Ever since his 1968 cult smash Night of the Living Dead—in which a little girl zombie munches on her mommy—director George Romero has been the undisputed master of schlock shock. His current tingler, Creepshow, written by Stephen (The Shining) King, certainly fits the mold. The film’s five episodes feature death by decapitation, drowning, green fungus, cockroach infestation and monster attack. Many critics recoiled. “Ugly,” attacked Gene Siskel on TV’s At the Movies. But with Creep-show grossing more than $17 million to date, Romero’s not kicking.
What manner of man does this sort of thing for a living? “People expect to find me in my cape baying at the moon,” says Romero, 42. In fact, the bearded 6’4″ director, who is found most days in a modest office overlooking Pittsburgh’s murky Monongahela River, looks more like a teddy bear. The New York-born Romero has no use for Hollywood. He moved to Pittsburgh as a college student in 1957 and makes all his films in the area, using locals and friends as well as professional actors. “I like it,” he says. “Most of my closest associates live here, and they are as talented as anyone in Hollywood—in some cases more talented. I’m not doing perfect work, but I’m doing a lot for the dollars involved.”
Most Romero films, including 1973’s The Crazies and 1979’s Dawn of the Dead, were done on a shoestring. Night of the Living Dead cost only $114,000 and has earned—though not for Romero—about $50 million. Burned by a distribution snafu on that movie, he has collected only about $70,000. Romero’s not vindictive. “I built a career on the film,” he reasons. Creep-show, costing $8 million and boasting a name cast including E.G. Marshall and Adrienne Barbeau, represents his first foray into big budgets.
Among Romero’s fiercely loyal crew is Christine Forrest, 35, an actress he met in 1970 while filming a long-forgotten movie (Jack’s Wife) in her parents’ home near Pittsburgh. Six years later Romero cast Christine in Martin, a vampire movie. Having divorced his advertising executive wife of seven years in 1978, Romero wed Christine two years later. “He’s a gentle man,” she says.
Born in the Bronx, the only child of a Cuban commercial artist, Romero was an early horror film buff, especially fond of The Thing. Attending his neighborhood Catholic high school, he made short films for fun but enrolled in 1957 at Carnegie Tech as a painting and design major. Two years later he dropped out of school to form Latent Image, Inc., which made TV commercials for the likes of Alcoa and Heinz. In 1967, with a stake of $6,000 provided by friends, Romero bought some film and rented a farm in Evans City, Pa. The result was Night of the Living Dead and horror history.
Today George and Christine live in a two-bedroom condo in the middle-class Shadyside section of Pittsburgh, with a library crammed with tomes such as A History of Torture and The Terror Trap. They hope Creepshow’s success will help them get a vacation home in the Caribbean. And children? Possibly. George has a son, Cam, 10, by his first marriage.
Creepshow’s success hasn’t changed Romero’s anti-Hollywood stance. “I don’t see anything good coming out of there,” he says, pointing an accusing finger at Steven Spielberg’s E.T. with its benign view of aliens. Romero sees “post-E.T. America” as bad news for horror. “People now want to go back to see Disney-type films,” he groans.
Though Romero says he’s game to work outside the genre, he’s not about to give up the golden goose bump. He’ll soon direct The Stand, also by King, a fast friend since 1978. Since The Stand turns America into a mass graveyard, the director is once again ready to trot out his bag of terror tricks. Never mind that he’s done them before. “It’s how you craft them,” he says. In a troubled world, Romero finds genuine horror an escape. “The best place to be scared is a movie theater,” he says, “where it’s nice and safe.”