VHS Zombie Anxiety – How George A. Romero Nearly Ruined My Life (But It’s Not His Fault)

George A. Romero died last week. He was 77 years old.

Obits and tributes around the web have said more about him than I ever could. He’s being lauded as a true innovator, a man who changed cinema and pop culture forever, a renegade film icon that played by his own rules to make the movies he wanted to make, making some of the most beloved and acclaimed horror movies by doing so.

But to me he’ll always be remembered as the man who gave me a near-debilitating anxiety disorder that lasted a better part of my life. This is through no direct fault of his own – I don’t hold him personally responsible.

It was really my dad’s fault, if I’m honest.

The year is 1987. My father owns a large independent video store called Sights And Sounds in Toledo, Ohio. My parents are divorced at the time, so on the days that my dad has custody, I more or less live there. That meant watching a lot of movies, but it also meant just as much time roaming the halls, looking at the boxes of the hundreds, if not thousands, of movies that decorated the walls.

Even at a young age, I found myself gravitating towards the horror and sci-fi sections to explore what wonders those boxes had. I don’t know why. I certainly didn’t want to see the movies, I knew they were too scary for my cowardly ass. I tried my hand at “horror” at a very young age and it did not take; my parents let me watch The Terminator and the ending, with the exoskeleton coming out of the truck’s wreckage, literally scared me so bad I couldn’t sleep that night. But I still was morbidly intrigued I suppose, darkly curious about what horrors the box art and title descriptions showcased.

So, at a young age I found myself with an extensive knowledge of genre film, I knew the general outlines to films like The Multiator, Slaughterhouse, The Evil Dead, Xtro, The Deadly Spawn, and countless more, even though I hadn’t seen any of them. In my head I would fill in the blanks that the tiny pictures and vague plot outline left, often scaring myself into having nightmares.

But there was one movie, specifically one movie box, that scared me more than all the others. And it was for Night Of The Living Dead.

Since Night Of The Living Dead fell into public domain (long story, google it), any company could put it out on tape. So if you look online for old VHS copies you’ll find all kinds of strange covers from different companies (most of which no longer exist). But I vividly remember the one my dad’s store had (image taken from VHS Collector). Its blood red font on the stark black background always gave me chills. But the dead-faced zombies on the cover, especially the one in the full night gown, especially terrified me. I can’t remember the back cover’s plot description verbatim, but I do recall that it was fairly blunt and to the point; the dead weren’t staying dead, and they were feasting on the living.

The mere idea scared the fucking shit out of me.

And the fact that the back cover didn’t have any pictures just made it worse. My imagination ran wild with exceptionally gruesome images, things far beyond even what you’d see in the later “Dead” films.

Oh, and before I forget, those boxes scared the hell out of me too. The image of the zombie rising from his bed in Dawn Of The Dead freaked me out, but not half as much as the green zombie nurse on the back cover. And rotting corpse gracing the cover of Day Of The Dead was one I tried to avoid entirely. Not so much for his image (which did scare me for sure) but more for the graphic death featured on the back cover, which involved a man getting his face ripped apart by what seemed like a legion of the undead.

You’d think that as I got older, they would scare me less, but that wasn’t really the case. Yes, as I approached and eventually entered my teens, the boxes themselves didn’t generate the same visceral fear that they did when I was in elementary school, but the stories the films told still freaked me out. I credit my fixation with the “Dead” movies as being the sole instigator for the anxiety disorder that I was diagnosed with in my early 20s. I still led a happy and fulfilling life in spite of it, but I would be lying if I said not a day went by where I didn’t scare myself at least a little bit by letting my imagination run wild with the possibilities of a zombie apocalypse.

It also really didn’t help that my college campus had a fucking cemetery in the middle of it.

While I did get into horror movies a bit when I was in college, I tried to steer clear of the “real” ones, instead focusing on titles that were a bit on the cheesy or stupid side. I became a real fan of slasher flicks like Friday The 13th and Halloween and ate up all the sci-fi/horror I could get my hands on. The slasher films never scared me all that much, and the sci-fi stuff was just too far removed from reality to leave any lasting fears. I still stayed far, far away from anything zombie-related (save for Evil Dead 2, as that was a comedy). If anyone wanted to bring a zombie flick to movie night, I would sit that night out.

And that’s how it worked until 2002, when I finally worked up the nerve to see my very first zombie flick, 28 Days Later. I don’t know what pushed me into seeing it. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I had heard it had a happy ending. As much as zombies scared me, I think the idea of the apocalypse scared me just as much. Knowing that the zombies didn’t win going in helped to quell my dread.

It was also the year I started taking prozac, and, y’know, that couldn’t have hurt.

I made it through 28 Days Later. Loved it even, and I knew that it was finally the time to face my fears. First up was Night Of the Living Dead, the one that started it all (and by that I mean it started my anxiety disorder, not just the zombie genre). Not only did I make it through the movie with no problem, it gave me instant respect for Romero as a director. I had no idea it served as both a social commentary on racism as well as a gorefest about flesh-eaters. No small feat.

Up next was Dawn, and again I was surprised: not only by how great it was, but by how not scary it was. Sure, there were a few jump scares here and there, but for a movie about zombies destroying civilization, it sure was a lot of fun. And the bright orange blood and pea green zombies really helped to play down the horror and amp up the comedy.

And Day, well, that just didn’t scare me all that much because it’s just not a very good movie. Yes, it’s obviously technically well-made and features some amazing gore effects, but the characters are either loathable or forgettable, and the plot holes are big enough for the zombie army of Florida to walk though. But it didn’t scare me!

Less than two years later I found myself moving to Pittsburgh, coincidentally less than 20 minutes away from the Monroeville Mall, where Dawn Of The Dead was filmed. For the majority of my life I feared being surrounded by zombies until they devoured me and made me their own. Now I was being surrounded by zombie fanatics and becoming one of them, gnawing my way through one zombie flick after another, enjoying the likes of Zombie, Return Of The Living Dead and Dead Alive. I also finally dove deep into “real” horror films, and found myself enjoying dark and disturbing fair such as The Last House On The Left, Inside, and Suspiria.

Ironically, I finally lost my zombie bug not from being too afraid of them or finding movies that feature them to be too disturbing, but because I thought they were just getting too fucking boring. I abhor The Walking Dead in all its forms, and all the rip-off media that’s followed in its inexplicable success has soured me on the undead in all their forms completely.

The same with a lot of other honest-to-goodness horror films. I had a major anxiety episode a few years back, and while it was unrelated to anything about horror movies, I haven’t been able to enjoy any “serious” horror since. The heart-pumping rush they used to give me has now been replaced with a chest-clenching fear I’d rather avoid if at all possible.

Ironically, I now find myself immersed in the horror that Romero and his ilk helped kill; Victorian horror ala Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. These films fell out of favor because they were largely not scary, but that’s exactly why I enjoy watching them now. I don’t need to watch a movie to be disturbed anymore. I have the news for that. I’d much rather see Peter Cushing tear shit up in a frock.

Despite my misgivings, last week I re-visited Night Of The Living Dead for the first time in about five years. My boyfriend had heard the news of Romero’s death and was curious about the movie. It being on YouTube for free, we popped it on and gave it a watch.

That was a mistake.

This time around it didn’t really scare me all that  much. And I wasn’t impressed with the film’s social commentary. Instead, it just filled me with a overwhelming sense of dread and despair. Barbara dies. Ben dies. The girl dies (and eats her parents). Everyone dies. There’s no point. No justice. No happy ending. And most importantly, there’s no hope.

I feel as if I could watch Dawn Of The Dead again. Happier ending, and the tone is just so goofy. But I think I’m just done with Night and Day for time being. They’re too heavy. Too dark. And too pessimistic for the world we live in right now. Maybe in a few years, maybe it things get better, I’ll be able to come back to them. But right now, I think I’m good.

But thanks, George. You managed to give me a crippling anxiety disorder that lasted for years, all from simply knowing your films existed. I can’t think of a better compliment to give a horror movie director.

(And seriously, see Martin. It’s Romero’s secret best movie and probably won’t give you an anxiety attack.)

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