“Everyone who ever made a low-budget film was influenced by Night of the Living Dead,” – John Carpenter
George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie genre, has passed away at the age of 77. A good time to take a look back on his significant contribution to movies and the horror genre.
Indie movies didn’t really exist when Romero and some pals clubbed together cash and equipment to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Taking inspiration from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel, Romero turned what could have been an exploitation splatter film and turned it into a snapshot of where America was going with the Vietnam war and civil rights. It’s difficult now to separate Romero’s nightmarish imagery from the horrific news footage spilling out of Vietnam around then.
The casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben the male lead was groundbreaking but Romero brushed it off by saying he was the best actor available and nothing more. Black men and boys were lynched for whistling at white women in the recent past yet here was a black hero defending a white female onscreen (the implication being that they will begin a relationship if they survive as the humanity is almost extinct). Ben even punches out a white male character for trying to tell him what to do (a far cry from any submissive expectations where he would stand there and be called “boy.”). This was an empowered, dominant black male, virtually unheard of at the time and not really seen again until the Blaxploitation genre of the early 70s (it could be argued Romero influenced that too).
Ben’s fate at the hands of a redneck posse at the denouement prefigured the disaster movies and downbeat endings of films in the 1970s. The zombie horror is replaced with a more realistic, some would say more horrific, human kind. Hollywood even made a movie of NOTLD’s inspiration “I Am Legend” when Charlton Heston took on a Mansonesque group of mutants as the last vestige of gun-toting masculinity in “The Omega Man” in 1971.
“At first I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said, “I thought of them as flesh-eaters or ghouls and never called them zombies in the first film. Then people started to write about them, calling them zombies, and all of a sudden that’s what they were: the new zombies. I guess I invented a few rules, like kill the brain and you kill the ghoul, and eventually I surrendered to the idea and called them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it was never that important to me what they were. Just that they existed.”
The critical reviews of “Night of the Living Dead” were among the first to take the horror genre seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho was probably the first one that wasn’t written off as a shlocky B-movie. If the respected Master of Suspense was tackling the genre, there must be something more there.
Somehow a copyright symbol was left off finished prints of “Night of the Living Dead” and it instantly fell into the public domain, a disastrous setback for everyone involved when it came to reaping any profits from it. It perhaps explained the genesis of the sequels, this time they’d make sure that didn’t happen and get paid properly.
So into the 1970s Romero went and, 1972 saw him write and direct “Season of the Witch” a.k.a. Hungry Wives about a housewife caught up in witchcraft and murder. (John Carpenter would pinch the title for Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years later.)
Romero even made a 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson called “Juice On The Loose” (!). Again, he was way ahead of the pack with that title.
“The Crazies” came along in 1973, a frightening bio-horror movie, even more realistic than “Night of the Living Dead.” A forgettable remake appeared in 2010.
1978 brought a double-whammy of classics from Romero. Having invented the zombie movie genre, Romero sought to revitalize another one. His vampire movie Martin dealt with a boy who or may not be a centuries-old vampire. It’s in this grey area that the movie poses some real questions and becomes complex and interesting. Is Martin really a vampire or a disturbed kid acting out his fantasies and delusions on innocent people? Again, Romero was way ahead of everyone here touching on vampire culture and people “identifying” as vampires, things that wouldn’t become mainstream until recently. John Amplas is excellent as Martin, bringing great pathos to a difficult role. If you haven’t seen Martin, you should check it out soon. It’ll probably be screened in tribute to Romero and I hope this obscure movie finds some new fans now.
The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead” came next. Romero hooked up with make-up virtuoso Tom Savini to do the zombie make-up. This time our heroes weren’t holed up in a house but in a shopping mall, giving Romero the chance to send up modern consumers as mindless zombies shuffling along to insipid muzak (he could almost have been predicting the internet age). At two-and-a-half-hours long, the film was ambitious and is beloved by fans to this day.
(They despised Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake for not having the satire. This may be sacrilege, but I believe Snyder’s movie is better. The satire wasn’t all that clever or funny in the first place and the 1977 zombie make up looks like they got a bulk discount on grey paint. Snyder’s film is faster, funnier, “Shoot Burt Reynolds!, and tighter.)
Just as Richard Matheson had influenced Romero, his “Night of the Living Dead” was in turn exerting an influence on popular culture with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Director John Landis rightfully paid homage to Romero’s classic.
Romero made several Stephen King adaptations including the memorable anthology “Creepshow” in 1982, “Creepshow 2” in 1987 and “The Dark Half” in 1993.
“Day of the Dead” appeared in 1985 and, for me, it’s the grimmest and most intense of the dead movies. Bub the domesticated zombie is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by actor Howard Sherman. It’s up there with Karloff’s Frankenstein for me and a real horror icon.
Some of the gore is literally stomach-churning. A soldier is disemboweled on camera while a zombie rises from a slab to spill its guts all over the mortuary floor. Savini’s effects were making quantum leaps but it made me feel numb. We don’t really need to see that.
A colour remake of “Night of the Living Dead” appeared in 1990, directed by make-up whiz Tom Savini. Romero rewrote his own screenplay, dropping in the hole in the ozone layer as a possible reason for the dead rising. It wasn’t as influential or groundbreaking as the original, what could be, but as remakes go, it’s pretty good and stands up to repeated viewings.
Post 9/11, zombie movies came back in vogue with Danny Boyle’s savage “28 Days Later” and the aforementioned remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” These zombies weren’t stiff from rigor mortis, they sprinted like Usain Bolt but Romero kept his walking dead moving slowly in subsequent zombie flicks.
By the time of Romero’s “Land of The Dead” in 2005, the social commentary was becoming forced and self-conscious. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Dennis Hopper’s villainous mogul pompously says at one point, an obvious dig at George W. Bush. Even so, the film was a good sequel and is still very watchable today.
“I don’t try to answer any questions or preach,” Romero said, “My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, ‘Ooo, I’ll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!’ You know, it’s kind of my ticket to ride.”
“Diary of the Dead (2007)” and “Survival of the Dead (2009)” (Romero’s last film as director) followed and, even though Romero was still being innovative, there was the feeling that he’d already said what he wanted to say in that genre as others were overtaking him.
George A. Romero’s legacy and reputation are assured as the outpouring of grief on Twitter has proven today. Max Landis, son of Thriller director John Landis, tweeted: “George Romero was an icon who created a cinematic universe of loosely-affiliated sequels forty years before that was a thing. RIP to a genius.” May he rest in peace. Finally.
Many things scare us. When it comes to stories, whether it’s books or movies, we’re being manipulated into being afraid. So it helps to have many levels of sell. There’s the obvious thing we’re scared of like alien creatures or zombies. Then there’s the subliminal things that may not register at first.
I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind when I was six years old. I didn’t understand a lot of it like the significance of the missing Bermuda Triangle Flight 19 reappearing in the desert 32 years after vanishing.
I also found the Richard Dreyfuss character’s peculiar behaviour confusing. Today, being an adult who has lived through a global recession, I understand exactly the pressures the Dreyfuss character was under.
There were many scenes I found scary. The obvious scare was the little blond boy being abducted from his room by aliens as his screaming mother loses her grip on him (tapping into every child’s nightmare of being taken away from their mother). The scene that really scared me though was when Richard Dreyfuss gets in the shower with his clothes on and slides to the ground crying.
His son sees it and calls him a cry baby. That really made me worry for the protagonist and his family. In a film full of fantastic visuals and scares, it grounded the film beautifully in harsh realism. It was tapping into the other childhood fear that the father, the head of the family, would lose control of himself and the family’s future. So Close Encounters has its visual scares (the aliens) and its psychological kicker (fear of the unknown).
Zombies also have a surface fear and a more profound one playing under the decaying skin on display. The packs of ravenous zombies are frightening (one newspaper branded the zombie the official fantasy creature of the recession!). What is more frightening however is the fear of the unknown they represent. In a zombie apocalypse, everything you know is changing; you don’t know why it’s changing, you don’t know what it’s changing into and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just like Close Encounters, zombie movies regress us to a state of infantile powerlessness (which is perhaps why monsters in movies are usually huge with big teeth, the same way our parents appeared to us when we were toothless babies.)
The best writers know how to layer in subtext to give deeper meaning to what was once B-movie material. It is perhaps one reason why fantasy and science fiction movies are now being nominated for and winning Academy Awards in all the major categories, something that was once unheard of and is a refreshing change.
(To read more of my writing on a similar subject click here)