Remembrances, legacies, and celebrations. Why do we always wait until after they’re gone to make them understand?
George A. Romero’s passing caught me by surprise. I didn’t know him. He wasn’t family to me. I couldn’t call him on the telephone. Had I ever met him in person, I’m certain I would have addressed him as “Mr. Uh Romero ILegitThinkYouAreGreatSir.” I say legit way too much when I get excited. I don’t know why. However, I do know his movies, and the impact they’ve had on the way I think about films. My wife introduced me to Night of the Living Dead in college. Somehow, I had avoided being spoiled on the shocking end. I’m telling y’all. That ending. It rocked me. From there it was just love, gnash, love, rip, love, and guts.
For a man who defined a genre of undead horrors, Romero had quite a bit to say about humanity. His films are chockablock with social critique about how we are vain. And selfish. And just plain scared by anything different. And just how driven we are by an insatiable, desperate need for any measure of safety. For my money, everything humanity has achieved has come from collaboration. All our biggest hits are super group numbers. Romero skewered not only our individualistic traits but also our ability to come across as a monolith, flattening every thing in our combined path. It’s important to think about how the things we consider successes can be perverted to destructive ends. His philosophy and approach continue to influence filmmakers today. Edgar Wright, director of my second favorite zombie movie, posted a lovely tribute to Mr. Romero that explores that idea of last legacies and their value.
We spend so much of our time reacting to things. We lose so much — and I suppose gain some — to the urgency of The Now. We’re amnesiacs, perpetually caught in the present just trying to survive. Our great loves and great victories quickly become glimpses of the ephemeral. Sometimes that’s destructive. Other times, it can be freeing to allow us to pursue new things. Romero, despite all his perfect social and political skewering, was mortal. He tended to downplay his own significance. That’s evident from Wright’s piece. Following the notice that Romero would receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Wright traded emails with Romero about attending the event. He quotes Romero, who I like to think is turning a wry observational eye on his own vanity, as saying:
“I fully appreciate that some day in the future one of my kids might be walking along Zambeezie Street in L.A. and wonder why his or her father has his name embedded beneath the dog shit. Thousands of people, stepping over that same dog shit, if they can decipher the time-crusted lettering, will ask, ‘Who the fuck is George Romero?’ Only you and my children will know.”
Romero made his movies by creating a unique space to tell his stories. Being at the forefront of niche genre space you’ve carved out for yourself is tough. I imagine it’s quite difficult to look around and feel as though you’re appreciated. But, those are the filmmakers we grow to love and respect because they show us the way. What a conundrum! Art is tough. It should be tough. If you aren’t questioning whether you’ve gone too far or if folks appreciate what you’re creating, it means you’re either a virtuoso or you aren’t pushing the limits of your ability.I have so much respect and appreciation for the amount of considered observation of the human condition, especially of the American condition, Romero worked into his silly, gore-filled, walking dead flicks.
I’ve written about a number of filmmakers who have thoroughly embraced the idea that we can create our own monsters, our own rules, and do lovely, gross, and big things with them. Folks like Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Spring; The Endless), whose films are beautifully original, heartfelt genre mashes. Or, Mattie Do (Dearest Sister) who is building a new order of horror in Laos. Or, H.P. Mendoza (I Am A Ghost) whose film took a wonderfully unique approach and whose impact I see in A Ghost Story. Or, Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here), whose film made me fall in love with ghost stories again. Or, Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night; The Bad Batch) who totally understands Romero’s skepticism of the American Dream. Or, Sara Adina Smith (The Midnight Swim; Buster’s Mal Heart) who I think is a mad alchemist of filmmaking, mixing horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
When the news of Romero’s passing broke, many people took to social media to talk about how he influenced them and how much of an impact he had on their lives. Myself included. I saw a few folks share that it would be optimal if our regular mode was an outpouring of such love. And that caught traction with me for exactly the reasons I share above. Why do we only focus on the value after their passing? Legacies, remembrances, regret. Memento mori, my friends. Act accordingly. I want to embrace the idea of celebrating the creators who move us. So that they might know: we know. We know who the fuck you are.
Here are some of the folks operating in the horror genre that I need more of in my life. What names are on your list of filmmakers that are changing the way you think about life?
Joe Cornish — Attack the Block
If you want to talk about influence, look no further. This was the first time I saw Jodie Whittaker in a film. It was just announced that she’ll be taking on the role of the next incarnation of the Doctor in the long running science fiction series, Doctor Who. Cornish also gave us John Boyega as Moses. Oh, my goodness, he has a natural charisma about him that’s hard to shake off. It’s been delightful to watch Boyega reap huge successes over the last six years.
Cornish picked an amazingly talented cast of predominately brand new actors for his film. He made a deliberate choice to pursue actual kids, selected from local open auditions and theater classes, to make his movie about life taking on a dark turn on a council estate in London. Because of that, despite the movie being about toothy, vicious creatures from outer space attacking a neighborhood, the characters feel authentic. We get a glimpse at the feeling of being completely disenfranchised, the seduction of mischief and the slide towards becoming a professional criminal, and how young we all are when we encounter these life altering choices and states. It was a huge a gamble on their end, sacrificing acting experience for life experience and hoping charisma and natural talent would win the day. But, the success of that gambit is what allows the movie to elevate from fun creature feature to a hefty social commentary.
Agnieska Smoczynska — The Lure
The Lure is a Polish, Cannibal, mermaid, horror, musical. I mean, honestly. What else do you need to know? It is blisteringly original. The musical numbers are shot with gorgeous, luscious colors with a glorious set design. And the lead singers have, in some shots, something like six-foot mermaid tails. I know I haven’t seen anything like it. But, more importantly, I don’t think Poland had seen, quite literally, anything like it.
The Lure thoroughly deserves its impending Criterion Collection release. The story of mermaid sisters and the things they are willing to give up in pursuit of love has a real impact. We’re willing to give up our uniqueness to find make a new attachment. Learning to appreciate our own value and not changing ourselves to suit the desires of others makes for a costly education. The way Smoczynska marries synth-pop majesty and authentic characters dealing with the horror of humanity is awesome.
Jeremy Gardner — The Battery
I’m in love with this movie. It’s about two teammates struggling to find a reason to survive as they wander through the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. I’ve written previously about Gardner’s Director of Photography and creative partner, Christian Stella. Gardner wrote, directed and starred in The Battery, and they did it all with a budget of $6,000. The movie may take place in the in a zombified world, but their journey is a common experience. What is my place? My purpose? Where do I fit?
Gardner has a talent for finding the humanity in even the most disgusting of characters. Eager to put another film out there in the world, Gardner and Stella walked out into the woods and co-directed Tex Montana Will Survive!, a film about an arrogant reality television survivalist show host who is outed as a fraud. Desperate to preserve his fame, he walks out into the wilderness with a camera and backpack full of batteries to prove he’s the real deal. Gardner forces depth out of this character. It’s an excellent exploration of the height of vanity, and a great object lesson in the consequences of self-delusion.
Jennifer Kent — The Babadook
How do we live with grief? My enthusiasm for horror movies had ebbed. I heard that this movie was special so I made point of making time for it. Best choice I’ve made in years. I dig the film’s literalizing of grief as a type of demonic possession that can’t be banished. It perfectly illustrates the way grief can warp us and our perceptions. Toothache hallucination or actual demonic entity? To me, it’s really about finding a way to make peace with the griefs we accumulate through the sheer act of living and forming connections.
It’s a brilliant approach. But then on top of that, she executes with a phenomenal cast and a gorgeous movie. Oh my, those shots of the terror at the foot of the bed or of Amelia (Essie Davis) losing her ever lovin’ mind? Great writing, profound commentary, with flawless performances. It’s not fair how good that movie is.
Jordan Peele — Get Out
There is so much great writing about the value of this movie. Watch the film and read literally every single piece. Peele’s break out work started one hell of a conversation. What I want to tease out here is that link to Romero’s approach. I don’t think of Romero as a nihilist, but he certainly was brutal to his characters, especially his heroes. In part because that’s what he wanted to do, but also because he wanted to highlight the brutality of the world of man.
Peele has constructed a profoundly impressive, wholly original setting to explore racism in America. When we learn why the film is called Get Out, we’re horrified by his situation. And, Peele plays our tension like an expert fiddler. Right up until the end. When those flashing lights roll up, we know. We know what to expect. And we know it because of history, because of reality. But, also, because of the film language laid down by George Romero in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Peele knows what we’re expecting, and when he gives us the opposite, he’s made his point all the stronger.