The father of the modern cinematic zombie, George A. Romero, has succumbed to lung cancer and passed away at age 77.
Romero made his name directing one of the all-time greatest feature film debuts, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. A gory, cheap, and thoughtful little scare-fest, Night quickly became a perennial cult hit, inspiring a few official remakes and hundreds more unofficial homages and outright rip-offs. Thanks to a screw-up by the film’s distributor, Night quickly went into the public domain, and Romero was forced to revisit his horror masterpiece again and again just to get some sort of financial compensation for pioneering a new brand of horror.
The next two entries in Romero’s Dead series, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead, are arguably as influential and flat-out excellent as the original. Romero’s use of a zombie plague as social commentary on modern American life was as clever and effective as the visceral gore effects that became the series’ calling card.
Romero also made plenty of lesser-known works between Dead films that feature his clever storytelling and deserve rediscovery. These include the maladjusted would-be vampire story Martin (1978), the suburban-housewife mindfuckery of Season of the Witch (1972), and a motorcycle-jousting flick that doubles as a critique of fake hippies, Knightriders (1981). (Many folks are big on his mass-psychosis pandemic flick from 1973, The Crazies, but I think it’s just OK.)
After Romero directed horror icon Stephen King’s first screenplay, for the EC Comics-inspired anthology Creepshow, the two horror masters would re-team sporadically over the next few decades. King wrote a few episodes for the TV anthology series Tales from the Darkside, which Romero produced with his longtime partner Richard P. Rubinstein. Romero adapted some of King’s stories for Creepshow 2 (directed with decidedly less panache than Romero’s original, by Darkside producer Michael Gornick). Then he tackled one of King’s most popular novels with the underrated 1993 film version of The Dark Half.
After The Dark Half‘s financial failure, Romero struggled for years to get films made. His next effort was 2000’s low-budget indie Bruiser. But, after the success of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and other Romero-flavored horror films like 28 Days Later, Romero was given a sizable budget and name cast (in 2005, at least) for Land of the Dead. Land kicked off a second, more flawed (but still ardently defended) trilogy of Dead films, including the found-footage-driven Diary of the Dead (2007) and Romero’s 2009 swan song, Survival of the Dead.
Though he will always be associated with the horror genre, Romero was an all-around film buff. In this wonderful Youtube clip, he describes his love of the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Technicolor opera film Tales of Hoffmann. Romero claims it is the film that made him want to make movies, and he also offers an amusing tidbit about the other future director who was always renting out the same 16mm copy of the film when he wanted to watch it.