A report from George A. Romero’s public memorial in Toronto
We lost the iconic filmmaker and genre-innovator George A. Romero on July 16th at the age of 77. The world will not see another like him. And although Romero spent his peak creative years making movies in and around Pittsburgh, he moved to Toronto in 2005 after making Land of the Dead and stayed her, marrying again and making his final two “Dead” movies in the Canadian city. It was there that he passed and there that, earlier this week on Monday, his family held a public memorial for his fans to come and pay tribute to the passing of a man and myth.
ComingSoon.net’s Trevor Parker was there and this is his report.
It’s July 24th, 2017, and George A. Romero is asking me questions.
The questions are being asked in a figurative sense, of course; it’s been eight days since Mr. Romero passed on after what was described in the newspapers as “a brief, aggressive battle with lung cancer.” No, Romero’s questions are coming from inside my head—this is a phenomenon no doubt due to my steady, repetitive, occasionally obsessive ingestion of the man’s films throughout the course of my life. I carry Romero with me wherever I go, my brain matter marked forever by the cutting statements he made to the world on authority, consumerism, parasitism, class warfare, blind obedience—and ever delivered with the bloodiest of slapstick humor. Statements coming couched behind chomping teeth, clutching fingernails, and blank, milky eyeballs. Statements made on how delicious retribution could be; the wages of sin gussied up by a four-color comic book aesthetic he and author Stephen King so grooved on as kids growing up in the 1950’s. Statements that were once considered dangerous subversions and that, for too long, were only properly appreciated by Europeans geographically removed from the films’ raw context. Statements that, when watched in any year since their making, never come across as anything less than depressingly timely.
I’m biking up from Toronto’s Lakeshore to attend George Romero’s public visitation, a thoughtful opportunity arranged by his family and friends to allow his multitude of shell-shocked fans the chance to visit, celebrate, and say a final goodbye to a giant of horror cinema. During my long ride uptown, those Romero questions are hitting me hard. A glance over my left shoulder shows the Toronto skyline, jagged with spires of glass and steel, modern tributes to Our Lady of Perpetual Profit (one of these particular towers, a structure on Bay Street now called Brookfield Place, even served as the shooting location for Land of the Dead’s doomed Fiddler’s Green). I see these buildings, and Romero asks me if I think the wealthy bankers and lawyers inside ever feel confined in their luxury top-floor suites? Trapped by the distance between themselves and terra firma? If the unseen and ignored army of minimum-wage workers that keep that building cooled, cleaned, and secured, one day decided to organize and take that building for themselves, would it be a matter of hours or only a matter of minutes before powerful men in neckties were forced to kneel?
Those Romero’s questions continue as I roll up notorious Sherbourne Street, home to a collection of the city’s most overburdened group homes and halfway houses. Dazed denizens stagger out into the bicycle lane with zero regard for their safety or mine. Imagine some grand emergency, Uncle George puts it to me as I pedal past, a citywide crisis. When droves of men with badges and batons and patches on their shoulders inevitably showed up here, would these vulnerable societal castoffs wandering the sidewalks be rescued or rounded up? Protected or disposed of? Saved or condemned?
The skies above me are dark, pregnant with rain, gradually getting blacker like the clouds are in the process of rotting. The skies finally open up, and I roll to some temporary shelter under a brick door overhang, along with several other passers-by. Strangers pressed together in close quarters: this is a George A. Romero situation, live and in color. Now what if some threatening element, some challenging stressor, were introduced here, Romero asks me? Would we shelter-seekers co-operate or crumble? Band together or break apart? To be less general, would I risk myself by blocking the diminutive old lady standing in front of me and clutching a bag of oranges from any harm? Or would I toss her to the wolves and ensure my own escape? Maybe only George knew for sure.
The squall finishes, and I arrive at the Rosedale funeral home where the viewing is to take place. The home is located mere minutes from the neighbourhood that Romero’s fellow indie iconoclast David Cronenberg makes his residence. There is a trio of press photographers stationed outside the building, informally interviewing some of the crowd who have come by to pay their respects. The city of Toronto once boasted a very healthy annual charity Zombie Walk, and I’m expecting some of today’s visitors will attend in somewhat more ghoulish garb than the cargo shorts and Creepshow tees that seem to be the common uniform. I’m not disappointed, as one intrepid flesheater soon limps up to the doors of the service, gnawing on a rubber-prop limb. The mood is more somber as I enter the building, and numerous signs ask firmly that no photos or video be taken. I comply with the request, shutting my phone off.
Once inside, a television in the corner plays different interview clips of Romero throughout the years, with him looking relaxed and sociable in each scene. The walls of the home have been covered with memorabilia from Romero’s own collections, and it’s a gentle reminder that Romero was as much a fan of the movies as any one of us here today. There are Romero’s framed posters from classics of Hollywood’s golden age, from The Ten Commandments to John Ford’s heartwarming 1952 comedy The Quiet Man—Romero’s all-time favorite movie and one to whose score music he was reportedly listening at the moment of his passing. Next to the movie posters hangs a plaqued flyer from an art gallery exhibition showing the films of Michael Powell, personally autographed by Powell “to George”. As any serious Romero scholar knows, British director Powell was one of Romero’s filmmaking idols, and he swore by Powell’s controversial 1960 psychosexual opus Peeping Tom.
Further in, blown-up photos of Romero abound, on the walls and propped up onto easels. There are photos of Romero with his wife Susan. A shot of him, much younger, surrounded by the green-skinned zombies from DAY OF THE DEAD, and a close-up of him playfully tussling with the simian star from MONKEY SHINES. Family mementos are here too: a yellowing piece of paper detailing the Romero family tree is on display, as are some pretty decent sketches done by a young George of cowboys and Disney mainstays like Donald Duck.
Visitors have moved through the photo gallery and are now mostly clumped together in tiny pockets, chatting about their memories of the man and his movies. Romero’s family members are there, bravely greeting fans, doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. In the main chamber, the casket remains closed, but is surrounded by joyous symbols of Romero’s irreverence. A massive screen hanging from the ceiling is running his movies on a loop (I get to see Creepshow‘s loathsome Howard Hughes stand-in Upson Pratt receive his cockroach comeuppance.) There’s a huge floral arrangement in the shape of the Misfits’ “Crimson Ghost” logo. (Romero, you may remember, directed the video for the Michale Graves-era track “Scream!” in exchange for the band appearing in the film Bruiser). Most hilariously, there are plush versions of Romero sitting above the coffin lid; little stuffed toys wearing his trademark glasses and green fishing vest. It’s not often one can finish up their visit to a funeral home with a grin, but did George Romero ever really do anything by the rules?
On the way out, I sign the guestbook. Thinking of the few times I was fortunate to meet Romero in person—me a stammering superfan lurking in front of a folding table at a convention, nervously babbling about how much Dawn of the Dead meant to my life. Romero was rocked back in his chair, listening with bemusement, and then he chatted me down from the ledge with disarming warmth—he had a kind of presence, a way with people, that is impossible to fake. He sincerely loved his fans, and could make personal connections with them effortlessly—it’s that kind of attribute that wins elections. In the book, I write a message to Romero, wherever he now may be. “Dear Mr. Romero. Good art is not always made by good people, but know that you were one of the greats.”
Thank you, Mr. Romero, for all of it. You will be missed.
An edited version of this piece appears in the official George A. Romero magazine #1