Despite the stellar programming, I hardly ever set foot in the Gene Siskel Film Center during my 20-odd years in Chicago because getting there from my Northwest Side digs just seemed like way too much work. I had to really want it — and when informed that George A. Romero was going to appear in person to introduce a new film in the fall of 2000, I really wanted it.
Not only had I obsessed over Romero’s original living dead trilogy long before zombies became a pop culture fixture, but the man’s integrity and reputation as an American indie cinema auteur had few parallels. Also I was freelance writer at the time, and I smelled a good story. So I forced myself to ride the “el” downtown on a Saturday evening.
The film, Bruiser, was typical Romero: a sort of modern-day take take on Phantom of the Opera that mixed delicious low-brow thrills with thought-provoking meditations on identity, plus a boatload of homages to everything from punk rock legends The Misfits (who perform in the climactic scene) to Michael Powell’s Tales of Hoffman, which most of the audience wouldn’t even have caught had Romero not mentioned it during the post-screening discussion.
Romero revealed many fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits about his decades-long struggle with the studio system, including the fact that at one point he was in discussion to direct the Brendan Fraser version The Mummy — which he intended to be “smaller, more intimate, more romantic, and probably more frightening….It wouldn’t have taken in 100 mil.”
After the discussion, it was time for the autograph signing. When my turn came, I handed Romero a Film Center Program I’d just picked up. He asked for my name, then wrote, “Sergio, Stay Scared!” Alas, for some reason he was signing in pencil, and the program was on newspaper stock. I stashed it away carefully, but every time I peeked at it over the years it had faded a bit more. When I looked at it on Sunday after learning Romero had died, it was barely readable.
As it turns out, “Stay Scared” was Romero’s, ahem, signature line, so now there are people selling all kinds of memorabilia bearing that line, such as this poster you can buy on eBay for a mere $129.
Of course, if my Romero memento had stayed intact I wouldn’t have sold even if I’d found a sucker willing to pay for it. And while I imagine the autograph will continue to fade away, at least I’ll still have a tangible artifact related from evening: this article I put together for the Chicago Reader.