There really isn’t much else to say or mention about George A. Romero (1940-2017) that hasn’t been said already, and like Simon Pegg alluded to earlier this week, it’s tough to eulogize someone that means so much to you without making it about you yourself. And while that sort of reflection may indeed seem self-serving, I do feel that it’s therapeutic to remember why you were drawn to Romero and his films in the first place.
For me, I was first introduced to Dawn of the Dead in the 6th grade by my stepbrother and remember initially being drawn to the tense pace and horrific imagery, especially the infamous scene where a SWAT team raids a zombie infested housing project and everything goes batshit crazy. From that point on I’d obsessively go on to learn about the rest of the original Dead Trilogy and reach out to other brilliant works of his such as the unconventional vampire flick Martin and his collaboration with Stephen King in Creepshow.
Considering that I’ve been an avid fanatic of Romero’s for so long, and I know that this town is full of zombie appreciating weirdos, I naturally reached out to co-founder of the Louisville Zombie Attack John King to see if he’d be willing to answer a few Romero-related questions in memory of the legendary director. Thankfully, he obliged…
Never Nervous: As a founding member of the Louisville Zombie Attack, what do George Romero and his films mean to you?
John King: Well, in terms of Zombie Attack it means everything. Romero is the father of the modern Zombie, the one that comes to mind when we think zombies: Flesh eating rotten corpses mindlessly roaming the streets to devour human victims. Before 1968 when Night Of the Living Dead was released the idea of zombies were derived from Haitian folklore of people being dosed with a poison that renders them mindless and completely at the mercy of others, as depicted in the 1932 film White Zombie staring Béla Lugosi. The poison is made from a Datura flower that is quite beautiful really, but strips it’s victims of reality, those who survive have described the processes as horrifying. Further reading on this can be found in the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, written by Harvard Scientist Wade Davis.
But Romero’s zombies had no puppet masters, just hordes of living dead that can only be killed by piercing the brain. It was Romero’s zombie hordes that lead me to want to stage a recreation of that and ultimately how Louisville Zombie Attack was born. A fun fact being that Romero didn’t set out to make a new zombie creature; in Night Of The Living Dead they are called Ghouls and Romero mentions later that zombies hadn’t entered into the equation at the time, stating “I never thought of my guys as zombies when I made the first film. To me, zombies were still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wetwork for Lugosi.” This may account for the running theme in his films to never use the “Z” word.
NN: What is your favorite Romero film that isn’t part of his Dead series?
JK: That would be The Crazies. Although one could argue that it involves a form of Zombie. It’s about a biological agent that effects people and turns them into blood thirsty killers. The difference between this and Romero’s traditional zombie is that the infected still retain brain function, so they can think up the brutal ways to kill loved ones and neighbors while evading law enforcement and pretending to not be infected. The 2010 remake with Timothy Olyphant is also great.
NN: What is your favorite character from all of the Dead films, and why? Mine is Sarah from Day of the Dead.
JK: Sarah is awesome! Romero was great at creating lead characters outside of the normal archetype. Most famous would be Ben from Night of the Living Dead. Romero was praised for Hiring a black man in the role of the Hero, and the film is noted for being the first film with a black protagonist in a film that where race is not a factor. Romero really had a way to get us to forget stereotypes and root for an unassuming character. In Land of the Dead the protagonist is Big Daddy, who is himself a zombie, who is desperately trying to save his fellow ghouls from being slaughtered.
But I don’t know if I could pick a favorite. I do love Ana from the Dawn of the Dead remake; she reminds me a lot of Sarah from Day of the Dead. But Day Of The Dead also has Bub, one of my favorite Romero characters. It’s the first time we actually find ourselves rooting for a flesh eater.
NN: Which character from his Dead films did you absolutely love to hate? Mine has to be Rhodes, again from Day of the Dead. He was such an asshole!
JK: Rhodes is an asshole! And so are his cronies. Romero did a good job of painting humans as the real monster. Land of the Dead’s Kaufman (played by Dennis Hopper) super sucks as well, but I think Harry Cooper from Night of the Living Dead takes the cake as favorite character to hate.
NN: If you had to select one quotable line from a Romero flick, a line that you still quote on a semi-regular basis, what would it be?
JK: Great question as there is a line that pops into my head every few weeks! It’s actually from the 2004 Dawn Of the Dead remake (an amazing film, possibly my favorite zombie film) when Frank, who is dying from a zombie bite, remarks on the fragility of life and says “You want… every… single second.” It’s one of those lines that comes to mind when our thoughts turn to the bizarre notion that we have life, and that we will lose that life one day. We won’t truly know what that will be like until it happens, so we look to art for some of those answers, ironically written by those who don’t yet know either.
Of course hamlet may have said it best with “to die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep, to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
Another quote that pops into mind during these times is from the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
JK: Yes, I thought Diary of The Dead was really interesting. It came out in 2008 and we somehow were allowed to premier it at Zombie Attack that year. The idea of the film was that someone came along after a zombie attack and pieced together what happened using found footage from discarded video cameras, security footage, and student films. It may have been a way to keep production costs down, but it was a very unique idea. The next film he did in the series, Survival Of The Dead from 2009, was also on a shoestring budget, and is almost comical in how bad it is. At one point there is a zombied arm reaching out in an underwater scene and the camera accidentally shifts backward to show a guy in swim gear and snorkel mask operating the dead arm.
NN: Is there anything planned for Louisville Zombie Attack to honor Romero in some way?
JK: Yes, we always show zombie films at Zombie Attack; in the past we have worked with Baxter Theaters and art galleries to screen films, in recent years we would have a pre-attack make-up party at The Back Door with zombie films playing; but this situation with an imposter ‘zombie walk’ taking place on Bardstown road we had to get creative in finding a way to still honor the tradition of Louisville Zombie Attack without causing further confusion to the public. So we have decided to return to our roots and make this year’s Attack more like it was in the beginning. While we are not ready yet to announce everything we are planning for 8/29, I can say that in conjunction with The Cure Lounge we are planning a tribute to Romero with a double feature “Walk-In” (like a Drive-In but on foot outside with space for blankets and chairs) as well as a documentary on Romero called ‘Chronicles of the Living Dead’. You can find more information on this year’s Louisville Zombie Attack at louisvillezombieattack.com.