• A Public Celebration of the Life and Legacy of George A. Romero

    It's the morning of July 24, 2017, and I'm making an unpleasant commute that I've done many times before. Years ago, when I moved to Waterloo but kept my job in Toronto, I drove daily across that stretch of nasty, traffic-snarled highway known as the 401. The drive could take as little as 49 minutes; other days, I exited after three hours of stop-and-go traffic, not even halfway to the destination, a full day of pay lost because of a multi-car collision up ahead. Finding new employment locally was a thing of beauty, and I was pleased to never have to make that commute again. But here I am again, moving slowly towards the big city, storm clouds hanging low and rain falling. No music playing this morning, though back then I'd be blasting whatever was fastest, powering through coffee and other wake-me-ups. Today is a somber day.

    On July 16, 2017, we lost George A. Romero. George was not terribly old at 77 years of age, and his love of cigarettes did not do much to convince anyone that smoking wasn't a contributing factor to the lung cancer that did him in. George's best years were behind him, even his biggest fans were heard to mutter on occasion, sometimes going as far as to say that he hadn't made a truly great film since 1985's Day of the Dead. But at the end of that day, this day, and every day, we're talking about George A. Romero. Horror had certainly been around for awhile when George hit the scene, but it definitely needed a kick in the pants; and it got it in spades with 1968's Night of the Living Dead. Made for less than a tenth of most films of the era, Night of the Living Dead was a powerhouse of a film, terrifying audiences with flesh-eating, walking undead, Black lead actors, and social commentary that most were not ready to digest with their entertainment. Romero continued to crank out films that resonated with horror audiences; The Crazies, Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow, Day of the Dead; introducing us to characters that we would hold in high esteem for a lifetime, a portfolio that most of us would visit time and time (and time) again, cinematic achievements that would inspire future generations of film makers. The loss of George, widely regarded as a genuinely nice guy, with his giant glasses and prominent smile, would hit many of his fans as would the loss of a favourite uncle or grandfather.

    All too often, especially thanks to social media, we hear about how, "real people die everyday." A post regarding a lost celebrity, whether through drug overdose, accident, or natural causes, is met with criticism; how dare we put the death of somebody in the spotlight just because they happened to live their lives in the spotlight. But this is what most will not understand; for so many fans the world over, the people who make the films, the bands that record the albums, they have spoken to their fans on an entirely personal level. We as the fans remember where we were when we first heard a certain song. We can still feel the hairs raising on our arms at the memory of seeing a particular movie for the first time. For a lot of us, Night of the Living Dead is that film...Dawn of the Dead is that film...Day of the Dead is that film. And so on, and so on. And that's why I make the commute to Toronto on July 24, 2017, and only make the smallest complaint of traffic under my breath. Today is a somber day. This is the public visitation of George A. Romero, one of our own.

    I didn't know quite what to expect when I got to the Mount Pleasant Funeral Centre. Well, I certainly didn't expect an empty parking lot, but then again, I was almost two hours early. I went for lunch, I slowly drove back...I parked out front. Again, nothing, nobody to be found. Eventually, about a half hour before the published start time of 2 o'clock, people started showing up. The first few wore black hoodies, shorts, some with t-shirts. I felt out of place in black dress pants and dark grey dress shirt with a tie. This was advertised as a public celebration; was this going to be a zombie walk, or a eulogy? How does one dress for such a vaguely described event? When the Funeral Centre opened the doors, I joined approximately fifteen other people in line. Walking into the impressive building, one was greeted with TV screens playing "Document of the Dead". Signs were posted advising that the Romero family had requested that no pictures or video be taken; fair enough. As we waited in line, I heard snippets of conversation, of meeting George, of seeing his films for the first time, of pilgrimages to sites from his films. A casually dressed visitor with long hair and sunglasses joins the line...holy shit, it's Greg Nicotero. I want to say hello, shake his hand, but he's too far back, and really, who wants to meet new people at an event like this?

    An official from the funeral home announces that the time is now. I round the corner into a hall, around another corner, and slow to take a look at the large, framed pictures of George. All of them are wonderful, a man who oozed positive energy and had a smile for everything and everyone. Rounding the last corner, I'm taken by surprise. I sign the guest book; "We owe you so much. Thank you." I realize that I'm quickly losing control of my composure, and everyone who's seen me at a funeral knows what this looks like. There are more pictures in this room, movie paraphernalia, not just from Romero films, but other films that he obviously loved. An award from the Toronto International Film Festival granting George Honorary Citizen status (George has been living in Toronto since he fled Hollywood in 2004), a zombie head model, a massive framed portrait of George and Stephen King with plastic vampire fangs, grinning like school boys.

    I'm happy to see the pictures, though they do cause me to break up a bit more, and I'm completely unprepared for what I encounter next. This is apparently a traditional viewing. I'm face to face with Tina Romero, George's daughter. His wife, Sue, stands next to her, speaking to another visitor. Tina looks directly at me, and I don't know what to say. And so I tell her, "I don't know what to say. I didn't expect this. I'm so very sorry for your loss. Your father was a great man, a legend. There will never be another like him." Tina seems to be prepared for this type of situation and reaches for my hand, asks for my name. I tell her, and she thanks me. I stare at her for what seems like a very long time, trying to swallow, and look at the casket to the right of her. And it suddenly becomes clear...this is George Romero. This is why I'm here. I'm here because when you are given the privilege to pay tribute to your heroes, no matter what some jackass on social media thinks about dead celebrities, you do it. George Romero started making films before I was born, thousands of miles away. In July of 2017, he is being laid to rest within a short driving distance from my house. This trip is an obligation, and it needs to be done not only on behalf of myself, but of all of the fans the world over who do not have the privilege and the honour of being here.

    Even though it seems like hours, I'm back outside ten minutes after I went in. Media, photographers, are out there on the lawn with their cameras. I have a camera, but I don't want to take it out, it seems exploitative in this environment. As if to tell me that I am absolutely in the right, Greg Nicotero comes out shortly after, visibly upset. This is not a place for photo ops. Instead, I wander across the parking lot. I ask a few guys hanging out there if I can hang out with them for a bit. "Absolutely", says Phil. Phil is Phil Pattison, Co-Creator of Night of the Living Dead Live, a play based on George's 1968 film. He's standing with Cam Schwartz, another film fan and member of Rabidog Films, an independent film company. We chat about the day, the unexpected visitation, and it isn't long before this turns into an actual celebration of the life of George Romero...in the parking lot.

    Great celebrations start with this...note the Night of the Living Dead Live shotglass

    First up, shots. Isn't that how all great celebrations begin? "This is Johnny Walker Red", Phil tells me. "Last time I drank with George, we drank two bottles of this." We drink shots; we drink, "To George". As we loosen up a bit, I decide to ask Phil and Cam why they've come today. It's not important for me to verify my own existence here, but it would certainly help to hear from others. Phil sets it out bluntly;

    "I'm here to pay respects to my hero, my mentor, and my friend. I was lucky enough to meet George many years ago with this crazy idea that me and my partner of the time Chris Harrison came up with, which was a live theatre version of Night of the Living Dead.

    We were lucky enough to get George’s blessing on doing the play and using his name on the project, and he attended the show many times, and absolutely loved it too. I was lucky enough to become friends...and I guess co-partners with him on this project, and ever since then, he’s been a very special person in my life, over and above just being a fan. I became close with him and his wife, and I wouldn’t miss today for a million dollars."

    I told Phil about my expectations for the day and how they didn't quite measure up to what we got. "If I would have known what was going on today, I probably would've dressed up a little more." said Phil. Of course, at that moment, we witnessed the arrival of a woman and her children in full zombie makeup and garb, her SUV rolling with a WALKINDEAD license plate. Would George have liked this? Does his family want to see this? It's hard to tell, it's difficult to walk the line between respect and exploitation in this situation. Especially when you've got the personal connection to George that Phil does.

    "I really didn’t know what to expect. When I walked in there with Cam, we were the first in line, which is kinda crazy and honourable at the same time. It was really nice to be able to go in and pay your respects. The fact that he was laying in there...the last time I was in a room with the man, he was alive and very well, and very jovial. Today was a very somber occasion. It almost feels like a family member has passed on. He definitely was the reason that I got into filmmaking, and horror filmmaking specifically. I’ll never forget Creepshow, which gave me nightmares for months! Which was the catalyst in who I became, who I am today. And to be part of George’s legacy, just a tiny little speck on that giant map...every day I’m happy to say that I was able to work with the man on that level. Because the play is available for licensing, every time I get a piece of mail whether it’s a cheque or some sort of notification on how the play is doing, I know that George is getting that same piece of mail. It’s mind-blowing to say it."

    Phil went on to explain why this event was important to him:

    "During the play, I was George Romero for Halloween, and I went up to Sue, his wife, and told her that’s what I was doing. She said, “Well, let me help you out with the costume.” A week later, when we met up again, she handed me his iconic glasses. He just got a new prescription, so these glasses he’s been wearing for years, they lent me for my Halloween costume. But to have an iconic piece of history in my possession...those glasses were in my house, in my possession. The best thing about George is he allowed you, even on the business level that we were at, to be the fanboy. He had absolutely zero problems answering any questions, he took the time with everyone to...give you his opinion, his ideas. Out of any celebrity I’ve met, by far, George was the humblest, nicest, and no bullshit; he’d be blunt….but amazing man, amazing soul."

    As the rain picked up out in the parking lot, an employee of the funeral home came around, handing out bottles of water. Cam's 12 year-old son is not happy with the rain, and heads to the car after I ask him a few questions. I showed my daughter Night of the Living Dead when she was a little younger than Cam's son, and remember her telling me that she wasn't going to be scared of an old, black-and-white film. The opening scene was enough to make her uncomfortable...by the time the basement matricide was coming down, she was telling me to shut it off. Cam tells me:

    "His first introduction to George was Call of Duty, actually playing him. So I pointed that out, 'That’s George Romero!', and he’s obviously like, 'Who?' As the years went by, he had the chance to meet him at the last Fan Expo, two years ago, when Danny Trejo was there. We went up to him, and we had Rabidog Films, which is our production company, and I said, 'George, this is Emerson, is it okay if you put on a hat and I'll take pictures?".

    I asked Cam about his work with Phil on the musical, where he was a jack of all trades, and he had this to say about George:

    “The best part about being with the crew was that John Russo (NOTLD writer) and Russ Streiner (Johnny in NOTLD), they brought us up to Pittsburgh to show us all the spots that...Night of the Living Dead, the Dawn of the Dead mall, the basement of the movie Night of the Living Dead. They brought us to their original studio."

    Phil: "We went to the Latent Image offices, which is now a real estate office upstairs. But they also had the basement, where they shot NOTLD. We got taken down to the basement which has seriously not changed since they shot it. I compared screenshots to my photographs...same beam, same light hanging down….electrical breaker. And some of the rooms that weren’t used for shooting, you realize that this is where they stored all the raw footage for the films. From the movie The Crazies, stamped all over this wall (Cam is showing me phone pictures at this point), it still has all the markings where all the movies were stored."

    Cam cut back in to tell me:

    "This is where the reels were, this is where they did Martin...and the people that own the building now, they found a Creepshow poster, an original, so when we did the walkthrough, they got John and Russ to sign the poster."

    Phil had another anecdote to spill about the trip:

    "One of the craziest things about that entire trip was, and it didn’t dawn on me what was happening until we were halfway up the hill...If you remember the beginning of Night of the Living Dead where Russ was driving up with his sister, Barbra, we’re halfway up the hill..."

    Me: "You’re recreating the drive!"

    Phil: "Holy Fuck! The funniest part about that whole scenario was, we get to the cemetery, we saw all the iconic places that show up, and there’s John, off in the distance, digging up dirt and putting it into this old cement bucket. And we’re like, 'Oh yeah, you sell Evans cemetery dirt at all your shows! Gimme a shovel!' I’ve got bags of dirt sitting in my basement from that cemetery."

    And then Cam manages to sum it up in his last line...

    "They took us around to where the farmhouse was, where the field was, too, just surreal. And then Monroeville Mall, they took us there, and just to think that 'This was George, everything that you see is George, everywhere.' And getting to meet George, coming in and hanging out, just sitting around in the circle with us...it’s just surreal. I’m shaking George Romero’s hand, it’s unbelievable. There would be no horror culture without George Romero."

    Tal Zimerman, actor, contributor to Rue Morgue, and Producer of Why Horror? joins us, and agrees with Cam's statement about culture, and adds his own regarding community.

    "It's very sad for people whose lives were changed by this person, some of us who were lucky enough to spend a bit of time with. I interviewed him for my film, we sat down and talked comedy, comic books, philosophy, all kinds of stuff that would’ve been parallel to his career. I’m just here hanging out with these dudes who I’ve known for a long time. It used to be that it was you and maybe one other person who was into this shit, and then the Festival of Fear rolls into town, and the culture forms, friendships form for long times, and that’s why we’re here. To honour the guy that really, genuinely, started that for all of us."

    What was it, I ask, personality aside, warm smiles and big glasses out of the way....why is George still so well-regarded in a sea of copycats?

    "This man knew how to edit for tension; how to make your ass clench. Watch the tenement scene in Dawn of the Dead; we love the themes, we love the characters, but the sheer technical prowess of this man, to make you scared as hell and tense and make the world feel so real, is such a rare and unique talent. It’s hard to miss the point of a Romero movie, he puts it out there. It’s not subtle. You don’t have to go far to figure out what drives this guy, that political mind of his. In Dawn of the Dead, they talk about escaping to Canada, in Land of the Dead, they talk about escaping to Canada...and he followed through in his own life. He escaped to Canada. We’re beyond lucky to be here, and to have been around the dude. And just to see his work while he was alive, like I’m going to be telling my kid about this, he’s 4 years old.

    And the day they announced it, I was crying.

    And you can’t explain that to a 4 year old what this is. The best you’ve got is, your friend, your friend George died."

    Rest In Peace, Our Friend, George A. Romero.

    February 4, 1940 - July 16, 2017.

    Comments 14 Comments
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      Thank you for doing this Mark. Great article.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Happy to have the chance to share the events of the day. It was moving, to say the least.
    1. agent999's Avatar
      agent999 -
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
    1. null's Avatar
      null -
      Nicely done, and I especially appreciated your restraint. His death struck me unexpectedly strongly, and this piece has helped a bit. Thanks for taking the time - writing sucks and is hard, and you did well conveying the moments.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Quote Originally Posted by null View Post
      Nicely done, and I especially appreciated your restraint. His death struck me unexpectedly strongly, and this piece has helped a bit. Thanks for taking the time - writing sucks and is hard, and you did well conveying the moments.
      Thank you for the compliment, and I thought it would be helpful for those of us who felt this one to know that there's a whole community out there who feel the same wqy
    1. Newt Cox's Avatar
      Newt Cox -
      Thank you so much sir for this piece. Mr Romero's death hadn't hit me until about halfway thru reading this article. Had to explain to my lady why I was tearing up "While reading one of Newt's movie nerd sites".
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      I've been hearing that a fair bit. George was a good egg.
    1. bgart13's Avatar
      bgart13 -
      Wow, thanks for writing this, Mark. I wish I could've made it to pay my respects.
    1. Scott's Avatar
      Scott -
      Thanks for taking the time to write all this up. Good job.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Cheers, guys.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Looks like the pictures disappeared off of this one.
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      There's only the shot glass image on the ftp server, but I fixed that one. If there are more that should be there, email them to me.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Yeah, i went back and it was only one. Cheers for that. Wanted to share it on the anniversary. Also, damn I make myself cry sometimes.