The world of cinema is weeping as George A. Romero, one of the most influential figures in horror, has passed away after a battle with lung cancer on July 16 at the age of 77. Considered to be the “Father of the Zombie Film” Romero was a true icon of his craft and helped revolutionize the horror genre for a new audience in the 60s and beyond and was responsible for the creation of a subgenre that remains a horror phenomenon to this day. Today In his honor I took a look at Romero’s career over the years and how he evolved from a humble aspiring filmmaker to becoming one of the most important names ever in horror.
George Anderson Romero was born in New York City in 1940, growing up in The Bronx. His father was a commercial artist, introducing Romero to the world of visual media. Romero would often take the subway into the city to rent film reels to view at home and after graduating from the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh he began to fully explore his love for movies, shooting short films and commercials of his own in the 1960s. Romero formed a company called The Latent Image to film his commercials in the 60s, along with friends John Russo and Russell Streiner, but the trio had bigger plans in mind and proved to be very aggressive in their search for cinematic success after graduating college. Along with several other friends and associates, Romero formed his own production studio Image Ten Productions (named for its ten founders) in the late 60s which would go on to produce the first in a series of legendary films that today are defining classics in horror. The original pitch from Romero, Russo, and Streiner was to create a horror film that would capture the longing for the bizarre from moviegoers at the time. Ten additional investors jumped on the project and the writing and conception for “Night of the Living Dead” began.
While writing the film Romero and his colleagues Russo explored several concepts, including aliens that eat human corpses. Russo was responsible for most of the final draft in 1967 which began the concept of the “living dead” zombie that we know today which, at the time, were referred to as “ghouls”. The script was developed as a three part story with heavy influence from Richard Matheson’s classic “I Am Legend” about a plague that runs through Las Angeles that turned victims into vampire-like creatures. Romero often noted that if it weren’t’ for the more unique approach they took to their “zombies” or “ghouls” the film would have come off as a blatant rip off of Matheson’s book. “The Night of the Living Dead” was released in 1968, with Romero credited as director, a writer, editor, and as an actor in the film. The movies received initial negative backlash for its gory special effects. It received a lot of controversy at first for its potential impact on the youth of the time but over the years became noted as not only a classic, but an iconic landmark film in the world of horror cinema. It became a financial hit both domestically and internationally, putting Romero on the map.
Romero had a hard time cementing his legacy however. He followed up “Night of the Living Dead” with “There’s Always Vanilla”, “The Season of the Witch” and “The Crazies” from 1971 through 1973 that failed to receive the same acknowledgement as “Night of the Living Dead”. His next film would not be until 1978 with “Martin” which was much more respected and continued a trend of supernatural beings in Romero’s work, including vampires and individuals being impacted by biochemical waste. It was also in 1978 that Romero would release the second in his original trilogy of “Dead” films
“Dawn of the Dead” officially marked the existence of the “Living Dead” franchise series rather than letting the concept settle with just one movie and followed many of the same successful approaches as the first film, once again garnering critical acclaim over time. Romero always seemed to have a vision of a larger story for the “Living Dead” concept but the sequel really became a reality after Romero met with a colleague inside a mall, realizing the potential for such a building to be an effective hiding place. Advertising and word-of-mouth helped make the low-budget movie an instant classic and the most profitable “Living Dead” film to date.
Romero continued his success with a pair of early 80s films “Knightriders” and Creepshow” before completing the original trilogy of “Living Dead” projects in 1985 with “Day of the Dead”. Romero had big plans for this third entry in the franchise, saying he wanted it to be the “Gone With The Wind” of zombie films, however it proved to be relatively generic and underwhelming for fans when compared to the first two films receiving still great but less stellar reviews than its predecessors and failing to match the second films total gross. Still its quality was enough to officially solidify the “Living Dead” series as a collection of classics in the horror genre, making Romero a legend by the end of the 80s to the point where a documentary called “Document of the Dead” about Romero’s career and creative process was produced and has sense been expanded twice.
With his name firmly engrained into the history of horror by the late 80s Romero continued his contributions as a director with “Monkey Shines”, “Two Evil Eyes”, and “The Dark Half” and even served as a credited writer in 1990 when his classic claim to fame, “Night of the Living Dead”, received the remake treatment. Since then it became a honor and privilege for filmmakers to put their own spin on Romero’s work. “Dawn of the Dead” saw a well-received modern take in 2004 while “The Crazies” received a successful modernization effort in 2010 with Romero as writer on both films although his precise involvement in either of those projects has been debated and even denied over the years. A 2008 remake of “Day of the Dead” also happened but many would rather forget about what many see as an insult to his legacy really.
Throughout the late 90s Romero took a backseat to other horror legends of the time and focused more on contributing in other ways to the zombie sub-genre. Romero became a subtle spokesman for the early entries in the “Resident Evil” video game franchise, which was heavily inspired by the original “Dead” trilogy and even directed a “Resident Evil 2” commercial that was well received. In the early 2000s he dabbled in comic books, kicking off DC’s “Toe Tags” miniseries based on an unused script for his original “Dead” series. In 2014 he also helped author a 15-issue zombie series called “Empire of the Dead”. He also attempted to create his own in-universe “Living Dead” video game project and was originally in talks to pen and director the first “Resident Evil” film, although he was later replaced and his script rejected. We know how the eventual product turned out after that.
Romero couldn’t stay away from his iconic franchise for long. By 2006 two new entries were announced. Romero wrote and directed “Land of the Living Dead” and the found footage film “Diary of the Dead”, both receiving relatively good reviews from critics, and in 2009 he would write and direct the most poorly received of the “Dead” films, “Survival of the Dead”, which would be his final directorial effort before his death.
Over the course of his legendary career in cinema Romero’s “Living Dead” projects were lauded as being the source of subtle, and sometimes pretty direct social commentary while also providing a fun escapist approach to a horror concept that really hadn’t been explored up until that point. Consumerism, class conflict, science, and war were all issues that have been analyzed in Romero’s numerous horror films and have made them unquestionable classics worthy of respect. They are so well respected in fact that both “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” are considered two of the greatest horror films of all time and were named to Empire’s list of “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time” for all genres combined. The popularization of what we know today as the cinematic “zombie” turned the creature into one of the most well know horror monsters ever and led the way for what today is called the “Zombie Craze” of films, books, televisions shows, and even real life scientific explorations focusing on the concept of the living dead.
To say George A. Romero is an icon just doesn’t seem like enough. He is a man who has influenced countless directors and transformed an entire genre by helping bring one of the most famous movie creatures ever to the big screen in a way noone ever expected. His impact on the horror genre and the film industry as a whole will never go unappreciated and his influence is still felt to this day in almost every medium as his ability to mix social commentary, creativity, and fear into once massive legendary franchise of films paved the way for new generations of horror directors and filmmakers to continue his legacy and to even build their own. To the “Godfather of the Dead” and the “Father of the Zombie Movie” I can truly say George A. Romero…you will be missed! Thank you for the scares and for introducing the world to the living dead and all the great things that have come about in the world of entertainment as a result. From “Night of the Living Dead” to “Shaun of the Dead”, “Resident Evil” and “The Walking Dead”, it’s all because of you. May your legacy live on and never die!