Paying Tribute, Long Overdue, to Horror Icon George A. Romero (1940-2017)

George A. Romero, the father of the modern movie zombie, passed away last night. Modern horror, of every stripe, has lost a Titan. A Titan who ultimately fell victim to the ubiquity of his own biggest, most successful idea.

Romero got his start directing commercials and short segments for TV, one of the earliest being one for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That adaptability and versatility stood him in good stead as he prepared to direct his first film. Released in 1968, Night of the Living Dead was Romero’s debut feature film and remains one of the all-time great horror classics.

The movie opens with a pair of siblings in a cemetery, visiting their father’s grave, and takes a sudden (now iconic) turn as they’re attacked by a mysterious figure. Only one, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) manages to escape, fleeing to a nearby farmhouse. Locked in with a group of strangers, she struggles to survive the night as reports come in of the dead rising from their graves across the country…

If you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead yet, I honestly envy you. It’s an astonishing movie that still seems fresh and relevant in spite of its years; it pulls no punches and has a sociopolitical undertone of racial tension that leads to a staggering, intensely grim finale. Ben, played by Duane Jones, is both the male lead and one of the most fundamentally decent people in the movie. He’s also black, unlike the rest of the cast, and the resulting racial tensions that intermingle with fear and paranoia run rampant are expertly, and terrifyingly, handled.

This combination of social issues and outright horror is a heady cocktail that the best horror cinema has continued to use to this day. Everything from Hostel to, most recently and successfully, Get Out, have used this model. If zombies are Romero’s most visible legacy, then the concept of using cinematic horror as a lens through which to examine humanity at its worst is his most versatile.

It’s certainly what makes Romero’s other zombie movies so compelling. Dawn of the Dead follows a group of survivors who take shelter in a shopping mall. It’s a triple threat: a brilliant expansion of the previous movie’s world building, an iconic “base under siege” movie that would define the sub-genre for decades to come, and a biting satire of consumer culture. Once you’ve seen it, a trip to the mall will never be the same again. (At the very least, you’ll always make sure you know where the exits are.)

Day of the Dead goes still further. With the world overrun by zombies, a group of scientists and soldiers clash over both how to survive and the ethics of experimenting on the dead. The scientist/soldier dichotomy is at the heart of a lot of great genre fiction but this is the first time it was centered so successfully, and so brutally, in horror cinema.

These three movies are essential texts of horror. They continue to echo in every piece of modern zombie fiction, especially on the big and small screens. 28 Days Later’s subversion of the trope only works because zombies never sprinted before that. World War Z, in print at any rate, only works because Romero gave Brooks the territory on which to draw his map. There is almost no zombie fiction, produced across the last five decades, that hasn’t been influenced by Romero’s vision.

And the tragedy is, the ideas that built on his foundations ultimately locked him out, leaving him out in the cold, creatively.

Romero’s later career was defined by a constant struggle to find funding for his projects. In an interview last year with IndieWire, he openly blamed the ubiquity of zombie fiction for his inability to get his movies funded:

Now, because of World War Z and The Walking Dead,  I can’t pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical. I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can’t. The moment you mention the word “zombie,” it’s got to be, “Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.”

Romero’s frustration is absolutely understandable. The concept that he effectively built into a pop cultural touchstone became a multi-million dollar industry in its own right that then pulled the drawbridge up in front of him. One of the architects of modern horror cinema, locked out of a structure he helped define. Even his eventual return to the “The Dead” franchise was a tacit acknowledgement that those movies were the only ones he could get financed.

The real tragedy of this is threefold. The Walking Dead, in particular, has explored the ideas that Romero created in genuinely new and interesting ways. It hasn’t always been successful, by any means, but pushing the envelope is never easy—something Romero himself knew very well. The idea of an episode written or directed by him is one of those incredible events we’ll now never get to experience. What’s deeply tragic, though, is that Romero ended his days feeling justifiably alienated from the work that he helped lay the groundwork for, carving out space in the cultural consciousness.

Then there’s the fact that Hollywood excels at revering its icons but—especially when it comes to genre—often fails to answer their phone calls. As Tor.com author and screenwriter Matt Wallace puts it, Romero should have been “The George Lucas of horror,” the eye of a creative storm that defined his chosen genre and gave him the freedom to do anything he wanted. The truth couldn’t be further from that, however, and the tragedy of Romero working simply to put money in the bank in his later years can’t be overstated. This was one of the all-time greats—a pioneer—and he was left behind.

That’s especially sad as Romero’s non-zombie work was just as good, if not better, than his most famous films. Both versions of The Crazies are great fun, for example, but for me, his most haunting work is Knightriders. A deeply eccentric movie about a motorcycle jousting club, it explores the ideals of heroism, the difficulties of leadership, and the points where both conflict with the messiness of the real world. Ed Harris and Tom Savini turn in especially great work but it’s the ending, and a subplot involving one character accepting that he’s gay, which carry the heaviest emotional punches. Again, if you’ve not seen it, do—it’s one of those films that haunts you in the best way once it’s done.

George A. Romero was one of the most important talents in motion picture history. He did incredible things for horror cinema and in return, horror cinema didn’t do anywhere near enough for him. He leaves behind a fantastic career and many excellent films to remember him by, as well as the nagging, inescapable sense that he—and through Romero, horror cinema itself—deserved so much more.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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