Yesterday the iconic filmmaker, George A Romero, passed away. Owen Hughes tries to explain why the mark left on the horror genre by the creator of the Living Dead trilogy and other cult classics will be around for a long, long time yet.
It’s not often that I feel compelled to write these obituary-style articles as soon as any old director dies. But George A Romero, the legendary filmmaker behind three of my favourite films, including the seminal Night of the Living Dead, is not just “any old director”. Above my desk where I podcast from every Monday night, right on the wall in front of me, is a framed poster from Arrow’s Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray. I watched Day of the Dead first on DVD and then on Blu-ray 10 times in total in the last five years, not counting the times I’ve caught it on TV or streamed it online. Romero and his iconic Living Dead trilogy are a big part of why I love watching, writing and podcasting about movies.
There aren’t many people who can lay claim to the creation of an entire sub-genre, but Romero is one of them. However, zombies, the undead creatures that Romero and his co-creator of the 1968 horror classic, John Russo, are often crediting as having created, had in fact been around for decades beforehand, just perhaps not quite as we now know them.
John Gilling’s Hammer film, Plague of the Zombies, released in 1966, saw a voodoo curse cause a kerfuffle in a 19th Century Cornish village. Vincent Price tackled zombie-like vampire creatures four years earlier in I Am Legend. Bela Lugosi (not Bela Lugosi) rose from the grave for Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space in the 50’s, after tackling them in the (let’s call it) culturally insensitive pre-code horror, White Zombie. I Walked With A Zombie, Teenage Zombies, King of the Zombies, there are tonnes of them. The shuffling, rotting, living dead did not claw their way from the grave for the first time in 1968. In fact, they weren’t even referred to as “zombies” at any point during Night of the Living Dead. But the legacy that this $100k black-and-white flick had on cinema would change the creatures forever.
Not only was it revolutionary for the way it redefined the way popular culture would see the zombie creature forever, but it’s easy to forget that back then, casting the African-American actor Duane Jones in the lead role as Ben, the only sensible person in the group who decide to barricade themselves into an old farm house as the marauding hordes come to get them, was not all too common. To have him slap some sense into the white Barbra (Judith O’Dea) would have shocked some audience members as much as the previously unseen relatively high levels of gore and frightening scenes did. It is a masterfully crafted suspenseful horror, but a quietly reflective and judgemental film too.
Believe it or not, Romero never intended to be a genre-film icon. The director’s work largely consisted of adverts up until his first feature, which he only made because it was cheap to do and, if successful, would allow him to make the romantic comedy he had great plans for – which he did, in 1971. There’s Always Vanilla was not received well at the time and barely registers at all today, registering a 5.4 rating on IMDb based on a meagre 293 ratings. It’s a remarkably low number for a filmmaker so often cited as one of the most influential, important and adored of modern times.
A couple of other low budget horrors surfaced in the years that followed, with suburban fantasy horror Season of the Witch , the violent societal collapse of The Crazies, and Martin, a story told from the perspective of a boy who thinks he’s a vampire, to mixed results. It was his return to the Living Dead series – albeit minus “Living” in the title due to ownership rights with Russo – that would solidify his role in popular culture. Released ten years after Night… in 1978, Dawn of the Dead saw four companions forced together through circumstance who decide to wait out the zombie apocalypse in a shopping mall. It immediately became one of Romero’s most celebrated works and its legacy still lasts today. Whilst Night of the Living Dead acted as an allegory for the returning Vietnam war soldiers who were treated like outsiders in an American society that saw them as cold blooded, inhuman killers, Dawn of the Dead took a more satirical approach.
Foretelling the capitalist consumerism boom of the 1980s, Dawn of the Dead mocked the brain-dead zombies returning the shopping mall, with no memory of why, only knowing that “they want to be in here”. It’s a savage indictment of our self-serving greed and the desire to consume (goods, rather than flesh, so to speak) that was then, and remains now, a relevant and sophisticated dissection of modern societal values. If it was Night of the Living Dead that saw the creation of the “Romero Zombie”, then it was Dawn… that understood how to use them with great effect. It was Europe, where the film was first released months prior to going on sale in the US, that took this ’78 horror to heart. Zombi, as it was known across the pond, even has a speedier European cut by Lucio Fulci. Such was its appeal on the continent that several unofficial sequels rose from its foundations, such as Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters), Zombi 3 (aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, or The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, if you prefer), not to be confused with Zombi 3 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters 2) or Zombie 3 (aka Zombie Holocaust)… I could go on, but the list is quite exhaustive. Everybody who wanted to make a zombie movie wanted to make a Romero zombie movie from that point onwards.
It wasn’t until 1985, sandwiched between medieval re-enactors-gone-bad thriller Knightriders and the superb anthology horror Creepshow on one side, and intelligent ape-gone-bad thriller Monkey Shines on the other, that the master himself would return to complete his Living Dead trilogy. Romero was always somewhat unsatisfied with the story of society’s last hope being stuck in an underground bunker with testosterone fuelled jar heads and increasingly intelligent zombies. He described how restrictive he felt the $3.5m budget was in allowing him to create the epic Day of the Dead he originally had planned, yet still somehow made another all time great for the horror genre and is sorely underrated in the series. Indeed, Romero was more happy with how Land of the Dead turned out. Released in 2005, it took the concept of zombies growing more civilised as we devolve into savage beasts, and multiplied it by $15m. The found-footage style Diary of the Dead followed in 2007 before he sat behind the camera one last time to finish off his new Living Dead trilogy for the lukewarm Survival of the Dead.
TV shows and literature such as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Max Brooks’s World War Z, basically anything at all to do with zombies that has been released since George A Romero had his first reel in the can from that grainy 1968 feature owes him an incredible debt of gratitude. He has left an indelible mark on the movie business. Even when his ideas were copied hundreds of times by studios desperate to cash in on his success, Romero’s movies always felt fresh and original. Regardless of the movies listed at the top of this article that all came before Night of the Living Dead, Romero is the Godfather of the zombie film. He may not be able to rise from the grave, but his movies will never die.