A Saturday morning featuring my brother, my sister and her boyfriend terrifying me with tales of what they had seen the night before. Hordes of marauding ghouls piling on top of the living, chewing on them, and in turn transforming them into one of their own.
The details of what they saw, from the graphic details of the munching sequences, to the fear of their creatures' numbers were truly disturbing, but what was more haunting was the realistic description of the downfall of society under the weight of this gruesome and massive threat.
What they saw and were reiterating to me was a midnight screening of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead", and the descriptions kept me up at night.
A week or so later, I distinctly remember hearing Kenosha's WRKR broadcasting the radio ad for the obviously successful midnight movie. The ominous rumblings from the deep-voiced narrator telling me how the film had been banned in a gazillion countries and several planets. This didn't sound like a sales pitch, it sounded like a damn public service announcement!
For some reason, all this made me nervous.
Flash forward about 3 years. I'm a 7th grader, sitting in my room on a grey, boring, fall Saturday afternoon. I decide, in an incredibly bored state of mind, to flip on my little Portland (a Daewoo product!) television and click over to WVTV 18's afternoon movie.
"The Night of the Living Dead".
Oh, boy. Should I watch this?
I'd heard the stories, and I knew of the connection to "Dawn of the Dead". "Dawn" was the sequel to Romero's "Night", a low budget horror film that scared audiences and put butts in the seats back in 1968. I had read in library books about the movies, about both "Night" and "Dawn", touting the ground-breaking effects work, the often realistic depiction of societal breakdown, and their unrated statuses. On video shelves, I had seen the Thorn/EMI VHS tape of "Dawn" on the shelves with Roger Ebert's blurb about "The savagely satanic view of America" blasting off of it.
Still nervous. But curious. Like a cat.
The lead-in to Ebert's talking point was on right now.
I watched "Night of the Living Dead" that afternoon, and I was never the same again in regards to movies. Despite it being the middle of the afternoon, broad daylight, and my parents being about 40 feet away in the living room, this movie scared the shit out of me. I had felt this way only one time before, and you can thank John Carpenter and Michael Myers for that. But I knew Myers wasn't real. The stuff happening on the screen here felt like it could actually happen, and the crux of it's effectiveness lies right there.
That's what George Romero did. He made me deal with a movie, not just watch it.
When I finally saw "Dawn of the Dead" 5 years later, as a senior in high school, I felt the same apprehensiveness. I was actually afraid as the opening frames unspooled across the screen. That red carpet backdrop behind the film's title graphic served as some sort of warning.
But like I did with "Night", I hung in for "Dawn". It was like dipping your toe in ice cold water. With every horrifying event on the screen, I was able to go a little deeper, be able to take it a little easier. By the end of the movie, I felt as though I had survived something, but now I was ready. Ready for more. At this moment, I had truly had fallen in love with the horror genre.
John Carpenter and George Romero had given me something I had never felt before. They had taken me to an edge. Made me feel a shaky, electrical feeling, a combination of fear and exhilaration. They taught me that movies were more than an entertainment. You could actually take someone for a ride, nervously perhaps, but nonetheless, take them. I was glad to introduce my son to the works of both of these great men years later, and have learned it was a great decision.
George A. Romero passed away yesterday. His oeuvre was much more than "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead", and even the Dead films in general. He was a great filmmaker, but one thing I learned through his interviews and even attending a screening of "Dawn" with my father-in-law, he was funny, political, thoughtful, sharp as a tack, and genuine. Intensely genuine.
Just last fall I watched the feature "Night of the Living Steelers" on the NFL Network. The project intertwined George's career with the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers. George was a Pittsburgh native, a Steeler fan, and at one time even directed short films for NFL films. In this featurette, his guiding hand and warm voice took you through the sounds and images of horror and football both and reiterated the down-to-Earth nature and uniqueness of this wizard of filmmaking. "Steelers" teaches you just as much about the Steel City cinematic legend's roots as it does the Pittsburgh Gridiron stalwarts. After seeing this little documentary, I felt closer to the man and I'm grateful I saw it.
It effected me deeply when I had learned he was gone, and I'm going to miss him.
He was one hell of an individual, and they don't make 'em like George anymore.