Whenever I see a film in which the characters are watching Night of the Living Dead – the breakthrough work of the late, great George A Romero – it inspires very mixed feelings. Such scenes are fairly common in modern horror (see Sinister 2 or XX), and on the one hand they seem a nice way for the filmmakers to doff their cap to the film to which the contemporary genre owes so much. However, such scenes also make me angry, from knowing that the filmmakers seized the opportunity to utilise iconic footage without having to pay a penny, due to the lamentable fact that Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain.
It’s a bitter sting that a tiny oversight – the accidental omission of a copyright notice under the title, as was legally required at the time – has meant that Romero received no residual payments from Night of the Living Dead, leaving any distributor with the right to reproduce the film as they see fit, and any filmmaker with the right to use the title, the premise, and of course any footage from the film, completely free of charge. A high price to pay for a rookie mistake, particularly one for which neither Romero nor his crew may have been directly to blame (read more on the matter here).
It’s long been argued, quite rightly, that on top of giving birth to a whole new subgenre of horror and indeed playing a key role in revitalising the genre en masse, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead also rewrote the rule book for filmmaking on an independent level, demonstrating that films could reach a wide audience and make big money without having the Hollywood majors involved. We can easily say that Romero’s career set in place a blueprint which, by accident or design, many others would follow in the almost half-century since; but that includes both the good and the bad, which in a sad way the tarnished legacy of NOTLD serves to underline.
As recently as two weeks ago, Romero was lamenting his inability to get new movies off the ground whilst others squeezed the juice from the fruits of his endeavours. Whenever such remarks emerged, it was hard not to at least partially write them off as the grumblings of a crotchety old man; his dismissal of The Walking Dead feels especially cutting, given the association of his old friend and collaborator Greg Nicotero. Nor did it help that Romero’s final films showed the old master losing his touch; I for one will always defend Land of the Dead (yes, it’s glossy and mainstream-friendly, but it’s great fun and still has that sharp satirical edge of Romero’s best work), but Diary of the Dead was quite possibly the worst cinematic let-down I’ve ever experienced, and after hearing nothing good I’ve never had the heart to watch Survival of the Dead.
Despite all this, it was never hard to see where Romero’s complaints were coming from. Hollywood would remake films with his name on them (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Crazies), and they’d trade in on the iconography he created (literally any modern zombie movie you could mention), and yet they wouldn’t fund the films he himself wanted to make. Phil Nobile Jr at Birth Movies Death notes that in the 1990s – a decade in which Romero’s only directorial credits are Two Evil Eyes (1990) and The Dark Half (1993) – the filmmaker was “paid more to develop projects that never happened than he was ever paid to actually make all his other films put together.” On the one hand, we might say that’s nice work if you can get it. When I had the good fortune of seeing and briefly meeting Romero in person at New York Comic Con in 2006 (yes, that’s me with him below), I seem to recall him remarking in a Q&A that he couldn’t really complain too much about how the industry had treated him given how well he’d done financially. Even so, surely no artist wants to work on a project only for it never to come to fruition.
Of course, we can’t fail to note that after he finally got back on the horse with 2000’s Bruiser (a film I must sadly confess I haven’t seen to date), Romero went on to produce nothing but zombie material, both in his aforementioned latter-day Dead trilogy (Land/Diary/Survival), and the Empire of the Dead comics series. The question remains as to what extent the industry wouldn’t let Romero out of that reanimated corpse-shaped box, or whether he remained there by his own volition. I’m sure I can speak for many fans when I say that I found his apparent resignation to the title of ‘the deadfather’ really quite dispiriting, given the great work he’d done outside of the living dead: Season of the Witch is a flawed but fascinating blend of early 70s occultism and feminism (and a film which, in 2006, he said he was considering revisiting); Martin is one of the finest and most frequently overlooked of all vampire films; Creepshow is the best live action approximation of the EC Comics format that we have, not to mention one of the best films Stephen King has been involved with; and, while my feelings on Arthurian hippy carnival biker movie Knightriders are somewhat mixed, there’s no denying it’s a distinctive and unique vision.
We might consider the possibility that Romero’s latter-day difficulties with Hollywood were less to do with the filmmaker himself being pigeon-holed, and more endemic of the broader struggles faced by older directors in the contemporary marketplace; witness David Lynch’s on again/off again retirement from film due to his frustrations with the industry, or the fact that Martin Scorcese’s next film The Irishman looks to be headed straight to Netflix despite the ridiculous wealth of talent attached. Even so, it’s clear that Romero never had the desire or inclination to play the game, preferring to make his own films by his own rules. An admirable approach, and one which gave us several of the best and most influential horror movies of all time, which have inspired both the output and the ethos of countless scores of filmmakers since. Yet it’s bittersweet when we consider how much more Romero could have given to cinema, and how much more cinema owed him in return.