Walking past a crowded hotel bar in the middle of a horror convention, I spotted him. The famous glasses, the splash of gray hair, all gave away his identity. This man, a legend among us zombie fans, was no other than the George Romero, the father of zombies as the world came to understand them. Zombies; with their slow, shuffling gait; their nearly unstoppable quest for food; and their continuous movement with what would have been a fatal wound in an unafflicted person; all became a staple in what would later be referred to as a Romero zombie. And here I was, not that far from him. My starstruck self was too intimidated to approach him, to ask to shake his hand; and now? I never will.
Nearly 25 years ago I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, 24 years after it had been released, and I sat enthralled. I knew that he built the movie on a shoestring budget, and for all intents and purposes, it should have been relegated to the 'B' movie pile; but 15 minutes into the film you knew that this was special. Even my teenaged self recognized that the concepts, the gore, the fact that you could be one of the "good guys" and still lose; all ensured its place in history as a great and in that, ensured Mr. Romero would outlast the final curtain call. It was storytelling at its finest, something big money could never buy.
In the late 60's, Mr. Romero was an indie and redefined what being an indie meant. Nearly 50 years later, he still redefines what being an indie means. Mr. Romero didn't just take on a movie, he didn't just create a monster that had previously only been known as part of a voodoo curse and turn it into an industry. He showed the world that little guys had a voice and a message too.
The zombie genre evolved after that first taste. His original story was reanimation after irradiation, and as time went on, a viral or bacterial agent - horribly mutated of course - became the new norm. Others adapted it further to suit their story needs into fast-moving, super-infected monsters, while others remained loyal to the stumbling, moaning menaces that wander around aimlessly. Regardless of mode of infection or rate of speed, we have a new boogeyman to grow.
20 years after my first taste of the genre, I was still enthralled. I, too, adapted my monsters to fit my storyline, but the essence of his legacy, the idea that you don't need that big box backer to have a voice, stayed strong. The little guy had a place too, and not just being relegated to the bargain basement.
49 years of living legacy. It's more than most of us could dare to dream of, but Mr. Romero showed us that taking the risk of a potential downside is better than never trying at all.
Godspeed, Mr. Romero, and should we meet again at the ultimate horror convention on the other side? Please excuse the girl that will be coming up to you in the crowded bar just to shake your hand.
- J. Rudolph