Legendary film director George Romero has died, following a battle with lung cancer. He was 77. Romero was the master of modern horror, and through his Living Dead films, he established the tropes and form of the zombie genre as we know it today.
Like so many of the greats of independent cinema, Romero started out as a commercial director. His first paid gig was directing segments for the children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood; he used to joke that an episode about a tonsillectomy was the scariest film he'd ever made.
But it's the zombies we know him for. Romero made his essential classic
Night of the Living Dead
in Pittsburgh on a budget of $114,000. Released in 1968, the film made $30 million at the box office and established the modern zombie genre. Romero and co-writer John Russo took an old horror beastie and transformed it into a malleable parable that could adjust itself accordingly to the prevailing paranoias of the age. "All I did was I took them out of 'exotica,' and I made them the neighbors," Romero once said of the monsters that came to define him. "I thought, There's nothing scarier than the neighbors?"
Night of the Living Dead arrived at a time when American idealism was starting to sour. The momentum of post-war progress and the hope of early 60s counterculture had all but evaporated in the year of the Watts riots and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The film was a potent piece of speculative satire: a low-budget, tightly scripted horror film that posited as its protagonist a young black professional (played by Duane Jones) who struggles to navigate the neuroses and hysteria of his white counterparts while fending off an undead horde. The film's closing moments, in which (spoilers) Jones is "mistakenly" shot by the police cleanup crew, remain one of the most stinging incidences of irony in cinematic history.
Night of the Living Dead released a beast, and Romero became Mr. Zombie. Each installation in the series became an evisceration of contemporary America: Each film was an anti-consumerist screed against a society atomized by greed, corporations, and prejudices. Dawn of the Dead (1978), arguably the most seminal film of the franchise, has its characters scrounging for survival in a desolate shopping mall. Day of the Dead (1985) is a wry look at the industrial-military complex and its willingness to gamble with people's lives.
Romero was a prophet of American decline. Most of his films were made in Pittsburgh, a prescient setting for the decomposition of the American dream. Ultimately, Romero used the Living Dead films to showcase his brilliance as a genre auteur, while darkly skewering the blind corporatism that was so indifferent to society (and his films) at large.
Even after the success of Night of the Living Dead, Romero struggled to fund his projects. Image Ten, his production company, operated with an outsider mindset, and therein laid a lot of Romero's artistic success and commercial failings. His 1973 films Season of the Witch and The Crazies struggled to find distributors and a wide release, even though they reiterated Romero's idiosyncratic brilliance.
Romero remains a beloved cult icon because of his refusal to bend to industry tastes. As the creator of arguably the most-profitable genres of all time, Romero could have churned out less politically minded zombie films until the end of his days and been comfortably consumed by the system he was so fond of lampooning.
Instead, his career is one checkered by bold experiments that startle with their daring objectives, if not their consistency. Martin (1978), Romero's first collaboration with gore master Tom Savini, was a postmodern takedown of the vampire romance. Romero's personal favorite from his filmography, Martin was seized and confiscated in the UK under section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act.
Other films outside the dead-verse include Knightriders—a film about jousting bikers—and Romero's brilliant collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow. In 2000, Bruiser marked his return to directing after 1993's The Dark Half, which carried all the hallmarks of a shocking Romero creeper.
Romero's influence supersedes his films and their medium. His influence on John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Jonathan Demme (Romero cameos in Silence of the Lambs), Eli Roth, Zack Snyder (who collaborated with Romero on the Dawn of the Dead remake), and countless others cannot be understated. He established the beats and structures of one of the most popular genres. It has bled beyond horror movies—has escaped like the unshackled self-aware zombie trope into the popular conscious.
And Romero was proud that his influence reached beyond cinema. He collaborated with comic and video game creators because he respected the reverence in which they held him. Though he did describe the TV version of The Walking Dead, a show that cribs heavily from his playbook, as "a soap opera with a zombie occasionally." Romero was preternaturally humble and wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Everybody asks Stephen King how he feels about Hollywood ruining his books, and the first thing he says is, 'The books aren't ruined. Here they are, on the shelf behind me.' I sort of feel the same way. My stuff is my stuff. Sometimes it's not as successful as some of the other stuff. But it's my stuff." He died beloved surrounded by family, listening to the score from John Ford's 1952 Western The Quiet Man—truly a cinephile to the end.
Follow Patrick Marlborough on Twitter.