On Sunday, legendary filmmaker George A. Romero died after a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer.” The Night of the Living Dead director left behind a large body of work that came to define modern horror, influencing a generation of directors, writers and illustrators in the process. One of the many individuals still carrying the Romero banner is Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. Brooks spoke to Rolling Stone to share his personal memories of Romero, his influence and how he predicted America’s current political climate.
George gave me hope. The first zombie movie I saw was not Night of the Living Dead; [it] was an Italian cannibal zombie movie and it terrified the hell out of me. It wasn’t fair, because it just postulated that you were doomed. A few years later, I stumbled across Night of the Living Dead, and as terrifying as it was, it had solutions. It had rules. You could shoot them in the head; they weren’t that strong; they weren’t that fast; they weren’t that smart. There were ways to survive.
The challenge then was getting past your own human foibles. When I was in graduate school, I finally got up the courage to watch Dawn of the Dead, and I watched it pretty much every day for a year. I would just come home from class, turn it on and just watch it over and over again. I was obsessed with it. I had seen some very intelligent movies up until that point and here I was, watching what I thought was one of the most intelligent movies I had ever seen.
Looking at the films of George Romero reminds me of an eighth grade geology map of the layers of the Earth’s surface, because he just keeps drilling down into more and more cultural and historical awareness. Dawn of the Dead is the single most searing indictment of his generation ever. I always said it should be sold in a box set with Easy Rider, and it can be called The Baby Boomers: The Beginning and the End. Dawn of the Dead is nothing less than the complete annihilation of the soul of the baby boomers. It deals with their complete surrender of anything idealistic and the embrace of materialism and consumerism.
“Dawn of the Dead is nothing less than the complete annihilation of the soul of the baby boomers.”
Shockingly enough, he predicted the situation we’re in right now because he illustrated what happens when the public loses confidence in established systems: the media, the CDC, the military, the general government, science. When we surrender to cynicism and doubt, everything falls apart, and he predicted that.
A lot of the zombie moviemakers that came after Romero focused on the blood and the guts and the heads being blown off, and they missed the deeper meaning. Romero is not just enlightened; he’s evolved. He was way ahead of the rest of us because the rest of us are also racially over-sensitive. He jumped over that with Night of the Living Dead. He didn’t say, “I am going to hire a black guy.” He said, “I am going to hire the best actor.” And the best actor happened to be a black guy [Duane Jones, who played the lead character, Ben] – and isn’t that supposed to be the goal of stamping out racism? Each to their own talent?
[Romero also taught me] that you can be exciting and entertaining and thoughtful at the same time. When I was just out of film school, trying to shop scripts around, every time I tried to make my work the least bit thoughtful, people would turn their noses up. There literally was this choice I kept running into in Hollywood, which was, “You can either be entertaining, or you could be smart,” and Romero showed me that wasn’t true at all. He gave the human race the benefit of the doubt; that maybe human beings are smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for.
He also doesn’t get enough credit as a genuine filmmaker. If you watch Dawn of the Dead with the commentary, he’s very good at teaching you how to make a movie. I learned more watching Dawn of the Dead with the commentary than I did in two years of film school. I could have saved my parents a ton of money. I watch Dawn of the Dead whenever I need to get centered, whenever I feel cynical or I get a little nuts about the measure of success. And then I watch it and go, Oh yeah, this is what it’s supposed to be. It also takes me back to when I was that young guy and was just so passionate about why I was writing Zombie Survival Guide in the first place.
I think the first time I met him was when World War Z was going to be announced as a movie. I got the chance to know him and hang out with him and spent some time with him, and he was just such a nice man. For a man who had been kicked around so much by Hollywood, he never got bitter. It never drove him crazy, certainly not publicly when he spoke to me. I always found him extremely thoughtful and grounded. He was very honest. I remember somebody asked him how he felt about the zombie craze, and I think he said something like, “I hate it! Nobody lets me make a zombie movie anymore, everybody else gets to do a zombie movie.”
The last time I spoke with him, we were onstage with [The Zombie Autopsies author] Steven C. Schlozman, who was working with him. We had a wonderful time and then we all went out to dinner. I had never gone out to dinner with him before. It was good for once just to be casual and not talk shop, and I was always so bummed that I never got more of a chance to spend time with him and know him just as a person. And I would have liked to spend enough time with him to get over my own nervousness.
Obviously he will be remembered for zombies. But I am hoping he will be remembered as the thinker’s zombie creator. I hope that he is remembered for the fact that his zombie films weren’t just entertaining; they were deep and intelligent and they were about us. And I think that’s been lost.
“For a man who had been kicked around so much by Hollywood, he never got bitter.”
I am sitting here in Singapore right now. I was invited by the Singaporean government to sit on a panel, which basically is the annual threat assessment conference for the year. My job is to discuss threats that are real, but not inevitable. And that’s pretty much how I look at everything: through that lens of Night of the Living Dead. It’s that problems are solvable, but it’s our own flaws, our own weaknesses, that get in the way. So the enemy rarely wins as much as we lose.
The great thinkers in our species are the people who get our species. And every now and then they come along: a Socrates; a Shakespeare. Romero was one of them. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know if it was genetics or if his mom raised him right, but somehow he was able to look at Homo sapiens and say, “Yep. This is who we are.”
I hope that a generation of young filmmakers studies him, because the world can never have enough Romeros. We need more people who think like him, and we need more people who make movies like him. He will be missed. And I will miss my friend.