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Pittsburgh's George Romero spotlighted in 'The Directors'

Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

George Romero has reached that point in his career where people are producing documentaries celebrating his past work. That's all well and good, but the best tribute to Romero would be for someone to pony up enough money for him to make some new films.

Pittsburgh's favorite horrormeister has made only one movie since "The Dark Half" in 1993, but not for lack of trying. He spent two years in a development deal with New Line that produced nothing but frustration. One script passed from studio to studio, the budget increasing each time until it became too dependent on star casting. Romero pays the bills by writing screenplays that, for one reason or another, don't get produced. And if you're out of sight long enough, Hollywood tends to put you out of mind.

Romero shares these ruminations, along with anecdotes about the 12 1/2 films he did get to make (the 1/2 being his share of the anthology "Two Evil Eyes"), in the latest installment of "The Directors" series that debuts Thursday on Encore.

You may have heard a few of his stories in the documentary "American Nightmare," which aired on the Independent Film Channel two years ago. But Romero shared the spotlight in that film with several of his colleagues in cinematic creepiness. "The Directors" focuses entirely on the man who revolutionized the horror genre in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead."

The program dutifully lines up some of the more familiar performers who have appeared in Romero's films: Ed Harris ("Knightriders" and "Creepshow"), Amy Madigan ("The Dark Half"), Hal Holbrook ("Creepshow"), Adrienne Barbeau ("Creepshow," "Two Evil Eyes") and Stanley Tucci ("Monkey Shines").

The inclusion of Tucci seems like pure celebrity-mongering. In "Monkey Shines," he played an arrogant doctor, and while it was his first significant film role, he was not a major player - the clips of the movie shown here don't even include him.

But Romero never really played the Hollywood game. He chose to remain based in Pittsburgh even after he became a successful director, and before 1990 he never used actors well known outside Western Pennsylvania except in "Creepshow." Like Tucci, Harris was a film neophyte when he worked with Romero.

No, the real star - both in his films and in this installment of "The Directors" - is Romero himself. Holbrook praises him as a director who knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. Tucci talks about how there is always a social context behind the blood and gore in Romero's films.

But the bulk of the show features Romero in his own words and pictures, letting us see and hear this big, genial man with oversized eyeglasses chuckle over his misfortunes and reminisce about working with barrels of cockroaches in "Creepshow" and a trained monkey in "Monkey Shines"; collaborating with Stephen King on several films; and how a casual conversation and an acquaintance with the owners of Monroeville Mall made possible the filming of "Dawn of the Dead," considered by many the best film of his zombie trilogy.

For reasons even he finds hard to explain, Romero says his favorite of the three is the oft-maligned "Day of the Dead."

We get the basic facts of Romero's career from a narrator whose flat intonations make it sound as though he took speech lessons from some of Romero's zombies. The director grew up in New York as a fan of the old EC horror comics, went to college in Pittsburgh (what was then Carnegie Tech is misidentified as Carnegie Mellon Institute), got his first real job shooting short films for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," formed a company that filmed commercials and industrials and finally saved enough money to start on "Night of the Living Dead."

The clips focus on Romero's best known films, but the program mentions all of his movies, including his latest, "Bruiser," shot in Canada in 1999 (his only film made outside Pittsburgh) and released direct to home video this year.

The most interesting - and distressing - moment in the program comes when Romero discusses his lost decade of the 1990s. He says he was a hot property after "The Dark Half," fielding offers from various suitors, only to see the momentum dissipate in the wake of the failed development deal with New Line and the other projects that never got off the ground.

In the end, Romero expresses optimism his career will rise again. Considering how often he has raised the dead in his films, who would argue?

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