Ever since I heard of the late, great George Romero’s passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much he influenced my life. Thanks to Dawn of the Dead, my first foray into Romero’s visionary work, I went from a normal kid who collected baseball cards to one who studied every mall, shop and house, figuring out how to fortify it against zombie hordes. Instead of daydreaming about Karen Marone letting me hold her hand after school, I fantasized about commandeering the sporting goods store, blowing zombie heads into tomato juice and eating Spam every night (because…well, it’s got its own key).
My father took me to what is still one of the greatest double bills any child of eleven has ever seen: The Kentucky Fried Movie and Dawn of the Dead. We walked to the Kent Theater in the early afternoon a normal father and son, returning that night a nauseated, shell shocked man and a drooling, woozy child. I saw more boobs and blood that day than any pre-pubescent child is equipped to handle. Decades later, I’m still a boobs and blood addict. Ah, childhood, what damage thou has wrought!
I brought my friends to see them again the next day. This was back in the day when parents didn’t care what you saw or did, just so long as you were the hell out of the house. Besides, how were those L7’s supposed to know what we were being exposed to? These were people who thought The Rockford Files was cutting edge.
We all became instant zombie fanatics. We wasted a lot of ketchup playing zombie chase, smearing it on our faces, clothes and hair. One of the games involved the person who was “it” riding around on a bike with a pocket of screwdrivers (since we couldn’t drive cars or helicopters or find where our dads kept their guns…thank God!). As he got close to a shambling zombie, he would throw a screwdriver at our head to kill us. No headshots were ever recorded, but a few arms and legs were left with permanent Phillips head scars.
We’d have to wait a couple of years until the VCR was invented to see this other movie Romero did that everyone talked about—Night of the Living Dead. By that time, most of the other guys had moved on to other things, but my best friend and I were still hooked. Our first viewing of NOTLD was mind blowing. It was way different than Dawn, but just as cool. And being twisted little twits, we loved that even the good guy bit the dust in the end.
We watched NOTLD and Dawn until even the tracking couldn’t wipe out all the snow and squiggly lines.
When we heard the next installment, Day of the Dead, was coming out in the summer of 1985, we nearly swooned. Talk about a double whammy wish for school to hurry up and get over itself.
I remember it being a real hot July Friday when we were dropped off at the duplex in the outdoor shopping mall (did someone say mall!!!). My BFFAFMY (Best Friend For A Few More Years) and I got there to see the very first showing of Day of the Dead. We’d purposely avoided any spoilers for the movie, which was pretty easy back then. All it meant was not reading Fango.
This time around, as you all know, Romero traded the mall for a military bunker, loading it with the most argumentative, bat shit lunatics ever assembled. It was brutal. It took the gore factor from Dawn to new, disgusting heights. It was claustrophobic. It was shocking, even for us. Best of all, it gave us Bub, the talking (Hello Aunt Alicia), gun toting zombie (whom I just met last year and was grateful he didn’t eat my face off).
Holy shit balls. We were higher than any dope head with a dime bag when we walked out of the cool theater into the humid afternoon air. We tried to sneak in to see it again, but got busted. No matter, we took our allowance and went back the next week. Then it was gone, and we had to wait well over a year for it to be released on video, where we watched it over and over. I still have the tape, though I’m not sure it’ll play anymore.
Most people will say that Day is the lesser of Romero’s “Big Three” zombie flicks, but for my money, it’s the most jarring. It shows how deeply depraved man can get when left to scratch out a life among the undead, reduced to mole people with guns and scalpels and booze. Those Army nut bars may have made a game out of corralling zombies for the sadistic Doctor Frankenstein to make hamburger out of them, but to me, it looked like the single most terrifying thing a person could ever do.
Watching one-armed Miguel gather dozens of zombies on that elevated platform, munching on him while he got his revenge on the racist schmucks who made his life miserable was a real gut check for me. It still is. Imagine the kind of hate you have in your heart, or madness eating away at your brain, to do such a thing.
That’s what George Romero did best. He not only entertained and frightened us, defining a genre. He also made us think, and perhaps look askance at the person standing next to us at the bus stop. What would they do if there was a sudden zombie outbreak? Would they help you or feed you to the undead? And if you think you’d be such a swell hero type, when you really imagine facing a zombie horde, well, your inner asshole may take center stage. You could be the coward chucking women and children in front of you, buying yourself time to find a way out.
If George Romero only made one of those movies, he’d still be considered a legend, at least in my mind. Let’s not forget, he also gave us The Crazies, Martin, Creepshow, and, as a writer, one of my favorites, The Dark Half. And oh how I loved his stellar work on Tales From The Darkside, the Twilight Zone with an attitude of my generation. All of this he accomplished in a system that never seemed to give him his due, or the budget they’d throw away on a commercial about douches.
I was fortunate enough to meet George at one of the last Horrorfind conventions. He was a lot taller than I expected, but he had a quick smile and those wonderful glasses. I had bought a Dawn of the Dead script from the husband and wife nurse and escalator zombies at Chiller years earlier, saving the headshot on the cover for George to sign. He was thrilled to see it because it has the alternate ending. We talked for a while, took some pictures and I floated up to my room to recover.
As much as I credit my father and Universal Monsters for making me what I am today, I have to give equal credit to George Romero and those undead eating machines. Always, always make mine slow moving zombies! Rest in peace, George. And if you someday rise from the grave, I promise not to take that headshot.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.