host even went to a screening of Dawn, which he said was “a lot of fun”). After working on the film Bruiser, Romero left our city for Toronto. But in the hearts of yinzers everywhere, he’s one of us. The guy who put the salt mines of Wampum, the cemetery of Evans City, the Monroeville Mall up on the silver screen, for people all over the world to see.
This has been a rough past year for Pittsburgh horror fans — we just lost Bill Cardille a little under a year ago. Even a few notes from the Chiller Theater theme make my eyes well up. But we should celebrate these folks, the people who put the Steel City on the map, that made us the zombie headquarters of the world, that showed a younger version of me that magic could come from even the smallest of towns.
Thanks, Mr. Romero.