George A. Romero passed away last month at the age of 77, following a brief battle with lung cancer. It is difficult to overstate how much an impact he made on the horror genre. His effects are still felt to this day, perhaps now more than ever. The current horror landscape would not exist without the talent and vision of George A. Romero.
George A. Romero was a true independent filmmaker, beginning his career making short films and commercials with his own production company, Image Ten Productions. One of his first jobs was making a segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Not only did he work on the show, but Fred Rodgers also saw and liked both “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead.” I just can’t find myself to imagine Fred Rodgers watching zombies devour human flesh and enjoying it!
Following his work on shorts, Romero decided to transition into feature films, making a movie that would create a genre – “Night of the Living Dead.” The independent production was made by Image Ten for $114,000. Up until that point, zombies were known in media as people put under the thrall of someone else by Voodoo. Romero redefined zombies as reanimated dead bodies attacking the living, despite the fact the word “zombie” is never once said in the movie. The movie is frightening to this day, filmed in an almost documentary style, making it seem all the more realistic.
The most interesting thing about this movie is not something that happened during production, but something that happened after filming. Originally, it was going to be called “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” but when Romero and his producers decided to change the name, the distributor forgot to copyright the new title. Due to this mistake, Romero received little to no profit from the movies massive success, and everyone is able to use the movie to make money, and there is nothing he can do about it. That is why you see so many different releases of the original “Night of the Living Dead,” the movie is in the public domain due to a stupid mistake.
There were no rights issues with the next two movies in his “Dead” trilogy, “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Day of the Dead.” I would say “Dawn of the Dead” is a horror classic. Featuring a group of people taking over and living in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse, Romero actually creates a rather epic horror movie, especially compared to the original with its single farmhouse setting, this sequel moves around, showing off a bit of the world in chaos before settling down at the mall until its exciting climax. “Day of the Dead” is a step down quality wise, but the make up effects are the best in genre history and have never been bettered in the decades since. With both of these movies combined with the original, Romero deservedly became a horror icon.
In the early 80s, Romero collaborated with horror icon Stephen King for a new project – Creepshow. It allowed him to bring his love for old school horror comics to the big screen. The success of Creepshow led to both a sequel and a televised horror anthology series called “Tales From The Darkside,” that was produced by Romero, which would become a movie in itself later in the decade. Creepshow was made in part to allow Romero to make a movie version of King’s novel, “The Stand.” The thinking was that if “Creepshow” made money at the box office, Romero would have the clout to make “The Stand” with a big budget and not many limitations. While Creepshow did decent business, it didn’t do well enough that studios came knocking down Romero’s door for his adaptation of “The Stand,” and the project died, eventually becoming a V mini series instead. Romero did end up adapting a King novel for the screen, with “The Dark Half” in 1993.
Romero wasn’t out of the zombie genre, either. In 1990, he wrote a remake of “Night of the Living Dead” that effects guru Tom Savini directed, and this time he actually made money off it. When “Resident Evil” took off in the late 90s, he directed a Japanese commercial for “Resident Evil 2” that made such an impression that Romero was asked to write a script for a “Resident Evil” movie that he would direct. In 2002 that project would be made, but by a different director with a completely different script. While this was happening, Romero wanted to return to his dead series and make a follow up to “Day of the Dead,” but found it difficult to get financing.
In the early 2000s, the zombie genre started to come back. This was jumpstarted with 2 movies in particular, “Shaun of the Dead,” which was a kind-hearted homage to “Night of the Living Dead,” and a remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” that was more a straightforward action/horror movie than the original. Both of those projects were successful enough that Romero finally got the financing and resources he needed to make a new Dead movie – “Land of the Dead.” “Land of the Dead,” while not up to the standards of the classics he made before, is a really good genre movie. Romero doesn’t waste the biggest budget he ever received and delivers the gore that we’ve come to expect from him.
“Land of the Dead,” while not a blockbuster, did well enough commercially and critically that he was able to make more dead movies including “Diary of the Dead,” and “Survival of the Dead.” I found both movies entertaining in their own way, but neither were up to the standards of the earlier films. While the resurgence of “Dead” movies was good for his career, Romero felt pigeonholed into the zombie subgenre since they were the only projects he could get financing for.
If you look at the current horror landscape, there is no way that it would without the contribution of George A. Romero. “The Walking Dead,” one of the most successful shows in the world, exists entirely because of Night of the Living Dead, and even beyond that, look at the countless movies and TV shows about zombies that have followed in its wake. It is sad that Romero didn’t make the large amount of money he deserved, but what he has left behind is a legacy of great movies with several that will be remembered as classics.