Heartbreaking news today for horror film fans all over: the L.A. Times reported that legendary director George A. Romero, the “Godfather of the Dead” who forever elevated zombies from being an esoteric Haitian oddity into a beloved part of the cultural zeitgist, died at the age of 77 after a brief fight with lung cancer.
When I first saw Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, I was probably around six or seven. My young mind was already attuned to scary movies (having been permanently traumatized at the age of four by watching Tim Curry crawl out of a shower drain as a demonic clown in the TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT), but I had no idea what I was in for with this zombie opus. Staying up late on an October night at a cousin’s house and seeing the living dead relentlessly attack a group of survivors holed up in a farmhouse, all shot in gritty black-and-white with the intensity of a documentary, was an unforgettable experience – one that I would try to repeat time and again almost every October since. As I grew older and more versed in (horror) cinema, I was able to better appreciate the guerilla-style M.O. Romero was forced to utilize with a shoestring budget, and how ahead of the curve, how socially conscious and transgressive he was by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as his heroic but doomed lead.
As iconic as “Night of the Living Dead” was, Romero managed to top himself with the next entry of his “Trilogy of the Dead.” “Dawn of the Dead” ranks as one of the very best horror movies ever: a deft, pitch black epic satire that rightfully skewers consumerism and its dehumanizing consequences early and often. Romero continued to be way ahead of his peers in terms of casting, again tapping a black actor (Ken Foree) as his protagonist, but now also (possibly in response to the criticism of how women were characterized in “Night”) crafting a strong female co-lead in Gaylen Ross’s Fran. Finally, while “Day of the Dead” is a good step down below “Night” and “Dawn,” it is still a fitting, chilling conclusion to a zombie trilogy that consistently depicted we humans, not zombies, as our own worst enemy when it comes to surviving an apocalypse.
Any filmmaker who just had the “Dead” trilogy under his belt would already have plenty to brag about, but Romero achieved a rich and varied filmography outside those three films to boot. “The Crazies” capitalizes on the public’s disillusionment with the military after Vietnam and the Kent State shootings, “Martin” is a fantastically underrated vampire flick that showcases an expressionistic side of Romero, and “The Dark Half” is a gruesomely fun adaptation of the Stephen King novel featuring Timothy Hutton in a wicked, against-type performance.
That said, my favorite George Romero film outside of the “Dead” series is “Creepshow,” a diabolically delightful paean to the EC Horror Comics of the 1950s. Working hand-in-hand with Stephen King, Romero crafted a horror anthology that effortlessly nailed the style and caustic tone of those comics. Along with a great ensemble cast that features Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Ted Danson, Adrienne Barbeau, E.G. Marshall, and Stephen King himself as a backwoods hick, “Creepshow” more than lives up to its billing as “the most fun you’ll ever have… being scared.”
Along with John Carpenter and Wes Craven, George Romero helped redefine the horror genre and demonstrated the near-limitless potential of independent filmmaking. He was a true titan of horror with an iconic filmography which influenced generations of filmmakers to come. And although he came to lament the commercialization of zombie fiction, Romero was more than happy to lend his support to up-and-coming genre directors. His death is a huge loss for cinema.
I’ll end this salute to George Romero with a few tributes from friends and fellow filmmakers.
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
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
Romero has passed away. Hard to find words right now. The loss is so enormous.
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) July 16, 2017
Romero started it. pic.twitter.com/i4dnxi8EFV
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) July 16, 2017
RIP #GeorgeRomero. You made me want to make movies, and helped me to find meaning in monsters. Thank you. I love you.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 16, 2017