Sunday, July 16, 2017

RIP George Romero

     Rest in Peace, George Romero (1940-2017-2018)
     Don't worry, George is only dead for now.
     Heaven just gained a gifted filmmaker but only on loan.
     Go on, dust off all those George Romero zombie jokes you've been collecting over the years and spew them on social media.
     But to get serious, Romero's legacy in independent cinema is virtually etched in stone. Because a young 28 year-old film director with an idea, and not even an original one at that, revolutionized it with a little art house flick filmed just outside Pittsburgh called Night of the Living Dead. As a testament to its contemporary appeal, this modest little $114,000 project turned into a cult classic that would go on to gross $30,000,000, not a bad investment return for the 60's.
     And everyone since 1968 who makes a zombie film or a series about one (including AMC's The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead), owes at least a silent token of gratitude for the American-Canadian filmmaker who died today at 77 after a brief battle with lung cancer.
     Again, it ought to be stated that Universal Studios and others had been making zombie flicks since at least the 40's. They were somewhat popular in horror cinema at the time- Zombies were cheap and easy to make and, in the case of the late Darby Jones, special contact lenses weren't even needed.
     What made Romero's treatment of the zombie sub-genre of horror different was his emphasis not on the dead but the living. The zombies, while ostensibly being the subject of the Living Dead movies, were actually supposed to be just a plot device, a shuffling, ambulatory background to the human drama that continues to play out.
     Because the original Night of the Living Dead pioneered an important point that's become a staple of the social commentary of post-apocalyptic cinema: It's not the dead you have to worry about but the living.
     Not to take anything away from the living dead because the cornerstone of all zombie fiction and movies is the natural human dread of the deceased, especially that which reanimates and comes after your flesh and brains. But Romero's crude but effective effort in NOTLD drove home the point that humanity is at its worst, as well as its best, during a crisis.
     Essentially, the entirety of the movie takes place in an abandoned house. It's what FBI crisis negotiators call a "spontaneous barricade situation." Except in this one, everyone within is a hostage while the zombies, sensing fresh food, close in.
     The characters range from the heroic (Duane) to the useless (Barbara) to the outright vicious (Harry). Harry will do anything to survive, even if it means throwing some of the living outside to keep the undead busy. Duane is doing his damnedest to barricade and fortify the house and gets little help from anyone. It wasn't just a pessimistic, dim view of humanity in a crunch. Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina showed us both villains and heroes such as the kid who hijacked a bus and drove it and dozens of survivors to Houston. But it was the villains who stole almost all the press.
     By now, nearly 50 years after its release, I think we've all seen it and know what happens in the end. No one survives, and you have the living and a self-styled vigilante sheriff to thank for that. Just four years ago, YouGov Omnibus did a survey and asked people whether or not they believed in the zombie apocalypse. A stunning 14% said yes. Lending credence to these ridiculous fears, it had come out a year later that the Pentagon actually has war game scenarios for the zombie uprising. This wasn't even unprecedented. The CDC also has protocols in place should the dead decide to rise from their resting places and get a little restless.
     Surviving the zombie apocalypse has become fodder for zombie fans on social media in comments and memes ranging from the lighthearted to the (pun unintended) dead serious. One can safely assume those who fear being attacked by North Korea and horny homosexual liberals are also the same exact ones who stockpile Waco-class amounts of guns 'n' ammo to battle the upcoming zombie infestation.
     But among those wouldbe Rick Grimes are people like Harry, a guy would throw his own wife and kid outside to the undead horde if it bought him an extra minute of life.
     In later installments of the series, Romero included deadpan satire, placing Dawn of the Dead a decade later at a shopping mall. It was another withering commentary on the human condition both dead and undead- Namely that even after death our postmortem instincts will continue with our consumerist behaviors and go to the mall just as we had in life. Again, there are heroes and villains and this is a trope that has been done with varying success in the nearly half century since NOTLD premiered on October 1, 1968.
     The Walking Dead and its spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, have proved very adept in not only exploiting this theme but in expanding upon and refining it. Because the one overarching point driven home in both shows is that the living will exploit a post-apocalyptic situation for their own ends and will kill any number of the living in order to keep a power and relevance that likely had eluded them when the world was still the world.
     And Romero can be credited with pioneering the idea that, as well as Duane and Rick and Travis, there will also be Harrys and Governors and Negans in the mix to keep the well-meaning on their toes.

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