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Reflecting on the work of director George Romero, 1940-2017

As good as dead

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On Sunday June 16 at 5:31 p.m. I got a text from a friend that simply read: "George Romero died." I simply replied, "Really?" feebly hoping my friend was, for no logical reason whatsoever, screwing with my nerd heartstrings. A minute later, I received a link to the LA Times article that told me that, yes indeed, the director of the 1968 horror film Night Of The Living Dead had passed away. I won't pretend, in this age of exacerbated social media-fueled overreaction, that I was a quivering mess whose heart was aching. The guy wrote and directed movies about the undead eating people. Where's the emotional catharsis in that? To put it in the simplest terms, in the most convenient phrases, it bummed me out. A little over a year ago, I could have gone to Mad Monster Party, a Charlotte, N.C.-based sci-fi/horror convention, to stand in a long-ass line alongside other diehard fans and plunk down a day's worth of earnings so I could essentially shake his hand and tell him what thousands of other fanboys have already said much more eloquently. A fanguy can still have that little daydream:

If I stood before Romero with my original 1985 Day Of The Dead poster in one hand and the other hand outstretched for the introduction, I'd likely say, with a hushed horror-nerd reverence, "Dude I love your movies." In addition to that comment, I'd likely try to out-hip all the other nerds standing behind me while he signed my poster, "Of all your movies, man, Martin is my favorite." He'd likely smile and look up at me through those big-ass grandfatherly glasses and say, "Thanks" while reaching out for the next picture or poster to sign. I'd walk away self-satisfied that Romero was likely pretty impressed that I name-checked his vampire movie rather than one of his undead films. I also wouldn't have noticed all the people behind me holding Martin memorabilia.

Whether intentional or unintentional, George Romero's first three undead films — Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead — carried political undercurrents and themes that, because of the passage of time, seem almost historical.

Night seemed to accidentally say something about race, Dawn intentionally mocked consumerism, and Day examined clashes between science and the military. They've achieved an almost mythic quality. Given the extreme divide in our political climate, one can't help but wonder if Romero saw something that could be exploited.

Without Romero's impact, pop culture would have a noticeable chasm. Unfortunately, people never really knew it while he was alive. Without him, there'd be no zombie walks. World War Z, Resident Evil, and that human misery ball that is The Walking Dead would not exist. Posthumously, articles and tributes have popped up. They're now noting Romero's zombie thing and his influence on independent filmmaking in general. Better late than never I guess. Still, I wish his name had been as popular in life as that other director named George, but that's just the wishful thinking of an angry nerd.

But it's Martin that really stands out. Like most of Romero's early output, the film takes place in Pittsburgh and stars many local actors — Romero himself even makes an appearance as a chain smoking priest that loves The Exorcist. It also has all the trappings — cinema verite', quiet psychedelic music passages, and naturalistic performances — of a low budget, mid-70s film that really gives it a disturbed vibe all its own.

Martin is an intimate portrayal of familial dysfunction, sexual awareness, and good old-fashioned Catholic guilt at it's worst. Our protagonist, Martin Mathias (Romero regular John Amplas), is a shy, troubled, innocent teenager who thinks he is an 84-year-old vampire. When the film opens, Martin boards a train bound for Braddock, Penn. with an eye fixed on one of the passengers — a young woman staying in an overnight cabin. Before long, he has broken into her cabin with black and white fairy tale visions of him lulling her into a romantic encounter. That dream quickly ends with the cold reality of his victim emerging from the bathroom in a beauty cream mask and blowing her nose. He awkwardly wrestles with her while she calls him a "rapist asshole." What at first seems like unpleasant comedy quickly reveals itself as a horror film when he eventually drugs her so he can drink her blood. He stages the cabin to look like a suicide. The next morning he awkwardly bumbles his way off the train to meet up with a man cloaked in white, his cousin, Tateh Cuda(Lincoln Maazel). Cuda reluctantly agrees to give Martin a place to live with him and Cuda's granddaughter Christine (Christine Forrest, Romero's future wife). It should be noted that the highly devout Cuda, like most members of the highly superstitious family, believes Martin is an Old World vampire that fears garlic, sunlight, and crosses. In fact, the very moment Martin meets him, Cuda informs him he will save his soul and then kill him. Good times. There are moments that are as grisly and uncomfortable as a your latest Law And Order: SVU episode but it gives empathy to its monster.

As outrageous as the plotline goes, the film is a mature piece of work that invokes moments of tenderness and melancholy that don't readily come to mind when one thinks of George Romero. Martin is a haunting tragedy.

I own Martin on VHS and DVD. I'd like to be extra pretentious and on it own Blu-Ray but former Romero collaborator , Richard Rubinstein, who holds the film rights, has kept that from happening for some reason. For anyone remotely curious, the film itself is available for free on YouTube.

By the way, I was lying earlier. I got pretty misty-eyed when I got that text.

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