Predictably, most of the memorials for the late great horror director George A. Romero focused on his influence on the zombie and wider horror genre. Yes, he was important and influential in that area. But his legacy is much wider. More than any other filmmaker, Romero changed the course of independent film making in America.
Independent films have been around as long as movies existed. Indeed, in their infancy all early features from around 1912 were basically independent, before the Hollywood studio system rapidly evolved in the late teens.
Though the majors dominated moviemaking and distribution from their hub in Southern California, many independent filmmakers such as Edgar G. Ulmer, the idiosyncratic Edward Wood, African-American pioneer Oscar Micheaux and various ethnic cinemas flourished on the side. In 1955 Robert Altman was making industrial films in Kansas City when he was hired by a local businessman to make his first feature, the low-budget “The Delinquents” (later sold to United Artists, itself an independent company).
Herschel Gordon Lewis and others in the post-“Psycho” era, along with the more traditional Roger Corman, found success in exploitation films in horror and other genres that fed drive-ins and less sophisticated markets to some success.
But with “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, George Romero accomplished something far beyond any of the indie outsiders had ever done. Most independently-produced films made outside of Hollywood were happy to make a small profit and gain marginal exposure.
Romero shot “Night” in Pittsburgh, where he had some success shooting commercials and segments for the then locally-produced “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” With the support of a production company he managed to raise $114,000 ($800,000 in 2017 terms), a fairly risky venture with no guarantee of distribution, foreign sales, any television potential and way before home video came along.
The completed film was rejected by all major studios, but eventually a deal was made with East Coast Continental Distribution. Owned by exhibitor Walter Reade Theaters, Continental had cut out a niche in the late 50s and 60s releasing European films, including “Mon Oncle,” “Room at the Top” and “Lord of the Flies.” With the arthouse boom declining by the middle 60s, they had started branching out into exploitation and drive-in fare (similar to Embassy Films, which won an Oscar for Sophia Loren for “Two Women” but paid the bills by releasing Italian sword and sandals epics).
Though Continental released the occasional prestige film (Joseph Strick’s “Ulysses” in 1967), they had access to broader theaters around the country through a system of sub-distributors that until 1990 used local sales companies to book dates and deliver prints. Continental was willing to take a chance with Romero’s film, despite its low production values and black and white photography.
Its release was scattershot, with playoff in different territories at different times, often in multiple runs (top films always opened in major cities in exclusive downtown theaters before heading to the suburbs), sometimes matinees only. But its power and distinctiveness made it a sensation with powerful word of mouth (and controversy over its suitability for children).
Film gross totals, particularly for independent films, from this era are unreliable (there was no central accounting site, as many companies were privately owned). But the range of estimates for its gross total over its initial theatrical play (which extended beyond 1968) are between $12-15 million for domestic dates. That would be between $80-100 million today.
Continental and Romero had to share that money with theaters (who took as much as two thirds) and sub-distributors to pay for advertising. But still, it was an enormous payback on their investment.
Romero wasn’t working in a vacuum. The same year, soft-core exploitation director Russ Meyer released his biggest hit to date, “Vixen” (ultimately $8 million gross). Continental also handled John Cassavetes’ “Faces,” a significant critical and arthouse success that elevated him to the front ranks of independent films.
But Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” also had far-reaching impact. Its success was noticed and by financiers eager to back other genre-related independent film from unknown directors in far flung places.
This change paralleled the studios riding a surge in interest in off-beat, younger audience films like Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” in 1969. Romero’s second impact came from his decision to remain independent. (Russ Meyer made two films for 20th Century Fox; Cassavetes followed “Faces” with films for Columbia and Universal before making “A Woman Under the Influence” on his own, including its distribution).
Romero stuck to his Pittsburgh roots while trying to expand his work. It took him a decade to strike gold (1977’s “Martin” remains one of his most respected films). “Dawn of the Dead,” about ten times more expensive than “Night” (in color) worldwide grossed over $200 million in 2017 figures. It remained an independent release (the recently formed United Film Distribution, who had earlier released John Landis’ “Kentucky Fried Movie”), in part so that Romero could keep control of his version (its MPAA rating had they accepted it would have been X, the predecessor to NC-17, unacceptable for studios).
He followed with his non-horror “Knightriders,” which did not have great success. Continuing to use his own independent production group, and attracting Stephen King (a big fan of his work), he made the anthology horror film “Creepshow” (before Spielberg made “Twilight Zone”), with a studio – Warner Bros. – on board for the first time.
It grossed a respectable if not spectacular (adjusted) $53 million though on what was Romero’s top budget to this point. He returned to non-studio work (in part because of ratings concerns) with “Day of the Dead,” his third zombie film. It did far better overseas than domestic, but justified his decision to separate himself from corporate restraint.
“Monkey Shines” in 1988 showed how correct he was. Orion took final cut away from him, changed the ending and shortened his version in an attempt to create a conventional horror success. It lost money, and though he later returned to studios did so more cautiously and retaining more control.
To the end, he remained an independent force, even though it likely kept him from involvement in bigger productions that might have earned him more money. He resisted selling out, he kept his vision under his own control, his name became synonymous with a genre brand.
But that identification with a sub-genre should not obscure the influence he had on a wider range of film production. Other subsequent independent directors — Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola — became “brands” while staying true to their origins. But Romero made an enormous difference to changing the way movies are produced and released, with worldwide success and brand name recognition, while remaining true to his roots to the end. He worked outside the system with results most other independent filmmakers can only dream of.