We are living now, more than ever, in the world of George Romero.
Don’t know Romero? You should. He directed the horror classic "Night of the Living Dead," along with films such as "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." He basically created the zombie genre in American film, and I expect the book based on his work to be a blockbuster when it comes out next month.
He died just over three years ago, but he has never been more relevant than during these strange times. The monsters in a Romero film were never the obvious monsters. We humans were the monsters, bickering and attacking each other rather than using our formidable intellect and abilities to stay out of harm’s way. It was as if we needed someone to blame for a problem even more than we needed to fix the problem.
It seems to me that he gave us an apt metaphor for the worst of our national response to our current pandemic predicament.
I met George when I was writing my own version of his kind of story, and he was kind enough to support my work. In fact, he was as kind as he was thoughtful. I could sure use a dose of George’s guidance about now. This is what George taught me, again and again:
We can, at our best, do all sorts of good. We can win out against bad guys; we can manage the most complex crises with competence; we can do emergency surgeries and stop entire nations from starving. But, at the end of the day, we should never, ever lose track of our astounding tendencies to make a royal mess of things.
Think about how many scenes George got exactly, uncomfortably right. There’s the one-legged priest in "Dawn of the Dead" who warns the overconfident soldiers that many zombies have died “on these streets...but soon, I think they be stronger than you.”
That scene gives me chills. He could be talking about today. The numbers of those who are sick and suffering continue to grow. A piecemeal response won’t cut it. We’re in desperate need of a careful and humane means of handling our crisis, and it isn’t really that elusive. After all, how is it that a man with one leg can thrive while heavily armed men continue to die? Maybe there’s a better way to handle this thing.
Or how about the one-eyed sharp-shooter in "Land of the Dead" whose face is horribly disfigured from a fire. He begs others to grasp his predicament. “I have bad dreams,” he tells anyone who will listen. “Hell, yes, just look at me. You can tell I have terrible dreams.”
And if you’re watching the movie, you have to look.
I find myself wishing someone compelled us to look more closely at the ICUs and the morgues and the workers who process our meat. I’ve had a glimpse of the psychic carnage. It is without question the stuff of nightmares.
George showed us grandiose men who imagined they were kings and landlords who felt that their names alone added value. Does that sound familiar? His movies featured guns that grow too comfortable to hold even after their utility falls far short of their imagined power. And wouldn’t you know it? Gun sales in America are at record highs…higher than I’d bet George himself ever imagined possible.
We should never, ever lose track of our astounding tendencies to make a royal mess of things.
I imagine him looking out from the great beyond and sporting that unique, slightly sad Romero smile, the one that expressed his simultaneous capacity to laugh and to mourn.
“Zombies are just ‘the thing that happens,’” he liked to say. The rest of us take it from there, and it almost never ends well.
Now the pandemic is the thing that has happened. I tell you what: George would spin a hell of a satire out of our current predicament. I imagine he’d create an uncomfortable scenario where our tendencies toward tribalism outweigh our willingness to wrestle with the facts on the ground. Or maybe an outlandish scenario in which logical actions that are obviously not at all intended to carry ideological weight – wearing masks, for example – are somehow conflated with a particular political stance. Imagine the audacity of that particular plotline…
In other words, George would advise us with a story. He’d make the ludicrous seem plausible and even understandable. That way we could be ready when what would otherwise seem ridiculous nevertheless happens.
Last week, missing my friend on the anniversary of his passing, I decided to revisit one of his tales. I watched "Land of the Dead," and it was almost too much. There is an uprising of the oppressed. There are too many guns, and the guns are inevitably misused. And there is the classic, practically patented Romero-esque magic. The zombies fight for their freedom, and the humans fight with each other.
“If you and I are gonna be friends,” George told me early on, “then there are certain films that you gotta watch. Start with 'The Quiet Man.' ”
And I rented it, and I watched it, and I totally missed the point. Enthralled by the nearly 10-minute fight scene, riveted by the archaic treatment of women, enchanted by the romance of an imagined old-world Ireland, I missed what he saw as the fundamental message.
He didn’t scold me. He just gently drew my attention to the hidden strength of the film: The two men fighting are clowns, he noted. You can always find a way to avoid a fight.
This was the redemption George offered. The gore in a Romero film was a deliberate distraction. We can do better, even amidst all the ugliness. His films never ended well, but the pandemic can. We just have to stop bickering and start connecting. We need flexibility and compromise. We need to pay attention to the facts. We need to be willing to toss aside individual pettiness for the benefit of the common good.
Rest in peace, pal. We’ll have to walk through your world without you.
Dr. Steve Schlozman is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist.