George A. Romero died on Sunday the 16th July 2017 after a short battle with lung cancer. He was one of the few directors who can genuinely lay claim to having changed cinema forever. His body may have died but his body of work will live on forever.
It is well documented in the likes of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls that back in the late 60s the counter culture was making inroads into Hollywood that would change American cinema from the stuffy old hierarchy of studio bosses and escapism to a modern, realistic form of story telling that ushered in the second golden age of the movies. However, whilst Hopper and company were making Easy Rider across America, in deepest, darkest Pittsburgh another young film maker was creating something so new and original that it would revolutionise horror cinema all by itself, sweeping away old Gothicism and clunky tropes and bring it slam bang into the modern world.
Night of the Living Dead may have seemed like just another drive-in B movie but with its subtext of how the violence of the Vietnam war was affecting the American mind and putting the civil rights movement front and centre by casting a black man as the hero, critics and audiences alike sat up and took notice. It wasn’t just these political issues which made the film an instant classic, it was also the striking imagery of the recently deceased attacking their former family members, the brutal, sudden, gory violence and its refusal to give the audience to give anything like a happy outcome.
Night of the Living Dead was a huge hit, making close to $30 million in the US alone (that would be $210 million today). However due to one tiny change to the title of the movie Romero lost the copyright to it and hardly saw a dollar.
The effect Night of the Living Dead had on horror cinema was almost instant. The reigning studio of the time, Hammer, immediately started to look old hat as audiences started to seek more modern scares. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would never have been made without Night… and even the studios embraced the realism now being shown with like of The Exorcist. Romero himself never fully became part of the Hollywood system, instead continuing to explore what horror meant to contemporary America in independents with the likes of Season of the Witch and The Crazies.
During this period Romero’s greatest film was Martin, which like Night of the Living Dead took an old horror monster and flipped it on its head. Into the grim reality of 1970s America he reintroduced the vampire. Dealing with insanity, disease and drug addiction Martin is never less than a challenging and thought provoking feature. It is also absolutely terrifying. It didn’t strike a chord with audiences in the same way that Night… did but that doesn’t mean it is any less deserving of praise. Maybe now Romero has passed people will start digging up Martin and give it the recognition it is due.
Next Romero returned to the zombies that had made his name and make his masterpiece. Dawn of the Dead again brought up social commentary within the context of the horror genre, this time about the West’s obsession with consumerism. But it was also an incredibly exciting and well made action-horror movie. Managing to be both tragically bleak and hugely entertaining at the same time, Dawn of the Dead again had a massive influence on cinema and pop culture, an influence that is still felt today. The outrageous gore and fully realised world building of a post apocalyptic America has influenced so many parts of Western fiction there isn’t enough room to even begin discussing it here.
Romero collaborated with Italian macabre master Dario Argento on the making of Dawn of the Dead and with its success he was to move onto another great collaboration: working with America’s best horror author, Stephen King. Creepshow was a bizarre, vivid and strangely humorous anthology movie based on stories by King. Romero shot the film like the old EC comics it was clearly influenced by and the primary colours on show highlighted how wonderfully weird the whole endeavour was. Add in Tom Savini’s outrageous special make-up effects, Stephen King acting (sort of) and a final story so full of cockroaches you can feel your flesh crawl when the end credits roll and it seemed that Romero was so on fire that he could do whatever he wanted and the audiences would come flocking.
Unfortunately due to the difficult nature of funding, especially in the more conservative eighties, Romero struggled to get his next film, Day of the Dead, made. Rather than compromise his gory vision the director chose to make the third film in the Dead series with a smaller budget. Day of the Dead is still a horror classic but rather than be the grand finale to the trilogy it felt like a smaller, more intimate story in an ongoing series. It also suffered from difficulty with distribution and marketing due to being slapped with an NC-17 rating in the States (the kiss of death box office wise) and it seemed like Romero’s zombies were to die a sad, quiet death, rather than the rousing climax they deserved.
Romero went on to make other good films though, most of which no one saw. He worked again with Argento on the Edgar Allen Poe anthology Two Evil Eyes and also with King with a fantastic adaptation of The Dark Half. The story of a man being stalked by his evil dead twin is full of shocks, strong imagery and great performances… and again like many of his films in this period it didn’t get the release or praise it deserved.
The same could be said for Monkey Shines and Bruiser which also disappeared into obscurity and as the gap between productions grew and grew it seemed that Romero was to be all but forgotten.
Then a funny thing happened… Danny Boyle’s non-zombie zombie movie 28 Days Later was a surprise box office smash and suddenly the undead were hot again. Before he knew what was happening Romero suddenly had a big wad of cash to make Land of the Dead. The forth Dead film is certainly uneven but is full of ideas, not least the theme about how the rich are getting richer in their ivory towers whilst the poor are stuck down in the mud with death closing in on them. This seems even more relevant today that it did in 2004. A modest success it meant that Romero could now get funding for more films, albeit seemingly only zombie ones. He followed up Land… with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. These two films certainly have their problems and detractors but there were still full of those wonderful zombies, shuffling around and eating people who make foolish mistakes, in the way that only Romero can do.
If you look back at Romero’s long career, with a couple of oddball exceptions (jousting motorcycle drama Knightriders and OJ: Juice on the Loose !?!), here was a director who consistently embraced and moved forward the horror genre. However, despite the often serious nature of these films the man himself was apparently quite a different beast. A good friend of mine worked with him on some of his later zombie movies and said Romero laughed all the time. I mean literally he never stopped laughing. My friend worried that perhaps Romero was a little unhinged, in a good natured way, but I like to think that maybe he was just happy to be working and couldn’t believe his luck: still making good horror movies and, finally, getting paid for it.