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By Mike Watt | July 18, 2005

The theater was rapidly beginning to pack even as we arrived. Reporters and photographers from most of the local television stations, newspapers, etc., stood rank and file on the red carpet with Furno and The Horror Channel near the main doors. Chris Ivey, Cameron’s man-on-the-spot held the first position, waiting for the big guns to arrive. We flashed our passes at the ushers, but didn’t have to; they remembered us and let us in. The blessed air conditioned atmosphere wrapped itself around us and we gratefully accepted its embrace.

Inside, Stacy was playing zombie housemanager, trying to get people seated. A huge VIP section in the center had been taped off, but the seats surrounding it were filling quickly. We instantly recognized numerous faces—Jeff Waltrowski and Nic Pesante, our Hero Headquarters partners, were up in the balcony with some of the gang from the message board; Aaron Schweikart, the genius who painted the beautiful and haunting murals in Savini’s Terrormania was sitting with some buddies of his near the back. Art Ettinger of Ultra-Violent Magazine sat near the front, just behind the still-giddy Melissa, the fan in the bloody wedding dress. Right behind him, I would discover later, was Terry Thome, a writer and a buddy of mine I hadn’t seen in nearly five years. I even bumped into Cathy Kelly, who owns the best video store in Pittsburgh—Classic Video—my old boss. Again, I started reeling and feeling like I was covering a Salvador Dali painting from the inside-out.

We found seats with the Savini kids, waited for Amy’s sister and her husband to join us… and, of course, the main event to begin.

Time was starting to bubble around me again as the celebrities arrived. There was either no security for Tarantino and company, or they really were enjoying themselves to the point where they didn’t mind the mob that formed around them as they made their way down the aisle to their seats. Camera-flashes strobed through the theater as they smiled and posed with an endless horde of fans. There were audible gasps when Rodriguez took his seat—he was the surprise guest, remember? You could hear “Holy s**t, that’s Robert Rodriguez!” bounce around the auditorium—a lot of it coming from the zombies behind us.

“Hey,” said student Nathan Montalvo, grabbing my shoulder, “Did you know he was going to be here?”

“Yeah, but I was sworn to secrecy,” I said.

“S**t,” he said, awestruck and summing up the crowd’s reaction.

Finally, the zero hour arrived and the proceedings began. Steeltown’s Ellen Kander and Carl Kurlander got up and gave a little talk. Kurlander seemed a bit gobsmacked as well, only mentioning that he wrote “St. Elmo’s Fire” twice before introducing Greg Nicotero. Greg took the stage and had to wait for his standing ovation to die down. “Wow, this dead town is so alive tonight,” he said, the remark rewarded with a wave of laughter. He recounted how he grew up in North Hills hero-worshipping Romero, grateful to his mentor, Savini, for giving him the opportunity to work on “Day of the Dead”. He talked about how his parents had dreamed of his becoming a doctor, but that his life took a different path after “Day”. Then he introduced Tarantino, Rodriguez, Pegg, Wright, etc. “They were all influenced, in one way or another, by George Romero.”

When this was mentioned, Rodriguez tipped his cowboy hat and smiled at the crowd. When the applause subsided again, Greg called attention to that fact. “The only other time I ever saw Robert remove his hat was at a ‘Shaun of the Dead’ screening.” The crowd erupted again.

After his homage was paid, Greg introduced George, who took the stage with Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. Why not Mayor Tom Murphy? No idea. But Onorato announced that June 22, 2005 was “George A. Romero Day”. As it was currently 8:20 in the evening, you would have thought Ol’ Dan could have announced this earlier so George could have had the whole day to enjoy it. But, whatever…

It took much longer for the applause for George to die down. I watched him stand and smile that toothy ear-to-ear grin of his, waiting uncomfortably to speak. He was no longer the bear of a man I’d grown up reading about in Fangoria and Cinefantastique. As a lot of people have remarked recently, Romero looked frail, thin. But if he was unhealthy, his voice didn’t betray it. He still had that strong, confident timbre I’d grown familiar with through countless DVD interviews.

“After all these years,” he said, continuing his paraphrase of Orson Welles, “I’m still playing with the world’s best electric trains. Only this year I got a much bigger train set.”

And it was true. “Land of the Dead”, despite being hit with a budget cut midway through production, and a schedule change that prohibited some of his much-desired pick-up shots, had the biggest budget he’d ever worked with. Yet, it was still barely half of what the “Dawn of the Dead” remake had received from the very same studio. This fact went unstated by the gentleman on the stage, but it was a fact not lost by the hardcore horror geeks sitting in the audience. We all knew. For twenty years plus, Romero had been s**t on by one studio or another—by Universal more often than the others. The “Dawn of the Dead” remake had been an insult to us all here—even those of us who grudgingly admitted that it was a good zombie movie, but a terrible remake. We were sitting in wait for the follow-up to the horror-geek’s “Lord of the Rings”—the “Living Dead” series. It was something for which most of us in that room had waited as long or longer than the “Star Wars” prequels. For people like the zombie fans in the front row, the “Dead” series was more important than any of those above-mentioned movies. Zombie movies resonate with a lot of people; you don’t run into zombie haters in this circle too terribly often. They were what they were because of George A. Romero. And we were getting to see this new one while sitting in the very same room as its creator.

Was this a historical moment? Not compared to, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Revolutionary War. But it was horror history, surely. F**k it; it was a pinnacle moment for me—to hell with the context.

The lights went down. “Land of the Dead” began.

By now, there have been a million reviews written about the movie. Most reviewers agree that it was great Romero, but not outstanding Romero. “The least of the series,” say those in the community. And, yeah, I agree with the sentiment.

On the other hand, sitting in that room, with that crowd, about seven feet from Tarantino—who bounced in his seat throughout the movie, periodically knocking off Rodriguez’s ubiquitous hat—down the aisle from the movie’s creator, very near his son, who has become a close friend to me and my family—the experience was… I have to go with the cliché: magical.

The crowd was f*****g loving it. They shrieked, for Christ’s sake! They “ewwed” at some of the sweeter gross-out moments (the hand in the mouth and the priest’s flip-top-head); those that caught the cameo roared for the Pegg and Wright zombies. They went bananas when Savini’s walk-on popped up. And I was right there with them. For the first time in I don’t know how many years, I wasn’t studying the camera angles or critiquing the sound design or tearing apart the script. I was enjoying the damn movie. I was right there every second, in the moment. Yet, at the same time, I was part of the crowd and knew, just like everyone else, that I’d never get an experience like this again. I won’t reiterate the guest-list. No more name-dropping right now. If you were in that room—one of the 1100 who managed to shell out the scratch to gain access to the event—you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t, I don’t know how to explain it to make you a part of it. It’s like being a survivor of a plane crash—you were either there, or you read about it elsewhere.

For the first time in a very long time, I was part of this community; and for the first time in a long time, it was a definite community. There weren’t, to my knowledge, any of the fanboys in the room, arms crossed, defying Romero to entertain them. The only people who were there—local glitteratti angling for the “Seen” columns aside—were there to share something they knew would never come around again. And when the credits rolled, the applause drowned out the Dolby Surround soundtrack. The silhouette wall that comprised the standing ovation obscured the screen. “Land of the Dead” could have been the biggest piece of s**t ever thrown against a wall and stuck, but at that moment, regardless of quality, it would have been cinematic legend in the eyes of we the 1100.

Fortunately, it was a pretty kick-a*s movie. No bullshit, Jack.

The rest of the night is a haze of crowds. It took us forty-five minutes to caravan out of the parking garage and drive the eleven blocks to the Déjà vu Lounge, realizing halfway up that none of us had the faintest idea where it actually was. Having sat with Cameron as he and the gang planned the event for over a month, and it never occurred to me to get an address for the damn place. Fortunately, the rotating klieg lights outside guided our way.


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