Monday, July 17, 2017

George A Romero: My Tribute

I can say, without the slightest shred of hyperbole, that I would not be the man I am today had it not been for George Romero.  It would be the farthest thing possible from an exaggeration to say that, despite the fact that I never met the man, or was ever even in the same room as him, his impact on my life is equal to, if not greater than, anyone who has ever walked the planet.  The death of an artist can be a very bizarre and complex phenomenon.  Those who mourn are often looked upon with scorn for placing so much emphasis on the passing of a public figure that, in the strictest terms, wasn’t a physical part of their world.  But for those whose lives were deeply touched by that person’s art, it can feel like the loss of a family member.  A beloved friend.  A mentor.  A hero.  Even a sort of spiritual figure.  That is the power that lies in the essence of art.  Art changes lives.  And I can honestly say that I have never felt an artist’s passing as intensely as I feel this one because George Romero’s art, in a very real and literal sense, profoundly altered the course of my life.  There would never have been a Son of Celluloid without him.  More importantly however, had it not been for one fateful viewing of Night of the Living Dead, I’m not even sure who Nathan Hamilton would be today.

In 1992, I was a very mixed up kid.  As the son of a Southern Baptist minister and a member of a traveling evangelistic family unit as a child, I had been fully indoctrinated.  Some would call it brainwashing.  From birth I was being groomed to carry on the family business.  But there was a side of me that I didn’t understand.  I had always found myself attracted to the darkness.  While others were preaching about Jesus healing lepers, I was enamored with the seven headed apocalyptic beasts in Revelations.  While my father talked about the resurrection from the pulpit, I was rendering the best gory-as-hell depictions of crucifixions my five year old art skills would allow on the back of church bulletins.  More than one concerned Sunday School teacher called my folks in for a conference when, upon being tasked with drawing a picture from a bible story, I turned in an image of David holding Goliath’s dripping, severed head aloft.

I was just doing what came natural to me, but it was always treated as some sort of derangement that needed to be fixed.  I was sick.  These urges were of the devil.  Why are you like this?  Why can’t you be normal?  Do you think this glorifies the Lord?  What’s the matter with you?  When your entire world view is based on sin and salvation, if you are told enough times by those you believe to be spiritual leaders that there is something deeply wrong with you, you start to believe it yourself.  If an impressionable child is prayed over to “take this wickedness from him” enough times, it will inevitably get inside their head.  And this is where I found myself in early October of 1992; with a deep seeded inner turmoil.  I was torn between my honest proclivity towards the macabre and the fear that these urges very well may be the work of infernal powers after all.  I didn’t know what to think.

Then came a night that, 25 years later, I still remember as vividly as a snapshot.  On my little black and white TV in my room, I discovered that some now long defunct and forgotten UHF station was about to show a movie called Night of the Living Dead.  I had heard the name somewhere before, and I knew I had to see it.  That night, basking in the glorious monochrome glow, I saw my first horror movie.  I wasn’t afraid.  I was mesmerized.  As the movie progressed, I slowly came to the realization that if this kind of entertainment existed, then there were more people out there like me.  Lots more.  Enough that they made movies just for them.  I was reveling in the things that fed my soul, the very things I had been taught to hate and fear, and nothing bad was happening.  I felt no satanic command to kill people.  My soul wasn’t being dragged to the abyss.  In fact, I was the happiest I had ever been.  Watching that movie felt… it felt like home.

When it  ended, I laid down in bed and thought long and hard.  Everything I had ever been taught said that what I had just done was wrong.  But everything within me had never felt so right.  It was in that moment that I decided that I no longer wanted to be what I was being made into.  I wanted to be who I actually was.  As I drifted off to sleep, that inner turmoil was gone.  In its place, I felt truly at peace for the first time I could remember.  The person that I would eventually grow into was born in that moment.  That’s why I call myself the Son of Celluloid.  Because I feel like that singular movie experience gave birth to the real me.  And although I now know that it takes a small army to make a film happen, in my 12 year old mind that realization, that conversion, was thanks to one man; the director.  George A Romero.  I guess, in a way, you could call him the Father of Celluloid.

About a year later, the first horror movie I ever purchased was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.   That beat to hell VHS still sits in my collection as the cornerstone of the horror obsession at the core of my being.  I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve watched it.  For years, I watched it as I went to sleep nearly every night.  The first thing I’ve done on my last 20 or so Halloweens is put that movie on.  When I went to film school, about 75% of my projects and essays were about his body of work (the other quarter were about Argento).  I always hoped, one day, that I would get to meet the man who changed my life and thank him.  When I started getting involved with the Days of the Dead conventions, I always hoped he would be there one year.  Sadly, our paths never crossed.  He was supposed to be the keynote guest in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago.  I had that old VHS tape ready for him to sign.  I was finally going to meet the man who had meant more to me than he possibly could have ever known.  Truth be told, I probably would have blathered like an idiot or just frozen in the face of a man who, in my mind, had been built up to damn near Godlike status.  It was not to be, however.  He cancelled due to health reasons.  I was crushed, but held the hope that he would be healthy again when the next con came around.  Sadly, there will never be a next time.

This may have all sounded very maudlin and melodramatic to some of you, but my words are the only tribute I have for a man who, in a way that cannot be overstated, set me free.  It’s strange knowing that I now live in a world where the godfather of independent horror no longer walks among us.  I’m sure he knew his stature in the horror world.  I’m sure he’s been told countless times by countless filmmakers that he was their inspiration.  I’m sure he knew that, by creating the modern zombie, he changed the landscape of the genre forever.  I’m sure untold numbers of fans have made him uncomfortable professing their admiration for him just like I probably would have.  But I wonder if he knew just how far his influence transcended horror entertainment and touched the very hearts, minds, and lives of his fans and, in cases like mine, was a guiding force in who they would come to be.  My fondest hope is that he somehow did.

So now here I sit, watching Night of the Living Dead for the only god knows how many hundredth time.  In the past, I have watched this movie and thrilled.  I have watched this movie and marveled.  I have watched this movie and laughed.  I have watched this movie and been comforted.  I have watched this movie and learned.  I have watched this movie and adored every second of entertainment it has given me.  But tonight, for the very first time, I watch this movie and weep.  Thank you, George.  Not just for what you did, but for what you meant.


JunkPunk Voorhees said...


Cash Wampum said...

Make sure you join us Monday evening! Commemorations all around!

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