To say George A. Romero made an impact on independent film would be a huge understatement, he was responsible for creating a whole genre of cinema and designing the very blueprint for how low-budget movies can be created. It was a business model that exploitation horror makers could follow for years to come and seriously cash in along the way.
The film that brought him to the attention of the masses was the unsettling Night Of The Living Dead, filmed in black-and-white, it was a tale of a group of people holed up in a rural American farmhouse, who have to defend themselves against a horde of zombified undead that descend upon the property hungry for human flesh! Romero’s first feature has long been thought of as an allegorical reflection of the violent and bloody Vietnam War that was being waged at the time of filming. His political and social satire would continue as a strong theme throughout his lifetime of films.
He was a particularly forward thinking director who never looked to conform to cinematic norms, we only need look at the hero of this piece Duane Jones, a black lead, quite uncommon for the time. Cast on the strength of his audition rather than the colour of his skin, a decision welcomed among times of Civil Rights unrest in the country and furthered by the fact Jones’ character stood on equal footing with his white comrades.
For it’s $114,000 budget the film grossed $30 million around the world, not a bad return for a debut to say the least.
Another of his films, an all time favourite here at The MALESTROM, is 1978’s Dawn Of The Dead. A not very thinly veiled attack on the consumerism that was swamping Romero’s country. Set around an out of town shopping mall, the protagonists here are trying to survive inside the shops, while the living dead return to worship at the altar of their beloved mall day after day, showing an insatiable desire to keep consuming everything or in this case everyone. Romero was rallying against the wild fire of greed that he saw spreading, taking aim at corporations and the lack of compassion within society. He was also blurring the lines as to who were our heroes, gone was the mild mannered voice of reason that was Jones in Night, replaced by a more vicious militarian, uncaring protagonists. In the third part of his zombie trilogy of sorts, we began to root for the zombies themselves.
Day of the Dead presented an even more post-apocalyptic vision of the world where it wasn’t clear which race was the most dangerous, the now dominant zombies or humans. Here scientists and soldiers hide in an underground bunker filled with tension, paranoia and the undead that they use for experiments. Suffice to say things get a bit messy down there as we get the revolution of the evolving dead, taking over from the human old guard.
Romero made plenty of other films during his career, including his personal favourite Martin, a postmodern take on the vampire movie which positioned the bloodsucker as an awkward young man that may be more dangerously delusional than Dracula. He also crafted a more recent second zombie trilogy, but none could live up to the heady heights of their predecessors, although a special mention should be given to Land of the Dead with Dennis Hopper putting in a great turn as the city’s ruthless leader.
In recent times the zombie genre has staggered to it’s undead feet again and has infected multiple films, video games and series’. Danny Boyle reignited the trend with his fantastic 28 Days Later, offering up the terrifying notion that zombies could give frantic chase to you rather than a sedate yet menacing lurch. Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead was pleasingly re-made in 2004 again using his theme of consumerism and zombified masses. We also saw comedic takes on the zombie horror with the likes of Sean Of The Dead and Zombieland (which features the best Bill Murray cameo ever). In gaming Resident Evil cornered the market in taking the fight to the ghouls, and on TV the popularity of series like The Walking Dead, Z-Nation and Fear The Walking Dead knows no bounds.
For all these wonders we have one man to thank, a man with vision, someone not afraid to make scathing political references on the troubled world that he saw around him. A true revolutionary in the world of film, a man who was the influence for horror’s transition into the mainstream, in turn re-shaping popular culture. A man who will always be synonymous with the living dead. George A. Romero, king of the zombies.
“I never get sick of zombies, I just get sick of producers.”
George A. Romero 1940 – 2017
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