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R.I.P. George A. Romero, Father of the Modern Movie Zombie

George A. Romero never meant to change the pop culture landscape.

According to Romero himself, when he and his small nine-person production company (called Image Ten Productions) were conceiving and shooting his first feature film in 1968—a little, low-budget monster movie called Night of the Living Dead—they were only interested in making an efficient horror cheapie and, it was hoped, a quick buck.

There was no way Romero or any of the cast or crew could have predicted the eventual cultural enormity of Night of the Living Dead. Although he never used the word “zombie” in his film, the iconography and the rules of the on-screen “ghouls” immediately codified a new genre of zombie-based horror. If you’ve ever seen The Walking Dead, or indeed have talked about zombies in any capacity, or seen any film or game that had a zombie in it (that was made after 1968), it is a direct descendant of George A. Romero’s creative tinkering all those years ago.

Night of the Living Dead poster

As a filmmaker, Romero was always more of a journeyman than an aesthete. He wanted to tell stories as efficiently as possible, make movies for as much money as he could get, and maybe frighten people along the way. His overriding aesthetic was one of mechanics. His films feel very direct and frills-free; he was not one to add flourish for the sake of it. He didn’t mean to make any sort of racial commentary by casting a black lead (Duane Jones) in Night of the Living Dead; he simply lucked into a good actor. He was a director who merely sought interesting ideas and played them out as well as he could.

And indeed, some of those ideas were quite good, some were bad, and some were just outright weird. After Night of the Living Dead, Romero tried to make a low-budget romantic comedy called There’s Always Vanilla, which is rarely remembered, and even Romero himself has noted that this was perhaps his worst film. He parlayed romance back into horror with 1971’s Season of the Witch (a.k.a. Jack’s Wife, a.k.a. Hungry Wives) about magical dissatisfied housewives who practice black magic, and slipped back into more zombie-like horror with 1973’s The Crazies (which was remade in 2010).

Warner Bros.

From 1978 until 1985, Romero produced what is perhaps his best work, having churned out numerable legitimate horror classics. He made a vampire film called Martin, and that film remains Romero’s favorite. In 1981, he made a very strange motorcycle jousting film called Knightriders about a traveling Ren Faire troupe that is wholly devoted to the code of chivalry, despite living in a cynical America. It also stages jousting tourneys when bored. In 1982, Romero made the Stephen King-based anthology horror film Creepshow, which remains one of the scariest anthology horror films ever made; the cockroach segment alone is worth the price of admission.

United Film Distribution Company

It was during this period that he also returned to zombies, making Dawn of the Dead in 1978. Although its mall setting was in fact the only place that Romero could find to shoot, the location has inspired generations of critics to see Dawn of the Dead as a sharp satire of consumer culture, the dead returning to the only place they knew comfort: The place where they used to shop. Dawn of the Dead is often celebrated as one of the best horror films of all time, and was famously remade by Zack Snyder in 2004. For my money, however, the superior film is 1985’s Day of the Dead, perhaps Romero’s most robust, most visually interesting, and richest film. Set underground, Day of the Dead is about a conflict between civilians and military jerks as they try to fend off the above-ground zombies who slowly encroach. A scientist is also attempting to domesticate zombies.

Other films in the Dead series included the pointed Land of the Dead, released in 2005, about a wealthy class of non-undead humans boarded up in a luxury high-rise (the commentary is both intentional this time, and also pretty obvious), 2007’s Diary of the Dead, a found-footage reboot of the original, and 2009’s Survival of the Dead, a super low-budget zombie film with a bizarre Hatfields vs. McCoys story.

United Film Distribution Company

Romero also made two notable big-budget Hollywood horror films in Monkey Shines and The Dark Half, the latter based on a novel by Stephen King. In these two films, one can see Romero at his most comfortable, breathing easy with manageable budgets, happy with interesting ideas, and pleased to be working within the Hollywood system. Although Romero could work as an outsider, he was often just as adept as an insider.

Orion Pictures

Thanks to a notorious flub in paperwork, Night of the Living Dead lapsed into the public domain immediately upon its release, and Romero famously never got much money directly from the film (please, please, please don’t buy those crappy-looking, cheap-ass DVDs from the drugstore; they suck and they support no one). Its place in the public domain, however, allowed grindhouses and late-night movie theaters to book Night with relative ease, pushing the film to make more and more money over the course of several years. It was made of $114,000, and netted about $15 million in its first decade. Along with films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, Pink Flamingos, and Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead is one of the most popular of all midnight movies.

Romero was a gadfly of horror conventions, and he often lent his blessing to the films of up-and-comers in the horror community. With his large, dark-rimmed glasses and easy smile, he was an approachable dude, happy to talk about zombie and horror with a laidback ease.

Romero died of lung cancer this morning at the age of 77. The man’s legacy will continue to inspire and frighten us for generations.

Image Credits: The Walter Reade Organization/Continental Distributing, Orion Pictures, United Film Distribution Company

 Featured Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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