A pioneer of our favored genre has passed into history this weekend — at 77 years of age, George Romero has died this past Sunday.
Having only days ago released a poster for Road of the Dead, a continuation of his “dead” saga co-written with longtime film partner Matt Birman, Romero left this world after a short but difficult battle with lung cancer. His final moments were spent with his wife and daughter, listening to some of his favorite music.
Romero’s love of film stretched back to his youth, movies like Tales of Hoffman, Casablanca, and The Quiet Man being some of his favorites. He knew early on that filmmaking was his calling, and even worked assisting with lighting and rigging on Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. After attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he began his career filming commercials, the contacts and bonds he formed eventually leading to the formation of the production company Image Ten. Having some success as a local producer of commercials, in 1968 the small group decided to take a chance on making a film, with Romero directing. Knowing that horror films were cheap and easy to sell, a fright flick was what was decided upon — and Night of the Living Dead was born.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
The film was a shocking blow to movie-goers of the time, not only for the stark, nihilistic tone and taboo-shattering violence, but also for the underlying social statement that the film made, whether entirely intentional or merely implied. The face of horror films was drastically and irrevocably changed — from that moment on, nothing would ever be the same.
Riding this success, Romero branched out into other exploitative films, but always with an implied but non-preachy bit of social commentary beneath the horror, and with characters that walked the line of duality between light and dark. He didn’t believe that real people were good guy/bad guy, black-and-white creations, but that they were complex creatures with differing motivations depending upon the stresses they were under; and so he populated his films with people such as this. Though his first few efforts in the early ’70s (There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch ) were not as well-received, many of them have achieved cult status — and films like The Crazies and the very different vampire tale Martin have become classics in their own right.
Through his friendship with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, he was inspired to write a sequel to his “dead” work, and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead has now become one of the go-to classics of the zombie genre. Followed up in 1985 by Day of the Dead, what many zombie fans consider the “holy trinity” of the genre was formed. In between, he worked with Stephen King on the films Creepshow and The Dark Half, as well as Two Evil Eyes with Argento. He went on to make other films like Monkey Shines, Knightriders, and Bruiser, as well as producing a remake of Night of the Living Dead in 1990 directed by long-time friend and collaborator Tom Savini. In the 21st century, Romero returned to his “dead” stories with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead, each time furthering his tale, using an uprising of flesh-eating corpses to illustrate the failings, and triumphs, of mankind. He also found the time to dabble in comic books, video games, and web series.
Romero’s body of work in the “zombie” genre has inspired an entire cottage industry, blanketing the genre with other films, television shows, and web-series showcasing the apocalyptic vision of the hungry dead — without George Romero, there would be no The Walking Dead or Z-Nation.
On a personal level, I’ve always held great admiration for Romero — his work, his attitudes — NotLD still tops my list as favorite zombie film, and is in the top five of my favorite horror films of all time. A huge fan of many of his other films mentioned (particularly Martin and Day of the Dead ), I was always amazed at his ability to take real issues, wrap them with blood, guts, and other graphic gore and still make a relevant film that thrilled the horror fan in me as it made me more aware of the world I lived in.
That, I define as artistry.
I feel a profound sense of loss that such contributions to the genre are at an end — however, I take heart in the knowledge that though he may be gone, George Romero leaves behind a legacy indelibly etched into the bedrock of horror film history that will continue to entertain and provoke thought for generations to come.
He will be sadly missed.
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