When George Romero died at the age of 77, he was in the process of developing more zombie movies with the insightful DIY ethos that first put him on the map nearly 50 years ago with “Night of the Living Dead.” The horror community has embraced Romero over the years, and as the decades wore on, he went from being one of the genre’s most exciting contributors to its preeminent guru. Here’s an overview of the factors that contributed his legacy.
The Modern Zombie Movie
While the initial concept of zombies dates back to a mix of African and Haitian folklore, George A. Romero cemented the modern vision with his seminal 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead.” While the word “zombie” is never uttered in the film, his spin on the lurching undead forever changed pop culture. The director cemented this legacy with five more films in the “Night of the Living Dead” series, ending with 2009’s “Survival of the Dead.” Every director who films the undead is quick to heap praise on Romero, and it’s been a fruitful subgenre indeed. Many of Hollywood’s biggest directors, including Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and Zack Snyder, came to prominence with zombie films that offered fresh takes on Romero’s blueprint. The undead has been shuffling through countless other methods of storytelling as well: “The Walking Dead” shattered television records, video games like the “Left 4 Dead” and “Dead Rising” series have used the staggering beasts as antagonists, and novels like “World War Z” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” have become bestsellers (and later, film adaptations). It’s rare when a phenomena has an easily identifiable starting point, but Romero was the clear godfather of the zombie genre. —William Earl
Horror as Social Commentary
“Night of the Living Dead” didn’t just popularize stories about walking zombies; it delivered a scathing commentary of America’s racial divisions and wartime obsessions under the guide of cheap entertainment. It was brilliant Trojan Horse: He merged the eerie atmosphere of E.C. Comics with the micro-budget approach of exploitation movies, while injecting the otherworldly terror with something far more realistic. Romero’s subversive attitude toward American culture at the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement was epitomized by the news reports percolating throughout the movie and the plight of Ben (Duane Jones), the sole African American holed up in the house for the duration of the movie. The gut-punch of the finale, when Romero turns the notion that someone can survive the night on its ear, epitomized his genius, and he would later find new targets in the vapidity of the super mall with “Dawn of the Dead” and religious extremism in his underrated “Martin.” Decades later, he was still savaging modern media culture with “Diary of the Dead,” taking aim at amateur video with more precision than anything else out there.
These days, a simple horror movie that relies on jump scares stands out because Romero created such a superior template for applying the genre to the horrors of everyday life. First-rate auteurs from Guillermo Del Toro to Edgar Wright owe a major debt to Romero for illustrating the power of using the genre as a sharp editorial tool. “Back then, in 1968, everything was suspect — family, government, and obviously the family unit in ‘Night of the Living’ Dead” completely collapses,” Romero told me last fall. “The message is, ‘Hey, what can’t we just get along?’ If they pulled together, they’d be OK.” —EK
According to J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Midnight Movies,” AIP offered to release the movie if Romero shot a more upbeat ending. He refused, and eventually New York distributor Walter Reade released the movie and turned it into a midnight sensation. Romero rarely worked within the confines of Hollywood, and when he did — pairing up with Universal on “Land of the Dead” — it was entirely on his own terms. When the studios moved on to more vapid genre exercises or gimmicky found-footage efforts, Romero continued to find new ways to make his uncompromising horror movies under conditions that forced him to work under severe budgetary constraints. (“Diary” was made for a mere $2 million and made $5.3 million at the box office, to say nothing of its VOD haul.)
But he never gave up his freedom, and that attitude continues to sustain the horror film community today — it’s a genre largely defined by directors who push beyond the limitations of mainstream storytelling to tap into genuine terror culled from real life. Horror exists within a niche that nobody popularized better than Romero, and its ability to continue to stand out in today’s VOD marketplace owes much to his efforts. —EK
Building a World
While he didn’t follow the same characters from one zombie movie to the next, Romero excelled at establishing a world that grew increasingly morbid and post-apocalyptic as he moved along. Before the latest “Spider-Man” realized that origin stories are a waste of time, Romero set his aside after “Night” and launched into his new films with the zombie outbreak already fully formed, and more evolved as he moved along. (The exception was “Diary,” which found him revisiting the events of the first film from a fresh angle.) This kind of world-building is now part of Hollywood’s DNA, with every new Marvel movie dropping hints about the next one. But Romero did less for marketing purposes than to reinforce the notion that global catastrophes don’t exist in a bubble. They keep getting worse, pushing forward with a terrifying slow approach, and even a well-aimed shot to the head can’t stop an endless horde devoid of compassion. —EK