It is nearly impossible to understate the importance and influence that the master of the zombie film has had on modern popular culture, so it is with great sadness mixed with eternal gratitude that we look back at the life of George Andrew Romero.
Whilst the earliest zombie movies can be traced back to the early 1930s, they were most often tied to the aspect of being the result of voodoo curses controlling them as opposed to the dead rising from the grave of their own accord; in fact some of the earlier films in the forties were about Nazis and zombies, meaning Dead Snowand its ilk were about seventy years too late for that bandwagon.
But whilst the Universal monster heyday revolved around the likes of vampires, mummies and werewolves and the fifties had its slew of classic B-movies of alien invasions and radioactive arthropods it wasn’t really until 1968 when a young George Romero broke from the lingering mould retained from Victorian horror which even the classic Hammer Studios continued to observe in their colourful melodramas, and with his contemporary take he smashed that outdated mould to pieces even.
On a limited budget of just over $100,000 USD, the impact that Night of the Living Dead had went far beyond the boundaries of the horror genre and most film studies students will attest to the fact it is still held up, like its sequel, as a shining example of social commentary subversively hidden in plain sight in the tattered rags of an outwardly commercial film.
As a zombie film it was ground-breaking in many areas, from the excessive gore atypical of the era, the indiscriminate nature of the victims as opposed to a voodoo priest commanding an army that attacks selected victims, its portrayal of the media, social attitudes towards race and the reactionary fear of outsiders in an era already gripped by fear and paranoia over its social conscience due to the Vietnam war and the fight for racial equality.
Released only weeks before the first widely broadcast interracial kiss on American television screens in Star Trek’s Plato’s Stepchildren, having an African-American male lead was hardly the norm, Sidney Poitier being one of the few notable exceptions before that time, so to have a film made in an almost mockumentary style feature children eating their parents and conclude with an all-white militia shooting the hero shocked people.
It is not hard to imagine how frowned upon this film was at the time, and in the following years Romero explored different avenues of horror with suburban sorcery in Season of the Witch, biological warfare accidents in The Crazies and alienated vampire aspirations in Martin, but if the first of the zombie series reflected the turbulent sixties then the sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, held up an unforgiving mirror to the face of crass consumerism.
Centring its tale in a deserted shopping mall and reflecting how society mindlessly follows group mentality in keeping the economy running by returning time after time to stores to buy items not even needed just to feel part of a system, the “American Dream” in effect. Romero’s first collaboration with Italian “giallo” director Dario Argento, it would seal a life-long friendship between the two.
His films inspiring an explosion of inferior successors, Romero set himself apart from other directors who looked to the gratuitous gore rather than the subtler tones of his films and it was his characterisations which really made his films, the way survivors came together before falling apart, how man is more the monster than what pursues him and once the constructs and shackles of normalised behaviour are removed what we see in ourselves and in the zombies is not so far removed.
Following the Stephen King anthology collaboration Creepshow in 1982, Romero’s zombie series seemed set to finish as a trilogy with the release of 1985’s Day of the Dead where the focus was on science and the military applications of scientific principles. Not as well received as the first two in a horror market which had become saturated by serial killers and straight-to-video slashers, it was not until 2005 that Romero returned to the genre with Land of the Dead, shifting the narrative ahead of that of his peers with the first intimation of zombies supplanting human society and starring among others Asia Argento, daughter of Dario.
His influence spread far and wide, it’s not necessary to look far to see how much has changed thanks to Romero’s take on the genre, from film to television, books, anime, video games, there is so much. It is not a stretch to say without him there wouldn’t be a Resident Evil series of games and films, The Walking Dead or World War Z in any form and countless others, and arguably it was Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead which kickstarted the current Hollywood trend of remaking and rebooting nearly every franchise of the last fifty years.
In a career spanning six decades as either writer, director or producer Romero had a hand in nearly thirty movies but unlike many of his peers despite his reputation being carried by one genre he was far from a one-trick pony and whether through the films he made, the audiences and filmmakers he influenced or even the beloved parodies of his work such as Shaun of the Dead which so delighted Romero he offered creators Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg cameos in Land of the Dead, the magic he shared will live beyond the grave.
George Andrew Romero, February 4th, 1940 – July 16th, 2017