George Romero has died, at the age of 77.
When I say “George Romero,” you probably immediately think of zombies. And why not? Night of the Living Dead is perhaps the best known zombie film ever made and Dawn of the Dead is perhaps the second best known. Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead both have their fervent admirers. Without the work of George Romero, there would be no Walking Dead. Without the zombie films of George Romero, countless children would have never grown up to become horror filmmakers. Without George Romero, there would have been no Italian zombie films, which means that I would never have fallen in love with Italian horror and I wouldn’t have been tweeting about it that day in 2010 when Arleigh asked me if I wanted to be a contributor to this website.
Though he had directed commercials and a few industrial films, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was George Romero’s first feature film. His first! I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to totally change the face and history of cinema with your very first feature film. All modern horror films owe a debt not only to Night of the Living Dead but to all of Romero’s subsequent films as well.
Romero, himself, didn’t necessarily set out to be a horror film director. As he himself often said, the main reason that he and his associates made Night of the Living Dead was because they knew there was a market for cheap horror films. He followed up Night of the Living Dead with Touch of Vanilla, a hippie love story that few people saw. And while Romero eventually did accept that he would be forever known as a horror filmmaker, his films were always concerned with more than just scaring people. Whether intentional or not, Night of the Living Dead is a powerful allegory about prejudice and mankind’s inability to work together. (For all the zombies, the film’s scariest scene comes at the end when the African-American Ben is shot by a redneck deputy and casually tossed onto a pile of bodies.) The Dario Argento-produced Dawn of the Dead was a satire of consumerism while The Crazies suggested that people were already so crazy that it was hardly necessary for a chemical spill to bring out the worst in us. In Martin, Romero cast a weary eye on organized religion while Land of the Dead was perhaps Romero’s angriest film, taking on the state of post-911 America. With films like Creepshow and The Dark Half, Romero showed that he was one of the few directors who could successfully adapt the sometimes unwieldy prose of Stephen King to the screen. It’s a shame that his long-rumored adaptations of The Stand and The Dark Tower turned out to be just that, rumors.
Yes, George Romero was a great horror filmmaker but more than that, he was a great director period. He never sacrificed his independence, choosing to make some of his best-regarded movies in Philadelphia. He never compromised his message, offering up visions of the world that continued to grow bleaker and bleaker. Though he never received the awards that he deserved or, to be honest, the critical acclaim that he was owed, George Romero will be remembered as one of the most important American filmmakers of all time.
George Romero died, of lung cancer, surrounded by his loved ones. Reportedly, he died listening to The Quiet Man soundtrack.
Rest in peace, George.