No haunted look haunts George A. Romero's eyes; nasty saliva drools not from his lips. Yet this large, friendly man, this picture of amiability, tends to be looked upon by the world as something of a Dr. Strange.
A college professor angrily asked him "how do you sleep at night" after damaging all those tender minds; a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic excoriated him for turning a happy bunch of matinee movie kids into a timid, wimpering herd; and fanzine writers expect him to show up "looking like a costumed illustration." All because of something called "Night of the Living Dead."
Made in Pittsburgh in 1967 for the itsy-bitsy sum of $70,000, "Living Dead" has since grossed upwards of $9 million, found its way into the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, terrorized untold numbers of adolescents and given director romero cult status in a genre he says he was never that interested in the first place.
"I'm expected to know whole lists of credits of great horror films, but I'm not really a student of the genre, I'm not an aficionado," Romero says easily. "It's more instinctive with me, and of course I grew up on all that stuff, on EC Comics and films like 'The Thing.' That one really did it to me, it took me out."
Romero's latest film is "Martin," an intriguing vampire tale which dares to ask whether a blood-sucking young man is really one of the undead or merely an unhinged type driven to his messy deeds by the superstitions of his hyperfervid relatives.
Fascinating and off-beat though it is, "Martin" is yet another horror movie from a man who claims fright is not the be-all of his life. Though he laughs and says "the real reason I keep making them is that I don't get any other offers," Romero's career does offer an unusual glimpse into how a powerful, unexpected sucess can rechart a director's life as much as the hugest failure.
A 38-year-old native of the Bronx who has lived in Pittsburgh ever since enrolling at Carnegie Tech 20 years ago, Romero has had the film-making urge since childhood. He formed a commercial production company right out of college and in 1967, fascinated by a Richard Matheson story, "I Am Legend," scripted "Night of the Living Dead" about the attack of zombie-like folks fresh out of the grave.
"We didn't think we were competing with real movies, we were just sitting in Pittsburgh with $70,000, it was just something we were doing," Romero remembers. "Its success was the same way, not like waiting for reviews at Sardi's and saying 'Hey, we've got a hit.' You know the film is out there somewhere, but you're not with it, it all sort of creeps up on you."
Romero is pleased at how "Night of the Living Dead" triggered the classic bogeyman response: 'They're out there and they're coming to get us,' with 'They' very vaguely defined. Actually, its a ballpark crowd - our friends coming back to life - which should be very benign but in fact makes it very scary.
"It's not hard to startle people, a quick movement synchronized with a loud sound will do it, but that's laughin-the-dark stuff. It's more difficult to craft something that has a real pull on you, that deals with thought-provoking fears."
Though his creation earned lots of money, Romero did not become wealthy, "not even close," and he says that "it was very strange to have your first picture take off like that, it made the movie business seem very easy." Romero for instance turned down some Hollywood offers he might now take because, "We said 'We can do it again in Pittsburgh.'" Not quite.
Between 1968 and 1972, Romero made three pictures, two of which, "There's Always Vanilla" and "Jack's Wife," "I couldn't even get distributors to look at because they weren't horror films." The third one, "The Crazies," did okay, but nothing like "Living Dead." So Romero took a three-year hiatus from features, doing sports documentaries for television and getting ready for what will be his next release, an already rough-cut sequel to his classic to be called "Dawn of the Dead."
"Dawn of the Dead," which takes place several months after the living dead phenomenon is in full swing, involves four refugees who try and hold out in a huge shopping center against vandal hordes both living and dead. With a huge (for Romero) budget of $1.5 million, it is described by its creator as "a real goof, a comic-book type of film. It's looking back on 'NIght of the Living Dead,' which is truly a nightmare, with tongue in cheek." A couple of majors are nibbling at possible distribution, and the film will be released this fall at the earliest.
Though he's stuck for the time being with being known almost exclusively as "Living Dead's" director, Romero hasn't "gotten desperate about that yet" and still finds turning out the old horrors, "a lot of fun, oh hell yeah."
And though he could use a little more recognition in his adopted home town - "People in Paris and New York give me a lot of attention; in Pittsburgh they refuse to acknowldege me" - George Romero is otherwise rather content. "I'm given to whim a lot," he says, "and I feel like I'm still playing around."