George A. Romero rarely had it easy. From the beginning, he faced obstacles to getting his vision on screen and condemnation once he succeeded in doing so. It took him 20 years to make his way into the big leagues, yet faced frustrating interference once he did. Yet today, the work endures. He never abandoned his vision, even when it prevented him from having an easier time of the process, and his movies, once attacked as grotesque exploitation, are now properly celebrated as landmarks of cinematic horror.
Indeed, Romero not invented more than a new and enduring kind of zombie movie when he directed “Night of the Living Dead” 50 years ago; in many ways, he invented independent horror cinema as we know it. There had been lots of off-Hollywood fright films before “Night” hit screens in 1968, of course—even some showcasing graphic if cheaply executed gore, like the Herschell Gordon Lewis flicks. “Night” was different, though; set in a very recognizable, then-contemporary America, its documentary-style black-and-white images presented characters torn apart as much by internal strife as by the marauding, implacable ghouls. Unfortunately, the movie’s uncompromising, now-legendary ending led to its rejection by numerous distributors when Romero and his team refused to change it. One thing that did get altered was its name (from “Night of the Flesh Eaters”) when the Walter Reade Organization picked it up—only for the lack of a copyright notice in the new title card to result in the notorious, widespread perception that the film was in the public domain, preventing its creators from profiting from it.
“Night” was also subjected to excoriating reviews by some of the major critics of the time. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby condescendingly dismissed it with a 110-word missive referring to it as “a grainy little movie” “made by some people in Pittsburgh,” featuring “nonprofessional actors,” “dialogue and background music [that] sound hollow” and a “wobbly camera.” Variety blasted “Night” as “an unrelieved orgy of sadism” that “casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers,” finding their work to be “amateurism of the first order.”
Other critics, such as Pauline Kael and Rex Reed, were more favorably disposed toward “Night,” which began its march toward influential-classic status, changing the very iconography of zombie movies (even though that word is never actually spoken in it). Romero’s shambling corpses became standard-bearers, and for numerous horror fans to this day, zombies aren’t true zombies unless they’re slow-moving. The irony is that Romero essentially created fast zombies too: His 1973 shocker “The Crazies,” about the effects of an Army biotoxin leak on a small-town population, set the template for literally hundreds of films in which military/scientific viruses turn ordinary people into slavering killers, and which are commonly lumped in with the zombie genre.
Unfortunately, “The Crazies” did not see nearly the same success as “Night,” and neither did Romero’s two previous attempts to branch out from the horror field, “There’s Always Vanilla” (1971) and “Jack’s Wife” (1973). The latter, a drama with witchcraft elements, was hacked down to 40 minutes by its initial distributor and sold as a softcore film under the title “Hungry Wives”; it later had about 25 minutes restored for reissue as “Season of the Witch,” but Romero’s original version is lost forever. 1978 saw the release of the director’s take on the vampire film, “Martin,” which won some strong notices and an enthusiastic following, though again, it wasn’t able to break through to the mainstream. Once more, though, Romero proved to be a trendsetter as he followed the lead of “Night” and dragged the vampire movie out of European castles, dropping it into recognizable suburbia—paving the way for everything from “Let the Right One In” to this year’s “The Transfiguration.”
It wasn’t until a full 10 years after “Night” that Romero reconnected with audiences to the same degree, and he did so by returning to his carnivorous cadavers. With “Dawn of the Dead” (1979) he added a level of sociopolitical satire heretofore unseen in horror cinema, and ditto with the level of now brightly colored gore. Many critics raved, and “Dawn” launched its makeup creator Tom Savini toward becoming the first special-effects rock star, kicking off the early-’80s splatter trend. And it changed not only scare films, but the way their more extreme examples were marketed.
This time, it was the MPAA that stood in Romero’s way, objecting to his excesses; facing an easy X rating for the movie’s buckets of blood and torn flesh, the director and United Film Distribution opted not to cut it for an R and instead released “Dawn” with a self-imposed “No one under 17 admitted” appellation. This invention mothered by necessity became a release gambit adopted by many subsequent, gruesome cult favorites like “Maniac” and “The Evil Dead.” (Today, the “Unrated” tag continues to be a key selling point for video releases of feature films, promising levels of violence or sex you wouldn’t see in the theatrical versions.)
Romero and UFD didn’t immediately try to follow up “Dawn’s” success. They next collaborated on “Knightriders,” an idiosyncratic, ambitious transposition of the Camelot legend to a milieu of motorcycle-jousting performers, an odd premise and a fascinating movie, yet once again one that was rejected by the wider audience. Then came “Creepshow,” with Romero helming a vividly stylish homage to EC Comics, from stories by Stephen King. This could be said to be the movie on which Romero caught his biggest break; Warner Bros. acquired the movie from UFD, which had planned a July debut, and released it at Halloween instead, finding solid success at the box office.
The wisdom of moving the film out of the heat of summer was demonstrated when Romero and UFD brought “Day of the Dead” to theaters in 1985. This time, the reviews were harsh, criticizing it as talky, claustrophobic and lacking the satire that had distinguished “Dawn.” UFD chose to begin its platform release the same July day that “Back to the Future” came out, and as it spread to more cities through the summer and early fall, it wound up being usurped by Dan O’Bannon’s surprise sleeper “The Return of the Living Dead.” Only in more recent years has “Day” been properly reappraised.
Nonetheless, Romero forged ahead, and his rep was established enough by this point for him to enter the studio system. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the maverick sensibilities that led Romero to blaze his many new trails in the genre made him an ill fit for the world of corporate moviemaking. “Monkey Shines” (1988) was badly bowdlerized by Orion Pictures before it hit theaters, and after his King-based “The Dark Half” (1993) flopped, it would be his last gig with the majors; seven years passed before his next film, “Bruiser,” emerged.
After that, Romero never had the chance to make another picture outside the zombie realm. Though not for lack of trying; of the course of his career, his name has probably been attached to more unrealized projects than that of any other genre filmmaker. Just a handful of these include adaptations of everything from “Frankenstein” to Jay Bonansinga’s novel “The Black Mariah” to King’s “Pet Sematary,” “The Stand” and “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” a new version of “The Mummy” and the first “Resident Evil” movie.
Still, even as he was consigned to revisiting the subgenre he spearheaded into the 21st century, Romero never made the same kind of movie twice. “Land of the Dead” (2005) anticipated the Occupy Movement with its focus on the haves and the have-nots—only here, about 99 percent of the 99 percent are undead. “Diary of the Dead” (2008) was his shot at the found-footage form, and “Survival of the Dead” (2010) was the Western about feuding clans he’d long wanted to make, and got off the ground by adding his flesheaters to the mix. Most recently, he scripted “Road of the Dead,” which he described as ” ’The Fast and the Furious’ with zombies,” for his longtime stunt coordinator Matt Birman to direct; the project will be pitched to prospective backers this week at the Frontières International Co-Production Market at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
The irony—one that fans have called out for years—is that Romero’s own output has been consigned to indie budgets and tiny releases in the last decade, even as zombies have become bigger than ever before—and “Resident Evil” and its sequels, “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead” et al. wouldn’t have existed if not for “Night.” (He has disdained the “Hollywood-ized” “World War Z” and turned down an offer to helm a “Walking Dead” episode.) The students have been reaping big box office and ratings, while the master toiled in the lower reaches of the business.
Yet “Night,” along with the rest of Romero’s undead cycle, will continue to be appreciated long after many of the imitators are forgotten. His little $114,000 movie got there first in so many ways—from introducing touches of humor into the horror (“They’re dead, they’re all messed up”) to the colorblind casting of hero Duane Jones (the kind of thing about which some attitudes still need to be adjusted, judging from the appalling on-line comments that have greeted the multiculturalism of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”). Romero broke rules, broke ground—and the hearts of fans were broken this week with the news of his death at age 77. Yet even as heaven has made room for him, his dead will walk the Earth as long as people enjoy a good scare.