ZINOMAN Over your parents’ objections is the perfect way to see a Romero movie. As much as his movies lend themselves to political and social analysis, they are also delightfully in touch with the cheapest, bloodiest thrills of childhood. The first Romero film I saw was “Creepshow,” the anthology film inspired by EC Comics, with a screenplay by Stephen King; it had one of the ickiest deaths I had ever sat through. Elevator pitch: “The Birds” but with cockroaches. As it happens, when I interviewed Mr. Romero decades later, he said he admired “The Birds” but also said the shots were designed to draw attention to Hitchcock’s own virtuosic directing. My sense is that Mr. Romero did not relate to Hitchcock’s style of meticulous and elegant suspense, that he was as happy to gross you out as scare you. As a kid, I appreciated that. But I worry that as I get older, I’m losing my taste for that sweet, sweet gore. Mr. Romero thankfully never did
SCOTT Mr. Romero was part of a generation of horror auteurs — Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper (of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and John Carpenter are his obvious peers — who were both populist exploitationmongers and film intellectuals. They reveled in the disrepute of their chosen genre and did not mind at all that their movies were disdained by (most) parents and (many) critics. In a Village Voice interview around the time of “Dawn,” Mr. Romero called his movie and Mr. Carpenter’s “Halloween” “a form of punk; that’s purposeful disrespect.”
I wonder what’s become of that impulse — the antiauthoritarian, antirespectability bravado that infused Mr. Romero’s movies (including nonzombiecentric work like “Martin” and “Knightriders”). We’re currently witnessing a flourishing of low-budget horror, much of it owing an obvious debt to Mr. Romero. A lot of it, though, seems more self-conscious, more academic, than his movies did. But you’re the horror scholar: How would you assess the state of his influence?
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ZINOMAN I’m glad you mentioned “Martin,” Romero’s favorite of his films and a beautiful character study that deconstructs the vampire myth decades before metahorror came into fashion. Your question puts me in mind of Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” who, when asked what he’s rebelling against, responded, “What do you got?”
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When that generation of auteurs started bloodletting in the late ’60s, the status of horror was at best escapist fun and at worst as disreputable as porn. The morally hand-wringing coverage of “Night of the Living Dead” proves the point. (Roger Ebert’s sort-of review is the most famous example, although to be fair, he saw as well as any critic that this movie was something entirely new.)
Those horror directors were embarrassed to tell their parents what they did. Now, think about the 45-year-old director Eli Roth — his parents threw him a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-themed bar mitzvah. So that impulse survives, but its context changed. My two-bit theory is this: The old masters of horror made more squirm-inducing movies than their successors in part because they had more shame about their work. Bring back horror shaming! Well, maybe not, but I do miss the old-fashioned scolding reviews. Like the best scary movies, they brought out in the open what was already there.
SCOTT The revival of any kind of shame seems unlikely at this moment, and with Oscar talk buzzing around “Get Out,” horror shame doesn’t seem to be in the cards either. Which is fine, I suppose. But the flip side to the shame you describe is defiance, and it’s that transgressive frisson — the thrill that comes from the knowledge that you’re not supposed to be enjoying movies like this, let alone making them — that is missing today. Maybe we have Mr. Romero to blame, or to thank. If he had not been such a great filmmaker, the dead might have stayed underground, where we used to think they belonged.