To call George A. Romero a horror filmmaker is like calling Eddie Van Halen a rock guitarist. Yes, George A. Romero made horror films. Some were brilliant, others were merely passable, but such was the legend of this grand auteur. That Romero never cared much for his canonization only made him that much more beloved among his fans. He was a giant who didn’t feel the need to remind you he was a giant. George A. Romero may have made films in multiple genres but, no matter what, his singular vision hung true. This is why, upon George Romero’s death at age 77, we can reflect on just what a massive filmmaker he was. And while he did work in different genres, it was the horror genre, specifically those revolving around zombies, in which we most strongly feel his effect. In the process, we can come to understand how Romero changed horror forever.
Some people might be able to name other obscure films, but without George A. Romero making Night of the Living Dead, the zombie genre isn’t born in 1968. This film, about a group of people stuck in a house as they try and avoid a zombie apocalypse, was no mere creature feature. It was a meditation on Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. The fact that Romero made the character of Ben (Duane Jones) the hero, only to see him get killed at the end by humans (not bloodsuckers), was the closet thing on screen at the time to an act of cinematic civil disobedience. This film was a bonafide hit. It gave Romero his career and at the same time it showed that horror movies could be more. They didn’t need to be schlock pieces put together for quick profit. They could make a statement and entertain. Art and commerce had been merged beautifully.
After this Romero would make films like Season of the Witch, The Crazies and Martin. While at the time these films didn’t play as insta-classics, they further underscored the iconoclast that George A. Romero was. He could’ve easily done a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Instead, he went another way. He turned Martin into a vampire elegy. He foretold the effects of biological warfare (currently being used on the battlefield in many countries today) in The Crazies. And, he focused his lens on the discontent among suburban housewives in Season of the Witch. Sure, these were horror films, but they defied the genre by tackling big concepts and ideas. Films like this had never been made before and they would ultimately pave the way for such deep cutting films as Phantasm and It Follows among others. These films deal with deep, philosophical themes and their killers often represent ideas more than actual living (or non-living), breathing, killing machines.
After this Romero would return to territory that looked familiar… zombies. However, Dawn of the Dead, set in a mall, was a full bore excoriation of American consumerism and capitalism. This film truly expanded on Night of the Living Dead, and it further showed Romero’s ability to change not only the horror genre, but the genre he helped give life to: the zombie film. Day of the Dead continued this as it looked at the “everybody for themselves”, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” farce that was so palpable in the 1980s. These three Dead films would be more than enough to enshrine George A. Romero in horror moviedom.
In the 80s, collaborating with Stephen King, the horror icons continued to show that they were always innovating with films like the Creepshow movies. Romero would continue on with films like Monkey Shines, The Dark Half and Bruiser. On the face of it these movies don’t seem to have a message like the aforementioned Living Dead films. However, they are rich in images, ideas and scope. Nobody was able to put the battered psyche of humanity on the screen like George A. Romero. He would triumph again in 2005 with Land of the Dead. This film really recalled Night of the Living Dead‘s Vietnam subtext. America was in the midst of war with Iraq and this film captured that tone perfectly. Like our “enemies” the zombies couldn’t be stopped. Our nation, like the people in this film, were essentially involved in a conflict that wasn’t going to end. There was a melancholy mood in our nation that was truly captured in this film. George A. Romero was almost 4 decades from the film that made him, and he showed that he was still creating and working with ideas at the highest level. George A. Romero took a genre that heretofore hadn’t been considered to be a place where serious artists could work, and from Night of the Living Dead all the way to Survival of the Dead, Romero, all on his own, showed just how serious and smart the horror genre could be.
George A. Romero’s vision is now timeless. His inspiration is everywhere. The horror storytellers of today continue to tip their hats to the Godfather of Zombies. One of cable TV’s most watched television series of all-time, The Walking Dead wouldn’t even exist without Romero’s vision as the show literally exists inside of a world that Romero created with his living dead films. He made the rules. And now everyone abides by them.
There are many directors that have had long careers. How many of them continue to define and redefine a genre that they created? Years ago, I had the privilege to interview George A. Romero. At the end, I asked him about making more Living Dead movies. It was apparent that that was always going to be an option. However, it wasn’t an option for Romero. He said that he wanted to make more Dead films, but if he did he wanted them “to mean something.” Quite simply, this man changed horror movies forever. And he deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time greats, which is why horror fans around the world must pay George Romero tribute He didn’t do it once but rather he did it throughout his career.
Check the various times we here at MovieWeb got to sit down with Romero and discuss what he did best.