George Romero, Knight of the Living Dead (1940–2017)

Remembering George A. Romero (February 4, 1940–July 16, 2017)

Director, producer, screenwriter: George A. Romero was all these things and more. But most importantly, he was loved by his fans, and his influence over the decades since 1968’s ground-breaking ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was truly huge. I can sincerely say he had a huge amount of influence on fellow filmmakers and fans alike. When you hear the name Romero, you instantly think: ‘ZOMBIES!’

He was born George Andrew Romero in New York, Feb 4, 1940. He was educated at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute wherein he studied art, theatre, and design, all of which gave him a great grounding for the work he would do in the future.

Romero had made 8mm shorts and industrial and commercial films through his Pittsburgh-based Latent Image company prior to directing his first feature, ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Latent Image actually won a prestigious award for a witty washing machine advert they made inspired by the science-fiction film ‘Fantastic Voyage’. Even in his formative years, Romero always thought outside the box.

Night of the Living Dead’  was originally titled ‘Night of the Flesh-Eaters’ and sadly copyrighted under that name, so Romero never had any control over his film after release and never shared in much of the money many others made out of it. It was filmed for budgetary reasons in black-and-white, but this was to work in its favour, giving it a gritty, realistic, documentary feel. In an era when the news was full of student and race riots, the Vietnam War, assassinations, civil rights, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ resembled the news!

It was the perfect horror film for its time. Good did not triumph over evil, and the world of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is a world turned upside down; it was Nixon’s America seen through a glass darkly. No horror film director or fan can fail to have been influenced by it. Prior to this, horror films were ladies in nighties being menaced by Dracula! Now, we had a black hero, in a country at war with itself, because the beauty of the zombie genre that George created is that it can, in the hands of the visionary, be a metaphor for the world we live in.

George was greatly inspired by Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’. He did a better job at capturing that fine book’s essence and ideas than the filmed adaptations. ‘I Am Legend’ is very much about a revolutionary new society eventually overthrowing the old order. As George said later. “I like Matheson’s books, and was inspired by some of his novels. I had a similar idea, the old becomes the new and vice-versa, like the mentally disturbed being the rational ones instead. It’s some thing that can be relatively verified in reality. I decided that ‘Night’ was going to be a far more fantastic plot, one step beyond being the last human being in a society of vampires.”

For the next few years Romero directed such films as ‘There’s Always Vanilla’ (1971) and ‘Season of the Witch’/ AKA ‘Hungry Wives’ (1972), neither of which was worthy of his talents. But ‘The Crazies’ (1973) was excellent, gritty and superior to its glossy 21st century remake. Genuinely disturbing, and like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ paralleled a government at war with its own people. It was the Vietnam War fought on American soil.

Nineteen seventy-eight was probably George’s finest year: while Spielberg and Lucas made their names with glossy fantasies, a Peter Pan view of reality, Romero knew that to create a pearl there first has to be grit in the oyster. The first of ’78’s films, ‘Martin’, was a superb modern take on vampirism, the first modern vampire film, and truly superb, frightening in a way that stays with the viewer. Interestingly, he had wanted to film it in monochrome like ‘Night of the Living Dead’; with today’s technology that should be easy enough to do – witness George Miller’s black and white version of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.

Then, as the poster said, after the Night, comes the Dawn! ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a marvellous film, one that works on so many levels. It’s an action movie as much as horror film; without it there would be no ‘Walking Dead’, no ‘World War Z’ and so many more. Where ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is monochromatic death, Dawn of the Dead is glorious colour. It is always a savage satire on consumerism. The film’s heroes land and take over a shopping mall (not just the American Dream, but the Western Dream!) and rather than escaping, seduced by being able to take whatever they want, they stay beyond the point that it could and in some cases does cost them their lives… because that’s the problem with a consumer society – people are willing to kill to get material goods.

Romero referred to the shopping centre as a “Cathedral of Consumerism”, which gives you an idea of the great man’s wit and why I’m so sad to be writing this. Credit must be given to special effect make-up maestro Tom Savini; the incredible zombie make-ups and spectacular deaths owe much to his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam. Savini also appears in the film as a deadly biker called Blades, and is now justly a cult hero in his own right (Savini would play a zombie version of Blades in ‘Land of the Dead’).

Romero would team up with Stephen King to make the excellent EC comics inspired ‘Creepshow’, and he also made a most excellent film called ‘Knightriders’ (1981), which has a lot of heart and really shows Romero’s range as an auteur, I really wish more people had seen it.

It’s always the first film of a director’s canon that you see that makes the biggest impression upon you, and in my case that was Romero’s third zombie film ‘Day of the Dead‘ (1985). I really love this film but was surprised to discover when Andy Black and I wrote a history of zombie cinema entitled The Dead Walk’ (Noir Publishing), that Romero’s vision was much more epic (and expensive) for this film. Indeed when ‘The Dead Walk’ was published the chapter revealing the unfilmed ‘Day of the Dead’ was one of the most popular. Savini described it as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with zombies!

However, even with a reduced budget, ‘Day of the Dead’ is truly superb, its lower budget adding to the claustrophobia. The Dead have won, and the surviving humans are trapped in a bunker desperately trying to find a ‘cure’ for the zombie plague. It is a strong essay on man’s sexism, racism, cruelty and inhumanity. Truly a masterpiece.

Romero would go to do more films, always with their special unique points, such as Monkey Shines (1988), and a very interesting take on Edgar Allen Poe with his old friend and Dawn of the Dead producer Dario Argento entitled Two Evil Eyes (1990). Do check it out; it’s a terrific collaboration, with each tackling an individual Poe tale to great effect. Romero does an exception version of ‘The Facts In The Case of Mr. Valdemar’.

A great unsung Romero film is his adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Half’, one of the best King adaptations, and the two friends really complement each other on this.

Sadly post ‘The Dark Half’, Romero did not get any projects off the ground for years, though his name was associated with a number of projects, such as Universal’s remake of ‘The Mummy’, which eventually became a sort of ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Mummy’ in the hands of Stephen Sommers. While we have no way of knowing what Romero’s vision for ‘The Mummy’ would have been, one can assume if would have had some actual scares!

Another film that nearly happened for Romero was ‘Resident Evil’. He had directed a well-received trailer for the game, and subsequently produced an excellent script for a Resident Evil film he was to direct. Sadly, he didn’t get to direct ‘Resident Evil’, but if you check out his script you’ll mourn the superb film we should have got.

In fact, one of the tragedies I think of as I type this is that we should have had so many more films from Romero. One reason I believe we didn’t is that George cared about his films and his fans. He wanted final cut; he did not want censorship and that means mid-budget and as time passed and we entered the 90s and beyond, the kind of interesting mid-budget films that Romero (and Carpenter, Craven, Hooper and Cronenburg) excelled at vanished. Now we have a plethora of dire CGI superhero films, and only we know what we’re missing.

Finally in 2006 we had ‘Land of the Dead’, one of my all-time favourite films, and what a thrill to finally see a Romero film where it belongs… in the cinema. Exciting and full-social commentary. Expect to see ‘Land of the Dead’ adapted as a TV series one of these days; it’s tailor made for it.

Post ‘Land of the Dead’, George made two more zombie films, ‘Diary of the Dead’, and ‘Survival of the Dead’. While both had ultra-low budgets, it showed that George had not run out of ideas or fans.

One of the best things George did in recent years was a six-part comic series entitled ‘Toe Tags’ that just cries out to be adapted into a TV series. Unrestrained by budgetary consideration, George runs wild here, but it gives the best glimpse of what he could have done given the tools to do so. It also featured fabulous cover art from the late Romero collaborator Bernie Wrightson, who sadly also died of cancer this year. Truly cancer is the great scourge of our time.

George just kept creating right up to the end. Three days before his death he told Rue Morgue magazine about a film he was working on entitled ‘Road of the Dead’, which sounds intriguing and I hope gets made. I think the great man would be amused at a film he worked on getting made after he died.

George died with his wife and daughter around him, peacefully, listening to the score of one of his (and my) favourite films ‘The Quiet Man’. He had been ill for a short time with lung cancer.

Watching a report on his death on Euronews I was struck my how likeable a man he was; the fans loved him. Ironically, considering his reputation was made as a horror film director, he was very much a child of the 60s in manner, funny, gentle, likeable. In fact I remember when DVD first came in, the audio commentaries were a big attraction, and George did several for his films and I just loved listening to them. It was like getting a look into his mind and personality. We live in an increasingly virtual world, yet fans of George’s films felt a sense of community and belonging.

As for his legacy, without George the horror genre as we know if today would not exist. ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Z Nation’, ‘World War Z’, ‘Resident Evil’ all built on the foundations laid by George. It is a tragedy he didn’t get to make more films, and a tragedy he didn’t receive more credit for what an outstanding filmmaker he was…

Yet, his influence is as undying as the zombie genre he created, and he will always be loved and special to his friends and fans, constantly rediscovered by new ones. No greater tribute can any man or filmmaker be paid.

Rest in peace, George, and for the hours of scares and entertainment you gave me growing up, eternal thanks.

I’ll leave the last word to George. On the Euronews report they showed footage of the premiere of ‘Land of the Dead’. George smiled at the camera and said: ‘It’s always time for Land of the Dead, Man!’ And it is and always will be! So put that and more of George’s films on in honour of his memory.

Steve Earles

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (http://toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/writers/).