It’s with shock and sadness that we have learned that George Romero has passed away, following a short battle with lung cancer. He was 77 years old.
His breakthrough film, Night of the Living Dead, accidentally spawned a genre – with the ghouls which he envisioned becoming our ‘zombies’ – not entities which had anything to do with the original connotation of the word, but rather unthinking agents of contagion – slow moving, inhuman, relentless. It’s perhaps difficult for us to appreciate that the zombie, with all its associated lore, stemmed from just one man and his work, but it did. Romero refined and developed his ideas for this new wave of movie monsters over his next two zombie films, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead – and the original ‘Dead Trilogy’ is now an integral part of horror film canon. But those films, as innovative as they were, would likely not have cemented such a following had they not also showcased Romero’s wry politicking, where we’re shown in vivid and often harrowing detail that it’s the humans who are the real monsters. Does it ever get easier to watch Ben’s final scenes in Night of the Living Dead? Or to witness what happens to ‘Fly Boy’ in Dawn? How would we behave if we were isolated survivors of something so cataclysmic? Would we wander back to the shopping mall, too?
A return to the zombie genre later in his career lacked the verve and the impact of his earlier work, with his later films Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead never attaining the same organic sense of social commentary, but people were delighted to see him working again after such a long hiatus. Still, it’d be incorrect to see him solely as ‘the zombie guy’ anyway, and would do him a disservice. The Crazies – which pre-dates Dawn of the Dead – is a great, manic film, and the underrated (and very subtle) vampire horror of Martin is a whole world away from the zombie genre. Whilst Romero’s filmography isn’t vast, he made enough films to show that he could indeed be versatile.
An affable, good-natured man, he wasn’t in the least fazed by many of the things which makes fans seethe today. When he attended Frightfest in 2005 for the Land of the Dead premier, someone asked him how he felt about his films being remade. Perhaps they expected a tirade, or at least some words on the lack of spontaneity in modern cinema, or so on. Romero just smiled and shrugged, pointing out that no one was taking his films away – they were “still right there on the shelf”. He didn’t feel that he had anything to be worried about, and that people would always have his films, as he’d intended them, for as long as they wanted them.
Well, for that we can be grateful now, though it’s shot through with sadness that we’ve lost yet another giant of genre, someone who has shaped fandom for so many of us for so long.
RIP, George A. Romero. You will be sadly missed.