First things first, I don’t normally do the whole ‘celebrity death’ thing. People die – it’s a normal occurrence – and eventually all of our childhood heroes will die too. It may be a shock when it happens, it may hit us harder than the death of some other randomer – sometimes it may even hit us harder than members of our own family – but after remembering those people for how their book/film/song made us feel for a moment, we quickly move on. But I’ll be honest – this one hit me hard…
George A. Romero, horror auteur and icon, genre movie specialist, and father of the modern zombie mythos passed away at the age of 77 after a short but aggressive battle with lung cancer. To say that he had a massive influence on the horror genre, and the entertainment industry in general, would be a massive understatement.
Every single movie/book/TV show that included storylines concerning a society under attack from flesh-eating zombies who can only be killed by destroying the brain, or a band of people desperately trying to survive a siege by a hostile force, owes a debt to the master and his legendary ‘Living Dead’ trilogy. Without these there would be no Walking Dead, no Assault Of Precinct 13, no The Purge, no World War Z, no You’re Next!, and so on.
My own personal obsession with Romero’s work started in the early 90s. I had already seen my first proper horror movies at a young age (A Nightmare on Elm Street and Pet Semetary), but I can still remember the moment that sealed my love-affair with the genre. While sneakily watching a late-night repeat of Jonathan Ross’s ‘The Incredibly Strange Film Show’, a segment focusing on the work of Romero (none of which I was aware of previously) began with a clip from a movie called Day of The Dead.
In the clip, the movie’s heroine Sarah stares intently at a calendar on an otherwise blank wall. She seems almost hypnotised by the X’s that have marked off each day, absolutely lost in the moment, strange almost bland ‘elevator music’ playing over the scene. She slowly approaches the calendar – the camera cutting between close-ups of her blank eyes, and close-ups of the X’s. Then suddenly, without the warning of a noise or musical cue, dozens of grey arms burst through the wall, their undead hands grasp desperately for Sarah as she screams in terror. She wakes up suddenly, realising it was a dream.
That moment, that scene, was immediately burned into my psyche. Part shock, part terror, part disgust, I couldn’t get the memory of it out of my mind for days. So much so, that I was obsessed with finding the movie during my next trip to our video rental store. When I finally watched the movie, it was a revelation – it’s vivid characters, unbelievable gore effects that shock even to this day (the overlooked ‘bowling-ball’ head being my personal favourite), and it’s overall sense of hopelessness being something that I couldn’t have imagined in cinema previously.
I had to see more, and over the space of a few months I managed to work through all of his other material. It was an education in horror and genre cinema for me, an effect surely replicated for a generation of film fanatics.
Born in 1940, Romero enjoyed a relatively affluent childhood in the Bronx area of New York – developing both a talent for art and a love for cinema at a young age. After graduating from College in Pittsburgh, he fell in love with the area and made it his home – producing and directing short films and commercials which were relatively successful in the area. With a group of friends/frequent collaborators, Romero formed his own production company and sought to create a feature-length project that would be inexpensive to make, but would generate maximum profit. That film would be Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Written by Romero and his close friend John Russo, NOTLD was produced on a shoe-string budget, with much of the effects and props being made by the cast-members (many of whom were also members of the production company), and shot guerrilla-style on locations they had no real permission to film upon. It was always meant as a ‘drive-in creature feature’, which Romero knew would sell well in local drive-in cinemas – but Romero couldn’t help but add some subtle social-commentary to its plot. The casting of a black actor in the leading role during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, was revolutionary – and his (spoiler) death at the hands of the mob of red-neck zombie hunters, was as close to a cinematic lynching as was possible in those days. The notoriously downbeat ending would be a staple of horror cinema going forward. It must also be noted that Romero and the other producers forgot to copyright the movie, meaning that they made little or no money from it, and it continues to be an open property.
After two badly received attempts to branch into mainstream cinema, with the romantic comedies There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Jack’s Wives (1972), Romero returned to the horror genre with two fantastically understated gems. The Crazies (1973) had a similar premise to NOTLD, with the inhabitants of a small US town under siege after a toxic chemical spill leading to an epidemic of homicidal madness. The movie is notable for the novel idea of splitting the narrative between the inhabitants and also the emergency workers who have quarantined the town and are outside looking in. It had plenty of scares, some questionable make-up effects, and a snappy screenplay courtesy of Romero lead to it receiving very favourable reviews – but lousy distribution and publicity deals caused it to be a flop, even though it became a cult success in later years.
The same could also be said of Martin (1978), Romero’s acclaimed arthouse piece offering a modern take on the Vampire mythos. The film tells the story of the eponymous Martin, a shy young man who’s fear of, and lust for women, leads him to suffer delusions of being a vampire. While the film was not a financial success, it has since become a cult classic – and went on to influence notable ‘young vampire’ movies such as Near Dark and The Lost Boys. The critical success of Martin rejuvenated Romero’s interest in horror, and lead to him embarking on the production of what would be considered his magnum opus.
Romero had been working on a sequel to NOTLD since the early 70s, but (as with the case with many Romero projects throughout his career) the scale of the script was well above the budget available. Assistance came from a surprising avenue however, as acclaimed Italian giallo director Dario Argento contacted Romero and promised to provide financial support in return for the international rights for the resulting film.
Dawn of the Dead was a smash hit when released (late 78 in Europe / early 79 in the US), and sought to tell the tale of a society that has begun to break down following the initial zombie outbreak as detailed in NOTLD. There is anarchy in the streets, the hungry hoards are rising in number, and the survivors are on the run. One such group escape in a helicopter, and while running low on fuel stumble across an oasis of type: a massive indoor shopping mall, with all the food, weapons, and resources they would need – if only they can clear out the masses of zombies inside.
Without-a-doubt one of the best horror movies ever made, Dawn contained the same tension and biting (literally) social commentary that NOTLD had, only this time it was ramped up massively. It was an obvious satire on the American public’s obsession with consumerism – the zombies shuffling lifelessly around supermarket isles and department stores, in the same way an average family will do when completing their weekly shop. An essential part of its success was the incredible make-up effects of Tom Savini, the former war photographer turned gore fiend filled the screen with ripped and torn flesh, zombie bites, and even a zombie having the top of its head being cut off by helicopter blades.
With the success of Dawn, there was a clambering for a further zombie sequel from fans and investors alike. Instead Romero released Knightriders (1981), a successful Rollerball/Death Race 2000 influenced action comedy about a future-sport of motorcycle jousters, and then his first collaboration with his friend, and literary horror superstar, Stephen King – Creepshow (1982), a horror portmanteau movie tribute to the horror comics of the 1950s, of which both Romero and King were massive fans. The film was a box office hit, and lead to the creation of the long-running Tales From The Darkside TV series, and also indirectly the production of Twilight Zone: The Movie the following year.
It would be 1985 before the next ‘Dead’ movie would appear – the previously mentioned Day of the Dead. In it, human society has all but gone – its former leadership reduced to hiding in massive underground bunkers from the thousands of zombies outside. In one such bunker is a team of scientists, trying in vain to discover a cure that would both eliminate the zombie scourge, and ensure humanities survival as a species. Protecting the scientists is a small troop of soldiers, disillusioned by the lack of progress and angry that they are the ‘grunts’ in the firing line. Another example of Romero’s smart social commentary, this time concerning the futility of war and its effect on the working military, as well as scientific ethics during war times. The film however suffered from a both a negative critical response and a very low box office (although it subsequently did well on the home video market), which was a major disappointment for Romero as it had the largest budget and distribution of all three films.
After Day, Romero never really hit the successful heights of the 70s/80s output – although the majority of his 90s projects were well-received within the horror community (the Romero written/Savini directed remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990), and the Edgar Allen Poe story adaption Two Evil Eyes (1990), completed as a collaboration with Argento – are both excellent). It wouldn’t be until 1998 when his career was given an unlikely shot in the arm by Japanese video game maker Capcom, when he was hired to direct a big-budget commercial for their upcoming Resident Evil 2 game. Capcom were incredibly pleased with the results, and Romero was briefly attached to a movie adaption of the Resident Evil franchise.
When movie studios baulked at the levels of horror and gore that Romero wanted to include within the adaption, Romero was freed from his contract and began using some of the ideas from his script in an original script of his own, titled Dead Reckoning. Finally released in 2005 under the new title Land Of The Dead, it told of a near future many years after the happenings of Day, in which humanity has rebounded, living in secure zombie-protected city compounds, while the zombies outside have begun to show signs of intelligence and have started to form their own social structures. Whilst the movie is not on-par with Romero’s earlier zombie epics, it represents a bit of a forgotten gem for a lot of zombie fans: tight story and script, good performances from Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker (The Mentalist) and John Leguizamo, and excellent zombie and gore effects from KNB EFX, who would go on to play such a pivotal role in the smash hit Walking Dead TV series.
It was also a moderate success at the box office (certainly his biggest since Creepshow), and he hoped this would open him up to the possibility of more major Hollywood projects. This didn’t pan out, and he was forced to revert to the cheap ‘found footage’ sub-genre that had been all the rage during the mid-2000s. Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009) were both sub-par and hollow attempts to cash-in on the legacy of the earlier zombie movies, and were both critically panned in reviews. Romero never directed again, despite attempts to get other projects off the ground.
George A Romero’s legacy will be of a visionary artist, who after initially feeling limited by the constraints of genre cinema, realised that it was a valid medium – horror movies can be intelligent and satirical when in the right hands. He embraced his position as a leader in the field, and made some of the best horror movies of all time. He is the father of the slow stalking, flesh-eating zombie, and as the tradition of these creatures continues to be in our nightmares, his legend will go on.
Thank you for the memories, George…they were frequently gory and horrifying, but they were beautiful memories none-the-less.