The father of the modern zombie, George A. Romero, came to town Wednesday night, and I was there. Not there in the audience -- there, on stage, introducing one of my heroes, a man I consider to be one of the most important and influential filmmakers of our era. And not just Romero, either: Max Brooks, the author of the bestselling books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z was in the lineup, as was Steven Schlozman, author of The Zombie Autopsies and a doctor who is probably the foremost authority on the biology of zombies. And there I was, introducing them all and leading them through a discussion on zombies and zombie culture.
As a zombie fanatic, this made me pretty happy.
I wish I could give you a point-by-point recap of the highlights and finer points of the discussion, but to be honest, I can't. (You will see parts of it in the upcoming Doc of the Dead, and I'm told Romero himself may release the entire thing at some point in the future.) Between the surreal experience of sitting next to three of the top men in a field I've been a fan of nearly my entire life, and the demands of moderating a panel, for the first time in my life, attended by hundreds of fellow fanatics, I have to admit I didn't take a lot of notes. I can tell you that they talked about everything from why zombies are so popular to what makes a zombie tick biologically. Politics were discussed (all of them are pretty damn liberal; make of that what you will). The dearth of creativity in the genre as a whole was touched upon, but all of them were able to name some recent films that they really liked --Shaun of the Dead is universally loved among the panel, for example.
Oh, and Romero doesn't like The Walking Dead, in case you were wondering.
On that note, the entire panel was refreshingly, even bracingly, honest. There wasn't much diplomatic tiptoeing around anyone's feelings, on any matter, from politics to how shitty most zombie movies are. Perhaps that's not too surprising from a bunch of artists who work in a field where disembowelment is commonplace and the extinction of the human species is a standard trope.
As if the honor of working, however briefly, with these undead titans wasn't enough of an honor, I also got to hang out in the green room beforehand and afterward at a bar with all of them and some of their family members. Romero is probably the nicest, most gracious legend you will ever meet. Brooks is as funny as you might expect, given that his father is Mel Brooks, but he's also incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about film and, as far as I could tell, pretty much everything else. He's also a giant geek. Schlozman might not have the name recognition of the other two (yet), but not only was he just as knowledgeable and passionate about the others on the topic of zombies, his medical background lent him a distinct view on zombies.
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When I was writing about this event for Westword, I stressed several times that I was doing it for no compensation, in case anyone had concerns about a conflict of interest. Technically, this was true -- I received no payment of any kind (well, I didn't have to pay for the sparkling water in the green room and at the bar, if that counts). In truth, though, hanging out with these guys, talking to them about film and books and politics, hearing Romero relate anecdotes about his watch or expound on the works of Kubrick, was worth more to me than any kind of payment. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget, proof that if you follow your dreams -- even when they're zombie dreams -- unfailingly and without question, they can take you further than you ever dreamed possible...all the way to meeting the man who invented those dreams in the first place.