“There are no signs supporting Hillary. We drove from Canada to here, and in front of houses and gardens we only saw signs with Vote Trump. It surely must mean something…”
Thus, less than a week before the November elections, in a historic Chinese restaurant in New York that he liked very much, George Romero was concerned. Without knowing it, with his strong intuition and against all odds, he anticipated the catastrophe. Just as, in a sense, he did in almost all his films.
An avid consumer of news, George spent hours and hours stuck in front of CNN, from which he filtered the repetitive chatter with the wisdom and mistrust of the powers that characterized him and marked him as an outsider. His was not an addiction of interest in the political intrigues in Washington and Hollywood, but a curiosity and a deep love for human folly and frailty.
From the Bronx, where he was born in the shadow of the red scare, to Pittsburgh — the capital of steel mills – to a provincial metropolis like Toronto, Romero has never been an establishment man, either geographically nor in art. He did not have the stomach for it. He was not scared; rather he chose to operate according to a different set of goals and values, looking beyond — and at the same time, he was obsolete and futuristic as the medieval centaurs of his magnificent Knightriders.
When I told him that I thought he was a prophet, he laughed. But what is Diary of the Dead but a very lucid prophecy? A leap into the past of ‘60s and ‘70s guerrilla productions such as Night, Martin, The Crazies, and above all, Knightriders (which has the spirit, the plot on the road and pictorialism of photography), these are films totally attuned to the YouTube generation and the tsunami of images, imagery and information generated from the internet. Like the other titles of the era, Diary is an epoch-making film.
“Every time I make a new zombie movie, it is not because I’m interested in the evolution of their mythology but because I feel the need to say something about the world around us,” George often said. If Night was America in the Vietnam era, Dawn is the America of the consumer boom and pop culture. Day is the Ronald Reagan era, while behind (or rather in) Land were Cheney, Rumsfeld and the disaster of their years (Romero put the finishing touches on the script in the days that followed Sept. 11). The concern of Diary was all directed to the explosion of the media whose presence — always unreliable and elusive — Romero had already pointed out in the past.
Legendary since his first work — the dazzling black-and-white horror, so miraculously poised between Welles and the news, which remains one of the major documents of America in the ‘60s — Romero remained nonetheless a more unknown author, original and unexplored. And this also because his films, especially those from the zombies series, were hard to watch, often mutilated or reassembled in versions different from the original director’s cut.
“I have never managed to make a film entirely as I wanted,” George said several times, not complaining but wondering how he would do it, maybe not even quite sure he wanted to. If Romero released the American horror cinema from the European Gothic tradition, completely reinventing and launching the great revival of the ’70s, at the same time his training and his imagination are rooted in the culture, myths and cinema of the Old World. Behind the use of the genre in its most explicit dimension of political and social commentary, Romero’s work hides a much more complex moral inquiry, passionate and still unresolved.
It is a cinema of great urgency, inexhaustible imagination and penetrating relationship with the present — not just because George wrote while sitting in front of the TV — Romero’s films from the start struggled to exist. Which makes their indelibility even more touching.
The incredible saga of the remaking, the mutations and the endless return of Night of the Living Dead — a mythical object whose legacy extends through most of American cinema of the last 50 years, and of which the director and the producers could never sign the copyright, was a metaphor of the ghostly and elusive quality of work.
Amid the great sorrow for his death, there is a poetic justice. After Survival of the Dead (a Western hidden behind a zombie movie because otherwise he could not find the money to make it) the last film of the Dead cycle George left us is also the first. Almost half a century after its creation, last fall, George Romero managed to finish the Night of the Living Dead exactly as he had imagined it in 1968.
He attended the screening of the digital version, scanned from the negative of the film, to which he did not have access, armed with a notebook. On it, he had listed the two or three things, nothing more, he was not able to finish, due to lack of time and money. At the end of the session — the magnificent film in its deepest whites and blacks and dazzling in its clarity — he was happy, almost in disbelief.
Two weeks ago, his wife Suzanne wrote to me, George had stopped watching CNN.
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