by Jason F. Koenigsberg
This is devastating news to anyone who is a big fan of horror movies. George A. Romero has passed away from lung cancer at age 77. He was one of the innovators of horror films, a pioneer of independent cinema and basically the man who invented the modern zombie movie. Looking back at his filmography he gave us some of the most frightening motions pictures of the last fifty years and always checkered them with horrific political commentary and sprinkled in humor wherever he could.
Romero first gained notoriety and fame for his influential midnight movie hit Night of the Living Dead (1968) which played at drive-ins and movie houses terrifying audiences for decades. Often cited as the jumping-off point of the zombie horror sub-genre this was also one of the most successful and influential independent movies. It represents American culture and values as times were changing during the sixties, while at the same time offering shocking thrills. It has an extremely unconventional and controversial ending that has been debated and analyzed by critics and talking heads ever since its first screenings. What it says as a social commentary about racism in America, civil rights, the military, the war in Vietnam, and the fact that it still shocks audiences almost fifty years later says a lot about the impact of this low budget horror film. One of the first zombie films, one of the first independent films to become a cult hit, one of the first horror films with an African-America lead where race was not crucial to the plot and one of the boldest visions of terror ever made, in many ways Romero’s first film is the one that he will be remembered by the most. Without Night of the Living Dead, we would not have The Walking Dead, or Resident Evil, or zombies being as prominent as they are in pop culture today.
He followed up his breakout film with his endeavor to not be pigeonholed as only a horror director with the romantic drama-comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971). Well it sure was vanilla. There was not much to this dull romance and it died a quiet death in theaters. Today it is only available as a special feature on Romero’s third theatrical release Season of the Witch (1972). Also known as Hungry Wives, this film was a triumphant return to form for Mr. Romero. It tells the story of a bored, unhappy and unsatisfied housewife living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh (almost all of his movies take place in or around his home city of Pittsburgh, PA). Out of boredom she gets into witchcraft and soon she gets mixed up in murder as her life starts to unravel and spin out of control. This is the film where George A. Romero established his unique structure of films with opening scenes that throw the audience right into the action and they start off bewildered and confused. Eventually the pace slows down and the viewer is caught up to speed, but he literally drops us into the action deus ex machina style and are fighting to survive or at least figure out what is going on. In Season of the Witch the camera follows a man in the woods and tree branches are smacking the camera lens and soon the audience realizes they are seeing a dream from our main characters point of view about how she sees her marriage, that she goes unnoticed, ignored and feels left behind by her husband. Season of the Witch is also the most feminist horror movie of its time loaded with women’s lib ideas and metaphors, this may be the most blatant feminist horror film ever made. It is also an interesting story about a woman breaking away from society and turning to witchcraft to rebel against the norms and restrictions put on her.
George A. Romero’s next film was another cult classic that found a very faithful fanbase. 1973’s The Crazies is an uneven film, some parts scary, some parts humorous but most of it is just a mundane story of the US military trying to contain a virus in a Pennsylvania town where the infected people become instantly insane. It was remade in 2010 and the newer version actually makes more sense and has more thrills than the original, but it is also more forgettable. Even with it’s flaws The Crazies has Romero’s signature all over it.
Next came one of the most unconventional vampire movies ever made. In 1978 Romero directed Martin. He unleashed his unique vision of horror on the vampire sub-genre and in doing so made one of the most realistic and terrifying portraits of teenage angst and turned vampire lore upside down as our titular character explained that vampires are real, and he was one. He said he was an old man trapped in a teenagers body and used a razor to slit his victims wrists and drink their blood. He says all of the usual cliches about vampires involving fangs, an aversion to sunlight and fear of garlic are all false. Almost rated X for the arm slicing scene on a train, Romero has stated that Martin was his personal favorite of all of his films. There is no denying it is one of his best. Criminally under-seen the original cut ran nearly two hours and forty-five minutes. That version is likely never to see the light of day, however the only available cut of Martin runs 95 minutes and is absolutely worth checking out.
After that George A. Romero would turn back to the horror entity that made him famous and once again he would find the most success with zombies. Dawn of the Dead (1978) is his horrifying sequel to his breakthrough masterpiece Night of Living Dead. This time the zombies are wreaking havoc but on a much larger scale. Now it is not just a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, but Pittsburgh and the rest of the known world from what our characters can see has collapsed before their eyes. The way Romero challenged audiences with suspenseful thrills, smart social commentary on civil rights, racism, our gun loving nation, and such an audacious ending, he somehow inexplicably managed to top all his previous films with Dawn of the Dead. Romero had a lot to say about the US of A since a lot had happened in the ten years since his debut film. This time he channeled his terror into a satire on American consumerism and the Vietnam war. Plus some of the most gut-wrenching special effects by make-up guru Tom Savini. Regardless of being a sequel to a groundbreaking classic, Dawn of the Dead is one of the best horror movies of all time and has become Romero’s magnum opus.
Briefly transitioning away from horror for his next picture Romero re-imagined King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable as a modern day biker gang in Knightriders (1981). Certainly an unconventional and original movie, combining medieval cliches with motorcycle culture it is about a group of bikers and their increasingly delusional leader. At a running time of 146 minutes, it was as if the success of Dawn of the Dead gave Romero more freedom to be creatively whacky and his independent producers did not want to tell him no. Not very successful, Knightriders was one of the first leading roles for Ed Harris and gave him exposure leading to much bigger and better roles. Ed Harris has stated that this is one of his favorite films and that working with Romero was a great experience. He and his wife actress Amy Madigan remained close friends with George Romero ever since.
Once again suffering a setback when venturing outside of horror, Romero went back to the genre he was most well known for and basically stayed there for the rest of his career. In 1982 he directed Creepshow, an anthology film of five scary stories based on old horror comic books. It allowed him to work with his friend Stephen King who wrote the screenplay and they would later collaborate on his 1993 movie adaptation of King’s novel The Dark Half (1993). Creepshow was a moderate hit but The Dark Half was another financial failure and remains an underrated gem in the careers of both Romero and King. It starred Timothy Hutton as a troubled writer and Amy Madigan as his wife in the story of an author and his fictitious alter ego that starts to take over his life in horrific ways.
In between those two Stephen King collaborations George Romero directed two of his most interesting pictures. Both were horror films that underperformed but demand to be rediscovered. First up was his third Dead film Day of the Dead (1985). It was critically panned and his first zombie movie to underperform at the box office. It certainly has some glaring flaws, the overacting of Joe Pilato being the most noticeable, but it also has some great ideas and in some ways is his most meaningful and thought provoking zombie picture. He wanted a bigger budget but the studios all wanted big stars. So he sacrificed the big budget for more gore and lesser known talent. George Romero has always had an aversion to using famous actors because he stated that he liked using unknowns because then you never knew who would survive or who would end up with each other. This method for casting works perfectly especially in some of his best films like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and his 1988 film Monkey Shines. They all excel because of the casting and when the script takes a sharp turn the audience can genuinely be shocked by the events as they unfold.
Monkey Shines was Romero’s first time working with a major studio. The now defunct Orion Pictures gave him his biggest budget yet, and he also lost a lot of the creative control he was used to. Monkey Shines is the story of a paralyzed former athlete and a specially trained monkey meant to help him but the monkey soon develops his own feelings and wreaks havoc on his masters life. An impressive and ambitious movie that was criticized harshly and became yet another box office failure for Romero. This is the first film to have a sex scene with a quadriplegic character and also creates so much tension and bizarre scenes involving animals that are shocking. Some moments are very challenging and uncomfortable to watch. There is no denying that Monkey Shines is unlike any horror movie ever made.
In 1993 after a string of failures and the disappointment of The Dark Half George Romero took a job as an executive for New Line Cinema, a studio famous for its horror catalog which gave the world Freddy Krueger with the Nightmare on Elm Street series. New Line had recently acquired the rights to Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th films from Paramount. Romero was now working for the corporations that he despised and squandered his brutal visions of terror. He was miserable during his tenure at New Line sitting behind a desk and getting a paycheck. Once his contract was up he immediately went back to directing movies. Seven years after The Dark Half George Romero went up to Canada and directed Bruiser (2000). A film about a man who was walked all over by his wife, boss, friends and coworkers. One day wakes up and discovers that his face is a blank white mask. This gives him a new outlook on life where he approaches things head on and does not get mistreated but terror and violence soon follow. Bruiser is another one of Romero’s criminally overlooked pictures that deserves to be discovered.
Always very liberal with his politics he was fed up with what was going on in our government. It was around this time in the early 2000’s that George Romero renounced his United States citizenship and became a legal citizen of Canada where he would live and work with his wife and long time collaborator Christine Forrest Romero. Then in 2005 he would direct his fourth zombie opus Land of the Dead, his first time returning to the undead walkers in twenty years. It was a moderate success and would be his last film to turn a profit. Critics dismissed it for being a dumb gore fest and audiences were indifferent to its pacing and wanted their zombies to be faster like in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003). However Land of the Dead fits in perfectly with his other zombie pictures with its style, sense of dread, humor (the opening shot is a sign that reads EATS as we see zombies wandering around the landscape) and subtle political commentary (Dennis Hopper is an understated George W. Bush type villain) about the social class system and how even in the future when all is lost there will still be an upper class keeping all the wealth, resources and power to a select few while the majority of the population struggle to survive.
His next two films were also zombie pictures but met with much more diminishing returns both financially and critically. Romero jumped on the found footage bandwagon and made Diary of the Dead (2007). It was not very scary, fun or interesting. There is probably social commentary about technology invading our lives but the film itself was such a slog it did not even matter. The master and innovator of horror had now succumbed to horror fads that his successors had done better.
His last film was another zombie bore Survival of the Dead (2009) about people living on an island trying to survive zombie attacks and warring factions between themselves. It was not fun or smart or the least bit scary, died a quick death at the box office and has since been relegated to streaming services. Despite the huge success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, Romero was very critical of the series and turned down some lucrative offers to direct an episode or episodes. He stated that it was just a daytime soap opera with zombies.
It took a lot to scare George A. Romero and even though his final films were shadows of his earliest successes he without a doubt made some of the best and most influential horror films of all time. Some of his best work remains buried treasures that will hopefully find their audiences and recognition they deserve. Without Mr. Romero’s influence the output of zombies overrunning our pop culture in movies, television, video games and literature would not be what it is today. He left a legacy of horror that will continue to thrive and haunt future generations.
Here is a video tribute to George A. Romero’s zombie movies.