Art is an weird thing. Most individuals who claim to be artists just do something, anything, and say it’s art. There’s no thought behind it. There’s not a motive or a meaning behind it. It’s just a thing that lives for a while and then dies. That’s what art is to a lot of people – a thing.
But some artists earn their title. Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo – these are masters of their craft. These are individuals who developed, honed, and perfected skills over the course of a lifetime. Because of that, they are remembered, revered, and respected.
Yesterday, we lost a master of a different kind of art: film. People often forget that film can be and, in fact, is a form of art. But George A. Romero showed me that film doesn’t have to be Wedding Crashers or The Omen. Film doesn’t have to just scare the shit out of people. Film doesn’t have to be a constant flow of fart jokes and improv to be funny. When a true master creates, they can make something that not only leaves you thinking, but leaves you wanting more.
My first adventure to the zombie genre wasn’t actually a Romero film. It was The Return of the Living Dead. Zombie lovers will agree with me that this movie… isn’t too great. I mean, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s got an interesting concept behind it, but it’s really just not that good. It was a typical 1980s horror film that’s sole purpose was to check all the horror-film-trope tick boxes. Regardless of it being bad, it instilled in me a love for all things zombie. I loved the concept of a human enemy, an enemy that was just like us, but instead of being motivated by love, greed, or hate, this enemy was driven by the most primal instinct of them all: hunger.
From there, I remember watching Night of the Living Dead with my dad. I remember going to see Land of the Dead when it came out in theaters after Romero’s decades-long hiatus. I really loved zombie films, but I didn’t learn to appreciate them until later in life. Late one night, I was watching Night of the Living Dead and realized that this wasn’t just a movie about a bunch of people in a house trying not to get eaten. This was a movie about fighting the enemies on both the outside and the inside. It was a movie about racism, anger, and societal hate. I mean, a black guy in the starring role of a movie in the 1960s? That’s some groundbreaking stuff. Zombie movies, and any good film, for that matter, should be a commentary. They should spit into the face of society and challenge something that it holds dear.
From there, I began to devour out every zombie film I could find, good or bad: the 28 Days series, Shaun of the Dead, even one called Aaah! Zombies!! that’s switches between zombie perspective and human perspective by means of color. (I mean, it’s not great, but I’d check it out if you’ve got an hour and a half to kill.) I was looking for the perfect zombie movie, but I always went back to Romero. Maybe it was just because he was the original, the OZ if you will. Maybe it was because his movies had more meaning behind them, more story, more gore than the rest. It turns out it was all those things.
It wasn’t until I watched an interview with him on Night of the Living Dead that I really understood what he was trying to do with his art (and why I loved them so much). I can’t remember the exact quote, but it went something like this:
“If a zombie movie doesn’t have some sort of social undertone, it’s just another crappy movie.”
And he’s right. You can look at any zombie movie and say ‘Oh well this is about humans being the real enemy not the zombies bleh,’ but it takes a really good zombie film to make you go “Wow.” And that’s what Romero’s films do. He, up until the very end, made his zombie movies a statement. They weren’t crappy movies that jumped onto a bandwagon or capitalized on a fad. They were commentaries from the start.
Let’s look at Night of the Living Dead. Like I said earlier, it’s not just about zombies and people stuck inside a house. It’s about racism. The black dude actually lives all the way to the end. The black dude is he hero (In the 1960s, this was a BIG deal). He makes it through all this shit, only to be killed by a band of white guys at the very end. (Sorry, 50 years is well past the ‘spoiler alert’ warning.) Dawn of the Dead hits right at the heart of American consumerism. It shows us how greed can totally destroy everything you work for. Day of the Dead, my personal favorite, perfectly illustrates the military/civilian dichotomy that has become increasingly at odds since WWII. All of his zombie films, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, are perfect snippets of American society, and they all make us fear the way we live our lives in a new, interesting way.
George Romero showed me that film could be more than something you sit down and watch for a couple of hours when you’re bored. He showed me that a truly good film is a piece of art. Underneath every single frame, every line of dialogue, there should be a statement. A good film should make your jaw drop in both horror and wonder simultaneously. George Romero was a great director, a genius writer, and a fantastic artist.
Thanks for the nightmares.