On July 16, 2017, writer/director George A. Romero died at the age of 68 due to lung cancer. His wife, Suzanne Desrocher Romero, and his daughter, Tina Romero, were by his side in his final moments while he listened to the score from The Quiet Man, one of his favorite films, according to the Los Angeles Times.
To say that Romero had an impact on horror films and forever changed the way they were seen and made would be a massive understatement, and there have been many books and articles written about his influence and accomplishments. And before I once again start to recap yet another season of The Walking Dead, which will have me either cheering with excitement or rolling my eyes in disbelief and disappointment (and I’ve been watching this series long enough to know that my reaction will most likely be the latter rather than the former), I’m throwing my own hat into the ring in an attempt to pay tribute and explain why his work was and is so important.
In 1968, Romero and his co-writer John Russo made the classic horror film Night Of The Living Dead, which focused on seven strangers who take shelter in a deserted farmhouse and fight for their lives as recently deceased corpses come back to life for reasons unknown and are turned into mindless, flesh-eating zombies.
According to Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value: How A Few Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, Night Of The Living Dead wasn’t exactly Romero’s ideal choice for a film to make:
[Night Of The Living Dead] was a backup plan for Romero. When he couldn’t get funding for “Whine Of The Fawn,” a Bergman-inspired coming-of-age film set in the Middle Ages, he tried something more commercial. “We didn’t know anyone who had any horses, so a Western was out,” says he producer Russ Streiner. “And we didn’t live by the water, so we couldn’t do a beach movie. That left horror.”
But upon its release, it was the film that forever changed the way horror films were both seen and made, it was the film that allowed a Black man to be the hero of the story and let him kick ass and take names as he did everything possible to stay alive, only to have his victory cruelly snatched away from him in the final scene (and considering that the film was released in the same year as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it makes the film’s ending all the more painful), and it was also the film that made the word “zombie” part of many a person’s vocabulary.
After Night Of The Living Dead, Romero went on to make Season Of The Witch, about a housewife who discovers that one of her neighbors is actually a witch, and decides that she too would like to follow in her footsteps. (And before you ask or comment, I too rolled my eyes and angry-sighed with disgust upon realizing that the only trailer worth embedding was one provided by Cinefamily, of all places)
Romero then directed The Crazies, about a military-created biological weapon that is accidentally released in a small town and causes many of its inhabitants to either die or
become Reavers become homicidal and kill anyone in sight.
The film failed at the box-office but went on to become a cult classic and even inspired a very impressive remake in 2010 starring Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell.
Romero decided to create his own spin on the vampire film with Martin, about a teenage boy who is convinced that he’s actually an 84-year-old vampire.
Not that version of Martin, YouTube! Damn! This version of Martin:
Not only was Martin the first collaboration between Romero and legendary special-effects technician/makeup artist Tom Savini (who directed the 1990 remake of Night Of The Living Dead starring Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman, and which is definitely worth watching), but Romero also considered Martin to be one of his favorite films to make if not his personal favorite.
1979 saw the release of Dawn Of The Dead, Romero’s sequel to Night Of The Living Dead:
Dawn Of The Dead focused on four people who take shelter in an abandoned shopping mall as the country continues to fall apart and resort to chaos as the dead continue coming back to life as flesh-eating zombies. It surpassed the original film in both scope and quality, while also serving as a commentary on the ever-increasing consumer culture sweeping the nation with the growing success and popularity of shopping malls and outlets. Not only did it give us one of the most iconic lines in horror-movie history…
…but it also inspired a remake directed by Zack Snyder, written by James Gunn, and starring Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, which added its own unique spin to how zombies were portrayed by making these zombies able to run and move fast after their intended prey instead of walking and shambling at slow speeds.
Romero then teamed up with Stephen King for the horror anthology film Creepshow. As a tribute to the DC and EC Comics of the 1950s, it told five different stories, none of which guaranteed family-friendly fun or a happy ending for the characters involved:
He then decided to go in a different direction and tell a story that wasn’t part of the horror genre but still spoke to him for reasons that were fairly obvious: Knightriders, starring Ed Harris, Patricia Tallman, and Tom Savini, told the story of bikers who are members of a traveling renaissance fair troupe and their attempts to stay independent despite increasing pressures to go corporate in order to maintain financial success and stability:
In 1985, Romero made the final chapter (or so we all originally thought) of his Living Dead trilogy: Day Of The Dead:
At the time of its release, it wasn’t as critically acclaimed as the first two films and was seen by some critics as too bleak and unpleasant to watch, but its reputation has improved over time.
Romero continued his attempts at horror films not focused on zombies, such as Monkey Shines…
…and The Dark Half, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
He returned to familiar territory in 2005 when he wrote and directed new chapters of the Living Dead series: Land Of The Dead, starring Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper:
Followed by Diary Of The Dead, in which he took the ‘found footage’ approach to zombies, and Survival Of The Dead, which was his final film:
As much as Romero and his work inspired many others to do their own thing with the zombie genre, (The Return Of The Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun Of The Dead, Zombieland), Romero wasn’t entirely impressed by all of them. When it came to discussing his thoughts about World War Z and The Walking Dead (which he was approached to direct)…they were less than complimentary.
“…Because of “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead,” I can’t pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical. I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can’t. The moment you mention the word “zombie,” it’s got to be, “Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.”
“They asked me to do a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead but I didn’t want to be a part of it. Basically it’s just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally. I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism and I find that missing in what’s happening now.”
None of this stopped The Walking Dead from honoring him and his legacy at the end of this past Sunday’s season premiere, and also at San Diego Comic-Con this past summer, where panel moderator Chris Hardwick and the cast of Fear The Walking Dead held a moment of silence for both Romero and for John Bernecker, a stuntman who died as a result of an on-set accident.
Naturally, it didn’t take long for many in the entertainment industry to pay their respects and share their thoughts about George A. Romero once news of his death became public:
Remember when George Romero made a zombie trilogy from 1968-1985 where the leads were all women and black men? pic.twitter.com/slwfHlMcPJ— Phil Nobile Jr. (@PhilNobileJr) July 4, 2015
No one mined the zombie metaphor like Romero. (After he invented it.) No one has come close. RIP & thank you to a Great Film Artist. pic.twitter.com/5RqD8Q8GdE— Joss Whedon (@joss) July 16, 2017
God bless you, George Romero, and thanks for being so good to 8 year old me. I loved your imagination, your laugh, your beard, your heart.— Joe Hill (@joe_hill) July 17, 2017
George Romero was a great director, the father of modern horror movies. He was my friend and I will miss him. Rest in peace, George.— John Carpenter (@TheHorrorMaster) July 16, 2017
Goodbye George A Romero. We laughed through 50 years and 9 films. I will miss him. There is a light that has gone out and can't be replaced. pic.twitter.com/N0MAC1ItVM— Tom Savini (@THETomSavini) July 16, 2017
RIP George Romero. Zombies, yes. But…go watch MARTIN. Teenage isolation mutated into vampirism. Online culture as plague.— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) July 16, 2017
Romero has passed away. Hard to find words right now. The loss is so enormous.— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) July 16, 2017
I just wrote this on Facebook concerning the passing of George Romero, but I thought I'd share it here as well. 💔 pic.twitter.com/r1qKM6GSka— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 16, 2017
Sad to hear my favorite collaborator—and good old friend—George Romero has died. George, there will never be another like you.— Stephen King (@StephenKing) July 16, 2017
Romero started it. pic.twitter.com/i4dnxi8EFV— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) July 16, 2017
Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote Shaun Of The Dead, paid tribute to Romero on his blog:
“It’s fair to say that without George A. Romero, I would not have the career I have now. A lot of people owe George a huge debt of gratitude for the inspiration. I am just one of many.”
Which pretty much echoes how many people, from colleagues to fellow writers and directors to fans who grew up watching his movies in theaters and on home video and DVD, have felt and continue to feel about the man and all that he accomplished throughout his career.
Rest in peace, George A. Romero. And thank you for everything.
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