Following the heartbreaking news of his passing, we pay tribute to the father of modern horror.
There are certain artists who are quite simply irreplaceable – often imitated, never surpassed. As I write this piece, I’m still struggling to comprehend the thought that George Romero is no longer with us. Among fans like myself and the creators he inspired, the man was revered with an almost godlike status – so the earth-shattering reminder that he was mortal just like the rest of us is a hard pill to swallow. When we lose celebrity heroes – often people we’ve never met – we mourn for a minute and the world moves on. Like the departures of Wes Craven and Christopher Lee in 2015, the loss of Romero is a crushing reminder that the filmmakers and entertainers who represented a bolder, better bygone era are vanishing from this world.
As a student, George A. Romero began his filmmaking career cutting commercials and industrial films with his business partners, John Russo and Russell Streiner, with their Pittsburgh production company, Latent Image. However, the trio had bigger fish to fry, so, in 1968 they gathered their resources and some friends and made a small independent black and white horror picture. Originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters, studios and distributors wanted nothing to do with their film, but that didn’t stop the young upstarts from getting it into theaters. When Night of the Living Dead premièred in October, modern horror was born and the landscape of independent cinema was changed forever.
Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first horror film to feature zombies, but it was the first to present them as the flesh-eating ghouls that are now synonymous with the pop culture imagination. Until Romero’s iconic reinvention of the undead, the zombie as a screen monster was predominantly controlled by the voodoo practitioners of the native isles or by deranged scientists with their own twisted agendas. But Romero inaugurated a far more terrifying entity; one which not only starved for human flesh and couldn’t be explained, but also represented the idea of the end of civilization as we know it, along with the mass hysteria that comes with societal breakdown.
Night of the Living Dead didn’t only portray a scarily appropriate universe for a horror film, it projected the anxieties of a real-life society contending with the Vietnam war and a tumultuous racial climate following the assassination of Martin Luther King earlier that year. Romero denied that his decision to cast an African American lead in Duane Jones was inspired by King’s death, but even though it wasn’t intentional, it certainly gave the film deeper meaning among audiences.
Critics mostly despised the film at first. Variety called it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism” and criticized its social responsibility. The New York Times dismissed it as “junk’’ and found the experience “silly.’’ At the other end of the spectrum, some of the few critics who did enjoy it hailed it as the game changer it would later prove to be. Pauline Kael, writing for The New Yorker, described it as “one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made.’’ As history has proven, Night was much more than that – and even if it was purely coincidental, Romero delivered one of the most effective social critiques of its era.
Following the success of Night, genre cinema experienced a surge in independent auteurs and schlock peddlers. The film showed that the studio system wasn’t always necessary, and it inaugurated the bold, boundary-pushing of the 1970s spearheaded by the likes of Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, and David Cronenberg — all of whom changed the game in their own right with films which tapped into society’s contemporary fears and political distrust.
After Night, Romero tried his hand at romantic comedy (There’s Always Vanilla), but it was a brief foray away from the scare fare that made him a household name. In 1973, he helmed Season of the Witch, a feminist witchcraft drama that is arguably his most overlooked gem. That same year also saw the release of The Crazies, a thriller which introduced a new breed of infected – this time with a virus that causes people to turn into insane, homicidal maniacs. While The Crazies is overshadowed by his traditional zombie fare, the film’s fingerprints are all over Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and its sequel, as well as the countless other movies spawned containing ‘not quite’ zombies.
His next film, Martin, marked the director’s first collaboration with FX wizard Tom Savini, and it’s a shining jewel among the treasures in his filmography. Back then, the vampire film was primarily associated with Hammer Dracula productions and Eurocult, but Martin was a refreshing entry in the bloodsucker sub-genre, offering an alternative which adopted a blue-collar, realistic approach. John Amplas as the titular character is one of horror’s greatest psychological character studies, presenting a conflicted character who is both monstrous and sympathetic.
After Martin, Romero, in need of a hit, returned to beyond the grave in with a critically acclaimed sequel to his debut hit. Unlike its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead was deliberate with its social commentary. A biting critique of consumerism, the undead hordes represent shoppers flocking towards the mall in their masses driven by an insatiable appetite for goods. The next installment in the series, Day of the Dead, is by far the most nihilistic – a gruesomely scathing indictment of the Reagan era and one which prompts viewers to be wary of any political establishment. As a magnifying glass held up against contemporary society, Romero’s original trilogy is arguably still as poignant. Racial tensions still exist as exemplified through the emergence of groups like Black Lives Matter; consumerism is the machine which feeds capitalism; Trump happened, and he’s not exactly a poster boy for trustworthy political figures at this time.
Before Day, he would step out of the horror genre for the second and final time with Knightriders, a wonderful gem which couples the biker film with Arthurian jousting. It’s no secret that Romero felt trapped in the horror genre sometimes. He once said, “As a filmmaker, you get typecast just as much as an actor does, so I’m trapped in a genre that I love, but I’m trapped in it!” You won’t meet a horror fan who isn’t grateful for his contributions to our beloved genre, but Knightriders makes you wonder what else he had to offer beyond it.
That said, the ’80s continued to solidify his status as a genre master. Creepshow, which pays homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950s and features two segments written by Stephen King, is one of his most beloved films – and one of the ’80s most celebrated horror classics. Monkey Shines, on the other hand, is a marvelous tale about a disabled man and his insane servant monkey. Unfortunately, I’m in the minority with that opinion.
In 1990, he co-directed Two Evil Eyes with Dario Argento, an enjoyable two-tale anthology loosely based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. In 1993, he returned to literature for inspiration with The Dark Half, once again adapting a property penned by Stephen King. Bruiser marked his last non-zombie feature, and while it’s by no means one of his strongest, it’s an engaging mystery and a worthy entry to any canon.
Romero’s second zombie trilogy — Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead — doesn’t hold a candle to the first three, but each film contains worthwhile messages about their respective contemporary zeitgeists, not to mention plenty of entertaining, bloody zombie action. Land isn’t subtle about its critique of classism or the Bush administration, but its cartoonish satire is ludicrous enough to be enjoyable; Diary is arguably the lowest point of the director’s career, but you can’t blame him for trying to adapt his long-running series to the era of found footage horror and citizen journalism. Survival of the Dead isn’t the swan song Romero’s career deserved, but it is a serviceable, gore-drenched crowd pleaser which serves to entertain its core audience.
It is not hyperbole to say that Romero changed everything. The horror genre wouldn’t be what it is today without him. If it wasn’t for Night of the Living Dead inspiring filmmakers to pursue their dreams, The Last House on the Left might not have happened and inaugurated Craven’s ascension to icon status. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might not have happened and birthed a horror icon as frightening as Romero’s zombies. Along with Rio Bravo, Night was Carpenter’s core inspiration when developing Assault On Precinct 13.
With Night of the Living Dead, Romero unconsciously started a discourse in genre films which has continued to this day with recent releases such as Get Out and It Comes at Night. Dawn of the Dead gave us the Cornetto trilogy. Without Romero sending the undead to go get Barbara nearly half a century ago, The Walking Dead comics and TV show wouldn’t be the pop cultural phenomenon they are today and we wouldn’t have Resident Evil video games. On top of that, we wouldn’t have cult classics like Return of the Living Dead or Zombie Flesh Eaters. If Romero didn’t set the zombie tropes, we wouldn’t have the pleasant surprises like Fido or It Stains the Sand Red which manages to creatively subvert them. It’s hard to imagine what genre cinema would be like today without him.
For horror nuts, Romero that special time in life staying up late discovering the joys of gruesome movies for the first time. Even if you’re not a Romero fan, he definitely inspired a substantial portion of your favorite horror movies. He was an icon among icons and his legacy cannot be understated. The world feels like an emptier place knowing he’s left us, but his influence on pop culture and filmmaking was immortally enshrined a long time ago.