When I was 19 I filled a large section of a college ruled notebook with a zombie epic that was as terribly written as it was derivative of other people’s work. It was cliched, hackneyed but, dammit, it was something I cared deeply about.
It was called THE ZOMBIE CHRONICLES (Yah, I know…) and it was the first long form effort I had ever made in writing. I stayed in every night for months writing it. I skipped out on parties, hang outs, dates, and every imaginable teenage social obligation just to complete this novella I was so sure would catapult me to a career as a respected author.
When I was finished, when it was all said and done, I flipped back to page 1. I wore a look of excited confidence, ready to read the grand epic that would surely make the man who had inspired all of this proud. His work had changed my life, had turned it around… had inspired me to be better, work harder and accomplish something important.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself… let me back up.
Three years before I put pen to paper on THE ZOMBIE CHRONICLES, my mother died.
When you’re young (in my case, 16) and something terrible occurs, the mind can become damaged. Hurt. In response, said mind attempts to heal itself the only way it knows how. That “how” seems to be different for everyone. For me, it meant making a decision.
In that moment, the moment where everything changed, I asked myself: Can you keep going?
A simple question, but one infused with a great deal of depth- of deep, dark consequences. The question was “can”, not “want”. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming pressure to decide in a “yes” or “no” manner. And, as the moment passed and I kept moving forward, I determined my answer to be “yes, I can”. Which simply meant that I had accepted the terrible truth and would push on.
The subtext, however, was that I had now assumed a life in the darkest of timelines and, based on my decision, was complicit in its existence. Walls were put up; shoddy, makeshift structures to protect the core of my self from the decaying, emotional landscape that was left in the wake of the devastating loss.
I would keep going.
I was a burgeoning film fan in my teenage years. Admittedly, I gravitated toward dramas, subscribing to the Hollywood myth that horror films were somehow lesser. I didn’t know any better; I didn’t have that person in my world to show me another way. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw 2002’s CABIN FEVER that I even thought about journeying down the rabbit hole that horror offered.
At that point, it had been about 2 years since my Mom had died. I was spiraling into depression and, worse, very few people really knew or understood what was happening to me. I had become quite adept at concealing myself by then. Film offered some catharsis, particularly dramas regarding similar emotional catastrophes, but even those left me yearning. Ultimately, dramas that paralleled my own situation made me feel physically drained rather than satisfied.
So it was that my friend convinced me to see Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER one summer evening, claiming it to be utterly terrifying. I watched the film and left the theater feeling something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
The film was so odd and so specific in its references, that even with no knowledge of the genre, I found it to be very clearly rooted in a type of filmic culture. One I didn’t understood but one I couldn’t help but be enamored by. I wanted to see the things that CABIN FEVER was referencing. I wanted to understand what the movie was doing. Why it was doing it. Where it all came from.
I wanted to see more.
I began to research the horror genre and I was led to a few names. The list went on and on. John Carpenter. Sam Raimi. Wes Craven. And, of course, George A. Romero.
That was a name I recognized even then: ROMERO. I figured if I knew the man’s name, his work must be more impressive than the rest, so I went to the local video store and found a DVD: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
I had heard of it. I had more than likely even seen clips of it here and there on television or at friends’ houses. I had never given it much thought, associating the old black and white picture more with something like MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 than an actual horror movie. But, if I was going to understand, I thought, I should probably start with a proclaimed classic.
I remember putting in the disc as dusk set in just outside the window in my small TV room, the floor littered with game controllers and Nintendo cartridges of various sizes. I remember sitting down on the couch and sort of grimacing, as if to say: “let’s see what you got.”
Watching the movie for the first time was a revelation- not only because of how beautifully shot and put together the events on screen were, but because of what the narrative stood for and how it represented the social and emotional reality of death, loss and grief that I had just lived through. The movie opens with Barbara and her brother Johnny pulling into a cemetery and essentially lambasting the American cultural expectations surrounding death. They complain about the chore of visiting the cemetery, the wastefulness of the flowers and the upkeep of the grounds for the purpose of remembrance.
The inane expectations of the family, the showiness of the wake and the funeral, was something I deeply resented as it only served to make grand what I felt should have been a quiet affair. While that reaction was born out of grief and irrational anger, here was a film that at the very least seemed to understand what I was going through. The film embraced the idea that our very traditions regarding the dead spoke to a deep rooted inability to accept the reality that comes along with the promise of our mortality.
The film washed over me with an overwhelming power, so that when the very first Ghoul made an appearance mere minutes later, shambling into the film as a man taking a quiet stroll through the cemetery, I was in an emotionally vulnerable place. I was as Barbara, offset by the situation, by the crassness of Johnny’s words and the uncomfortable truths he was touching upon. As the Ghoul approached and it became more and more apparent that he was the embodiment of these traditions, a walking stiff dressed for the grave but uninterested in being buried, I too was willing to join Barbara in her inability to accept it.
After all, the dead don’t walk. They can’t.
As the film progressed, Romero continued to explore basic human nature, stripping people’s actions down to their most essential meaning: survival. This too struck a chord as in many ways that had been my life for the past few years. In the wake of the tragedy I made a decision: to survive. I hid from the marauding threat and made a life for myself, albeit a truncated one.
The interpersonal argument in the farmhouse that permeates the whole of the film is whether or not to hunker down in the basement or stay more visible in the upper levels of the house. Again, all in an effort to simply keep going. In the moment of truth, when faced with the impossible, human beings have a decision to make (one that I knew all too well):
Can you keep going?
The encroaching Ghouls are but a backdrop to the story, the catalyst that forces this unlikely group to interact and ultimately destroy each other over the ironic disagreement regarding the opposite desired outcome: survival. At the same time, there is a constant stream of radio and television. The news flooding in serves as but another human mechanism to add to the cacophony of emotional and logical disorientation. A final layer of bewilderment that leads our human counterparts down the paths of rash and emotional decision making that does nothing to serve their continued survival.
In that small farmhouse, Romero was able to craft a perfect, functioning microcosm for society as a whole. A war was raged, one based on social class, race and gender, between this small group, simply because each was unwilling to ebb - each party was stuck to their own beliefs, their own hard truths that they had come to trust would be the only thing to save them.
The 96 minutes passed and I sat on my couch, staring at the dark screen. The sky had gone from maroon to black and I remember hearing the crickets outside the window to my right. The images of the photographs which pepper the final moments of the film were still floating through my mind.
The feeling was strange. Hard to put into words. I had only felt it a handful of times in my life. I think every fan of cinema knows it. More than likely, if you value film, you cherish this feeling more than almost anything else.
It had changed me. The events on screen had allowed me to begin the process of sorting through something that I had buried. My anger and resentment were symptoms of my grief, and thanks to George A. Romero, I was finally about to begin the task of working through it.
I began writing THE ZOMBIE CHRONICLES about a year after seeing the film. I had absorbed as much zombie content as I could possibly find. I watched every Romero film I could get my hands on, learning as I went that the bulk of his filmography delved into the human condition- the exploration of what we value, what we love and why we live. I became stronger with each passing frame. I became determined. Excited. I had to keep going.
I wanted to keep going.
I poured myself into the pages of my masterwork. I released every angry thought, every cruel assumption and every sharp jab I had carried with me for so many years into that story when I was finally ready to tell it. The thing revolved around a small, tight knit town and the death of a prominent citizen. A kind, loving, motherly woman whose demise acted as the metaphorical catalyst for the end of the world.
THE ZOMBIE CHRONICLES was not my claim to fame. It never made it past my own eyes and certainly never fell before Mr. Romero’s. But, upon completion, as I finally reread those pages, scanned each line and consumed the thoughts that had come out of my own head, I realized who this story was for. It wasn’t the masses. It wasn’t even George.
It occurred to me, as my eyes darted back and forth across my own words that I had so quickly forgotten, that perhaps surviving because you can is no better than being the walking dead. Moving to move. Eating to eat. Living on instinct. To do that with a mind of your own, in fact, may be a whole lot worse than being a Ghoul.
I finished reading my story and dried my eyes. I packed the notebook away, refreshed and renewed, and I started writing my next story. I went on to write many zombie stories, in fact I still write them today. I even wrote several feature length screenplays, one of which was produced and turned into a feature length film.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
With each new word I was stronger. Healthier. Happier. With every passing paragraph I felt just the tiniest weight lift from my shoulders and whether anyone would ever read the stuff or not, let alone like it, I was grateful for having written it. Proud.
All of it, everything I accomplished, everything I wrote, every demon I exorcised, was because of George A. Romero. His efforts. His work. His creative voice.
All too often we view our idols as mythical figures. Ideals that simply exist in the universe that we find, select and gravitate towards. We seek out their hand shakes and their autographs, whether that be at a convention or simply passing by them on the street, as if those sort of things are owed to us.
Not often enough do we view them for what they are: human beings. Individuals who worked and toiled in their respective skill set to gain the type of ability and momentum to make their mark on that which it is they hold passion for. In my opinion, these types of people do not owe the world, rather it is the world that owes them.
Unfortunately, I will never be able to provide Mr. Romero with even my gratitude for I never met him and I never will. However, I, and the rest of his legions, upon legions of equally moved and better for it fans, can honor his memory and his legacy by way of our own actions.
When I was 19 I wrote a story about zombies that may have saved my life. I did it because George A. Romero inspired me to do so. I did it because NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD showed me how the fantastic, otherworldly mythology of horror can sometimes be the best path toward very real, cathartic self analysis.
Today, all of these years later, I keep writing. I keep going. I have a million reasons, people and efforts that make me want to do so.
For that, I thank George.