It has disappointingly been revealed that the ‘godfather of zombies’, the great George Romero, has passed away; and with that news the horror genre feels slightly darker…darker than usual of course.
George Romero has always been a staple in horror cinema, ever since he cemented his place there with 1968s Night of the Living Dead. Although Romero did have other work to his name around the same time as the aforementioned film, it was this picture that really defined him as a household name.
Made on a shoe-string budget of $100,000 Romero created Night of the Living Dead, a film that would influence countless other zombie films in the decades to follow, and began his iconic Dead trilogy. Trapped inside a farmhouse with a stranger named Ben, Barbara must band together with other survivors of the apocalypse in an attempt to fight off hoards of the undead. The film was praised for its character development in such a small setting and its use of practical effects, especially on the extras who were playing the ravenous creatures.
Before Romero brought his legion of reanimated corpses to the silver screen, his most frequently used antagonists were depicted fairly differently by his peers. They were portrayed by other film makers more as ‘voodoo’ inspired zombies that were being controlled by a witch-doctor or dramatic Hammer Horror villain; as seen in films such as White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. It was Romero who truly defined the monsters we know and love today, with their infectious bites and lust for human flesh.
After the success of his first film Romero began work on a second, one that would go down in history as arguably the greatest zombie movie of all time… that film was 1978s Dawn of the Dead. This time set in a mall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the story follows four survivors as they clear out the undead from said mall, block off the doors and await their impending doom. This second edition to Romero’s Dead trilogy saw everything from the first film being cranked up a notch, with the characters, setting, story-arc and make-up effects all coming together in this horror masterpiece. The latter was largely due to horror special-effects maestro Tom Savini, famous for his work on Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, whose artwork added an extra touch of realism to the film.
Other than spawning movies that shaped the horror genre, Romero has also been commended for touching on issues such as racism, sexism and consumerism throughout his work; something which was rarely focused on in early horror cinema. Some of the ways that he challenged these social norms of 20th century media was by writing strong female characters, often in lead positions and casting ethnic minorities as his heroes. In that respect he was giving a glimpse into the future of a more representative Hollywood that we benefit from today. As Romero said himself, “I always thought of the zombies as being about revolution, one generation consuming the next.”
Romero’s final film in his Dead trilogy was 1985s Day of the Dead. Some fans see this as the weakest of the trio, but it still ranked highly with critics and holds its own as an enjoyable zombie romp. This time adding an element of science fiction to the mix, a group of soldiers and scientists attempt to figure out the cause of the plague, and whether the undead’s humanity can be returned. The film ended the Dead series on an optimistic note, as one of the most famous characters of the trilogy (Bub the zombie) appears to have gained some of his humanity back.
Romero’s dabble with the undead did not end there, however. Throughout the years he continued to create more movies with the ‘…of the dead’ moniker attached to their title, such as Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, although not to the critical acclaim of their earlier counterparts.
As well as heading other horror classics such as The Crazies, Creepshow and Martin, he also dipped his hand into producing comic books with the release of Empire of the Dead; a series written by Romero and published by Marvel. This venture also saw the introduction of vampires to his universe.
With the announcement of yet another Day of the Dead remake it is abundantly clear that the influence of the masterful George Romero lives on through film makers and fans alike.
One can only hope he takes a cue from his own flesh-eating creations and rises from the grave to walk amongst us once more.