“Legendary filmmaker George A. Romero, father of the modern movie zombie and creator of the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead franchise, has died at 77,” reports Tre’vell Anderson for the Los Angeles Times. “Romero died Sunday in his sleep following a ‘brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer,’ according to a statement to The Times provided by his longtime producing partner, Peter Grunwald. Romero died while listening to the score of one his favorite films, 1952’s The Quiet Man, with his wife, Suzanne Desrocher Romero, and daughter, Tina Romero, at his side, the family said.”
“Made in Pittsburgh on a budget of $114,000, Night of the Living Dead made $30 million and became a cult classic,” writes Variety’s Pat Saperstein. “Influenced by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the black and white film about a group of people trapped in a Pennsylvania farmhouse who fall prey to a horde of the undead was said to be a critique of capitalism during the counter-culture era.”
Romero “put out five other zombie movies after a copyright blunder cost him millions of dollars in profits on his wildly popular first one,” notes Mike Barnes in the Hollywood Reporter. “Romero's 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead was made for $1.5 million and grossed $55 million. He followed that by writing and directing Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009), a decomposing body of work that earned him the nickname Father of the Zombie Film.”
“The zombies aren’t just reanimated corpses who can’t resist bum-rushing a Pennsylvania farmhouse,” wrote Eric Spitznagel in a profile of Romero for Vanity Fair in 2010. “They symbolize Cold War paranoia and homosexual repression and mainstream tensions about the counterculture and Vietnam War anxiety and a bunch of other stuff too, depending on who you ask. But whatever you think inspired them, Romero’s hippie-era zombies are undeniably the stuff of nightmares. Sure, they’re lurchy at best, and relatively easy to outrun if you just walk at a slow pace in the other direction, but something about their unrelenting ‘can do’ determination and flash mob–style team efforts makes them legitimately terrifying. There’s a palpable tension among the non-zombified heroes, a growing realization that doom is inevitable and the zombies will likely prevail in the end.”
In 2008, when Night of the Living Dead turned forty, PopMatters ran a series of “six articles that discuss issues related to race conflict and phallic control.”
Updates: “Night’s sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, took on a more comic and self-aware edge, with zombies wandering through a besieged shopping mall like mindless consumers,” notes Slate. “With Vietnam-era disillusion at its peak, 1973’s The Crazies followed protestors’ urging to bring the war home, with a madness-causing virus prompting the U.S. military to, in effect, act as an occupying army within their own country. Romero struggled to define himself outside the genre he created and become inextricably identified with: Fans swear by the modern vampire tale Martin, which Romero often named as his personal favorite, and Knightriders, about a troupe of motorcycle-riding Medieval reenactors.”
For Deadline, Dino-Ray Ramos collects tributes tweeted by Stephen King, Eric Roth, James Gunn, Max Landis, and more.
Joe Leydon recalls a screening of Night of the Living Dead in the 1970s: “The first time a group of the shambling undead appeared on screen, a shriek rang out from the darkness: ‘Don’t let them get me! Don’t let them get me!’ At first, I figured someone was goofing off, or encouraging some kind of audience participation. . . . But then it happened a second time. Louder. And a third time. Louder still. By that point, it was quite obvious that whoever was screaming was totally, unabashedly, nearly-scared-to-death terrified.” And “here’s the thing: None of the other people in the audience laughed when he screamed the second and third times. Come to think of it, as I recall, no one told him to shut the hell up, either.”
Last October, Glenn Kenny reported in the New York Times on the restoration “backed by, among others, the Film Foundation, the preservation nonprofit started by the director Martin Scorsese. . . . Reflecting on what Living Dead spawned, Mr. Romero said: ‘They aren’t really zombie movies; Night wasn’t really a zombie movie. I always understood zombies as living beings put under a kind of spell, as in I Walked With a Zombie or The Serpent and the Rainbow, that kind of thing. Our creatures, and the ones in movies such as 28 Days Later and World War Z, are the dead returning to life.’”
Updates, 7/17: Back in 2011, Catherine Grant posted one of her invaluable roundups at Film Studies for Free: “Undead Links to George A. Romero Studies.”
“Romero can be seen as a brilliant satirist,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “and I think his zombies aren’t so much like vampires or werewolves or the Frankenstein monster. They are the heirs of Jonathan Swift’s Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels, the grotesque human beings who cannot die, who are immortal, but without eternal youth, and just get older and more ravaged, and yet ever more malign and greedy in their unending old age. Both Swift and Romero had a brilliantly sharp and tactless sense of the hubris and arrogance in their own polite societies.”
“Romero, who honed his craft in the television advertising business in the early 1960s, was a self-made radical,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “In between zombie rampages, Romero found much more to say. The Crazies (1973) saw a peaceable rural community destroyed by the state twice over: first by incompetence (with the accidental release of a biological weapon) and then again by ruthlessness (the military pours into the infected zone to suppress the violent lunatics the weapon creates). And in the exceptional Martin (1978), a piercing parable of male delusion, a loner carries out a string of sickening attacks in the name of vampirism—though while he imagines himself as a debonair blood-sucker in the swoony gothic tradition, the reality is squalid and sad, and unnervingly defies established horror codes of conduct.”
“I haven't felt like I was crusading or campaigning with the films,” Romero told Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I don't feel like I'm preaching or trying to incite or anything else. I'm just trying to reflect my perception of what I see happening out there.”
In 2014, Arun Rath spoke with Romero for NPR. As for creating the modern zombie, “All I did was I took them out of 'exotica' and I made them the neighbors . . . I thought there's nothing scarier than the neighbors!”
“It’s one of the grand ironies of movie history that after the original disreputability of Night of the Living Dead, the notion of the-living-dead-as-metaphor evolved into a kind of rarefied kneejerk critical/fanboy gospel, one that cast its shadow over the entire zombie genre,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “What kicked it up to major levels, of course, was Romero’s second great zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead (1979), a sequel done in deluxe candy-apple color, and as fully conscious of what it was up to as Night of the Living Dead, a decade earlier, had been only semi-conscious.”
“A mature adult may find it hard to fantasize seriously about learning he was born on Krypton or inventing an Iron Man suit,” writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. “But who hasn't done a mental inventory of the kitchen and the tool shed and wondered, How long could I survive if it all hit the fan? And how exciting would it be to try?”
“Spending a few days watching the shooting of Knightriders, George A. Romero’s follow-up to his breakout 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, was something I’ll never forget,” writes Anne Thompson. “Basically, Pittsburgh was to Romero as Baltimore was to John Waters: the local auteur’s home and sprawling movie set.”
Also at IndieWire, Eric Kohn presents “an overview of the factors that contributed his legacy.”
“From the beginning, George Romero’s Living Dead movies have been at once mesmerizing, tantalizing, and oddly frustrating. One always has the sense that, beneath the surface shock/horror level, they are making a statement about . . . what, exactly?” asked Robin Wood in the January/February 2008 issue of Film Comment. Diary of the Dead had just been released. “Looking back over the five films, one is struck by an inherent contradiction: one cannot believe that they were planned as a sequence, each having its own individual characteristics (there are no carry-overs from one film to the next). Yet the more one reflects upon them the more one is struck by an inherent logic in the overall structure, a logic confirmed by the remarkable new film: the first four in the series cover and demolish, systematically, the central structures of what we still call our civilization, establishing Romero as the most radical of all horror directors.”
From Bilge Ebiri: “Romero was the cover story of the April 23, 1979 issue of the Voice, in a lengthy profile written by Tom Allen on the eve of the release of Dawn of the Dead; we’re sharing that in its original form.” He also points us to the interview with Romero that Simon Abrams conducted for the Voice last November, the occasion being the new 4K restoration of Night of the Living Dead: “I’m telling you, man, it was completely guerrilla stuff.”
“For a golden few years,” writes Tim Lucas, “there in the first half of the decade when home video boosted his celebrity, Romero seemed to be having his cake and eating it too. Knightriders (1981) in particular, made well in advance of ‘Ren-fests’ becoming a thing, showed that Romero could deliver a disarming, moving, multi-tiered story outside the horror genre; it's a film that speaks beautifully to its disenfranchised, post-Woodstock generation while also celebrating the creative, mobile lifestyle that Romero worked to pursue. It's a film that he looked back on, with Martin, as his best.”
“It was not a lucrative corner of cinema when Romero made that first film, originally called Night of the Flesh Eaters, for only $114,000,” writes Ryan Gilbey for the Guardian. “But even now, its haunting black-and-white cinematography (modelled on Orson Welles’s Shakespeare films), detailed makeup and ingenious suspense lend it a chilling seriousness. ‘I wanted that stuff to look like newsreels, everything from the race riots in the south to police coming out with dogs,’ Romero said. ‘I wanted it to look like all-American crisis footage.’”
“Land of the Dead (2005) is, at every moment, a jaw-droppingly audacious film,” wrote Adrian Martin for desistfilm in 2013. “In fact, it is Karl Marx’s Capital on the multiplex screen.”
Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com on Diary of the Dead: “Recasting his mythos for the YouTube generation—going so far to do it as a found footage exercise—may have raised some eyebrows but rather than being just a cynical exercise, this could be seen as Romero’s most nakedly autobiographical film in the way that it starts with a bunch of people just setting out to make a horror film and ending with the sight of an ambitious filmmaker locked away in a room with nothing else to do but piece together a zombie movie.”
“Outside of the zombie works, one would be remiss to not note Romero’s work with Stephen King on Creepshow and Creepshow 2, two of the finest horror anthologies of the ‘80s, in a decade that was rife with them,” writes Jim Vorel for Paste.“In the end, the legacy of George A. Romero is borne out in the legion of creatives that he inspired. The ‘80s zombie movie boom in the U.S. was the harvest of nightmares that were planted in the minds of young filmmakers who caught Night of the Living Dead at midnight showings across the country. The Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci could not have been possible without Romero to show the way. Even the modern zom-com, from Zombieland to the Romero-named Shaun of the Dead, follow directly in his footsteps. There’s no other type of ‘monster’ so indelibly associated with one, singular man.”
“It’s fair to say that without George A. Romero, I would not have the career I have now,” writes Edgar Wright, who recalls that, while he was working with Simon Pegg on the British comedy Spaced, they “were both obsessed with Dawn of the Dead and George’s work.” Later, of course, they “had this wild notion of making a film that took place in George’s universe.” Once they did, they made sure that Romero would get a private screening of Shaun of the Dead. “I remember standing in my flat in Islington when I got the call from him and he couldn’t have been warmer and kinder about the movie. I remember him saying that it was ‘an absolute blast.’ That indeed became the sole poster quote for the movie in the United States.”
The New York Times’ A. O. Scott and Jason Zinoman begin their discussion of Romero’s work with, naturally enough, Night of the Living Dead. For Zinoman, “what was and remains truly unsettling is the violence of the white law enforcement toward the black hero, played by Duane Jones. No horror movie seemed to take on racism with as much visceral force, until this year, with Get Out. And Mr. Romero’s movie is even bleaker.”
Scott: “I’m glad you mentioned Get Out, because that movie and some other very recent horror films—like Trey Edward Shults’s lean, cheap and super-scary It Comes at Night—highlight both the influence, and the prescience, of Night of the Living Dead. A few years ago, when I did a Critics’ Pick video on Night, I hinted that the Jones character’s death could be read as a prophecy of Barack Obama’s presidency: A calm and competent African-American saves the white people from their own rashness and stupidity (as well as from zombies) and is destroyed. Now, of course, the prophecy seems all the more chilling.”
Also for the NYT, Erik Piepenburg writes up a list of “5 George Romero Films to Remember.”
Updates, 7/18: Along with a repost of Wright’s piece, the Guardian talks with Alice Lowe (Prevenge), John Landis, Ben Wheatley, and World War Z author Max Brooks about what Romero’s meant to them.
The Talkhouse Film gathers appreciations from filmmakers Lloyd Kaufman, Larry Fessenden, Jeffrey Reddick, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Emily Hagins, Rodney Ascher, Calvin Lee Reeder, Clay Liford, and Nicholas McCarthy, while RogerEbert.com has posted tributes from its contributing writers.
Kim Newman “once wrote that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was one of the three most important and influential horror films ever made. The others are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Since then—despite being the rank outsider, thanks to its lowly, handmade, non-Hollywood status and spotty, complicated distribution history—it has assumed prime position in that triptych.” And Sight & Sound’s also posted James Blackford’s interview with Romero, conducted in 2014.
“The best way to remember him, I think, is not as the man who made the most seminal of all horror movies, but as the filmmaker who captured the dark side of the 1960s the most indelibly,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “George Romero belongs not in the company of splattermeisters, but of visionary satirists. He taught us what genre can do—and we’re still learning from him.”
“Just a few days before his death, he was unveiling early details about his next project, George A. Romero Presents: Road of the Dead, which he gleefully pitched as ‘The Fast and the Furious with zombies,’” notes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Whatever the fate of that in-the-works project, and the surely innumerable zombie movies and entertainments still to come, there is something pleasing about the idea that we still haven’t seen the last of George Romero.”
“Romero planned to produce the zombie movie, and even had plans for four more films, according to Matt Birman, Romero’s longtime collaborator who is still attached to direct Road of the Dead,” reports Graham Winfrey. “’I will stop at nothing to get them made! For him and with him,’ Birman said in an email to IndieWire.”
“The chiaroscuro bleakness of Night of the Living Dead is just as resonant today as it was in 1968,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “Romero will always be remembered for making movies about the undead. They should also be remembered as messages to the living.”
For Brent Staples, writing for the New York Times, Night is about “how mutual contempt and tribal self-interest so often prevent people from banding together in the face of a mortal threat. The flesh-eating dead, at least, come together in mindless self-interest. But the embattled residents of the farmhouse bicker and betray one another even as the darkness closes in.”
Along with Sean Axmaker’s 2005 interview with Romero, Parallax View has posted reviews that originally ran in Movietone News: Robert C. Cumbow on Dawn, Martin, and The Crazies, and Kathleen Murphy on Land.
NPR has posted excerpts from Terry Gross’s 1988 interview with Romero. And at Little White Lies, Matt Thrift presents “a previously unpublished interview with one of horror cinema’s true masters” conducted in 2013.
Updates, 7/19: Nicholas Rombes on Night: “Although its legacy up to this point has largely rested on the powerful ways it disrupted and changed the course the horror genre, its other, less-commented upon legacy involves its DIY production and aesthetic. It was punk before punk. . . . It was homegrown. It was fun. It was anarchic. It imagined NO FUTURE.”
Romero “was a first-rate gorehound,” writes Matt Prigge at Metro US. “He was also a first-rate satirist, a first-rate independent filmmaker, a first-rate chronicler of humanity at its worst and its best. He was the Mark Twain of horror.”
“Romero had trouble finding room for himself in the world he helped create, often going years between projects and seeing his own return visits to the zombie genre get overshadowed by the projects he inspired,” writes Keith Phipps at Uproxx. “Romero created something remarkable then sometimes struggled to escape its shadow. And while it’s tough to find an obituary without zombies in its opening line—which is appropriate—it’s worth remembering that for Romero zombies became a means to an end, a way to talk about some deeper horror that we didn’t want to face. His films kept coming back to the notion the monsters weren’t coming for us, they were here. They were us. With Martin he came closest to saying it out loud.”
Writing for Slate, Caetlin Benson-Allott agrees: “Many consider Dawn of the Dead to be Romero’s masterpiece—and it is brilliant work—but the film that best encapsulates his unique contributions to film history is Martin.”
At the A.V. Club, Katie Rife argues that “without Romero, not only zombies, but independent filmmaking in general, would look very different.”
Updates, 7/20: John Carpenter tells Variety’s Pat Saperstein that Night “gave hope to those of us in film school that it was possible to make a low-budget movie and get it on the big screen.” Romero “was sort of a guy out of time, kind of a bebop guy from the ’60s. He was so much fun; he loved movies. We hit it off together.”
Mark Jacobson, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Esquire, and New York Magazine, was also an extra in Knightriders. And he’s got a few great stories to tell at Vulture.
Longreads has put together a collection of “some our favorite writing about the terror of the living dead.”
Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso has posted an interview he conducted with Romero in 2008.
Update, 7/22: “Romero’s use of zombies as stand-ins to criticize American culture was always blunt, whether it’s Night unveiling the accepted racism of Jim Crow-era America, or the ’80s consumerism predicted by Dawn,” writes Rick Paulas for the Awl. “So, what the hell are we to make of the nearly functional zombies in Land? Are they the lower-class, the ‘waste humans’ that have been around since America’s founding, exploited by the upper- and middle-class? Are they (we?) the Americans that are still too distracted by shiny things . . . to notice the growing inequality? Are we one vocal and inspirational leader away from collectively seizing power for ourselves?”
Updates, 7/25: “Romero also deserves special recognition for his influence on horror’s social turn,” writes James Rushing Daniel for the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, BLARB. “Beginning with Night of the Living Dead, Romero demonstrated that the horror film could dramatize social issues and do so without the pomp or pretense of prestige cinema. . . . Horror’s social turn arguably continues with what some have called ‘post-horror,’ convention-breaking, often politically-conscious horror films less concerned with terrifying audiences than with thematic development. The masterful Get Out (2017), It Follows (2014), Personal Shopper (2016), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), The Purge trilogy (2013/2014/2016), and many others, have tested horror’s aesthetic constraints and pushed the genre toward the direct examination of racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Romero’s influence is palpable here as well.”
On Monday, July 24, fans “showed their love by appearing as the walking dead at Romero’s open memorial in his adopted home city of Toronto,” reports Jason Nawara for Uproxx. “According to fans, friends, and reporters who visited the emotional but celebratory scene, the Romero family welcomed the passionate admirers with open arms.”
Those who read French will want to see Olivier Père’s appreciation.
Update, 7/29: Martin “remains an object lesson in how to make the most of a low budget, but more importantly it's a deeply emotional work, perhaps the most emotional in Romero's career,” writes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. “It confirms that Romero was one of the most sympathetic American filmmakers, in addition to being a great horror maestro.”
Updates, 8/1: “After watching and becoming obsessed with Dawn of the Dead,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com, “I wrote zombie short stories in class, I made it my goal to watch every zombie film ever made, taught a class in high school on their cultural importance to some of my friends, and have made two zombie films.” And he presents an audiovisual essay on Survival of the Dead, “not a film that looked or felt like anything else being made in 2009, and for that we should be grateful.” (11’37”).
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