Friday , 24 November 2017

George A. Romero, Father of the Dead, dies at 77

The world of horror has sadly lost one of its most legendary and influential artists. George A. Romero (the “A” standing for Awesome, actually, Andrew), director of the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead and its follow-ups, along with a number of other exemplary films, has died at the age of 77. While he may have been responsible for countless violent, gory deaths in his movies, Romero died peacefully in his sleep, accompanied by his wife and daughter, in Toronto, Canada, after a brief battle with lung cancer (don’t smoke!), whilst listening to the soundtrack from one of his favorite pictures, The Quiet Man. Romero also had two sons, but he gave birth to an entire world of film, television, comic books and more that centered on the dead returning to life to feed on the living.

Romero was born in the Bronx, NY in 1940, but he will always be associated with Pittsburgh, PA, where he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, and subsequently shot many of his films, including his first feature, after working on some shorts and commercials, 1968’s seminal Night of the Living Dead.  Shot in black and white north of the Steel City from he a script he co-wrote with John Russo, NOTD was a stark, bleak depiction of a world gone to hell, where reanimated corpses shambled around with only one thing on what was left of their minds – to gnaw on living flesh. While the notion of zombies had existed since the 1800s in West Africa, and later, brought to the Caribbean, in Haiti, where voodoo played a part, and they had even been shown on screen as early as 1932 in the Bela Legosi-starrer, White Zombie, never before had the dead been brought to life in such a horrific and blood-curdling way. The film broke many taboos – cannibalism, matricide, and though not originally intended, that of casting an African-American man in the leading role. Duane Jones was an inspired choice to play Ben, who takes charge in the farmhouse refuge with a band of other survivors, especially in the racially-charged time of 1968, with riots, Vietnam and the assassinations of MLK and RFK. While Romero himself was inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend, it cannot be overstated the influence Night of the Living Dead had on so many other works to follow. Remember, this was before The Exorcist (1974), Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978) and Alien (1979). It really helped to usher in a new age in horror, not only in film, but ultimately on television with everything from The X-Files to AMC’s massive hit, The Walking Dead.

After Night, Romero wrote or co-wrote, and directed, Season of the Witch (1972), a modern-day look at witchcraft, The Crazies (1973), about a deadly virus, and Martin (1978), an original take on the vampire tale, before returning to his prior success with his next gut-munching chapter, Dawn of the Dead (1978). As violent as Night was, Dawn took the blood and gore to a whole other level, in full living color. Taking place almost entirely within a suburban Pittsburgh mall, Dawn was Romero’s spin on consumerism, featuring Tom Savini’s graphic special make-up effects which shocked audiences with exploding heads, limbs ripped from their torsos and guts splayed across the screen. This Gore4-er remembers seeing this on the big screen for the first time, in 1979, as their first theatrical R-rated feature (actually, it was beyond R, as it was released un-rated), and almost walking out of the theater upon seeing the zombie woman bite off a chunk of her husband’s arm. Surely, this was more than anyone bargained for, but sticking it out till the end, and feeling drained afterwards, it was clear that the horror film would never be the same. The tagline, “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” was as chilling as the film itself, and today, Dawn of the Dead remains one of the greatest, and most unrelenting of horror movies ever made, and Romero’s ‘gore-de-force’.

Romero continued to do interesting work apart from the Dead films, such as 1981’s Knightriders, starring Ed Harris, the Stephen King-written anthology, Creepshow (1982) and 1988’s unnerving, Monkey Shines. Of course, there was also a return to Romero’s bread-and-blood in 1985 with Day of the Dead, a more claustrophobic, yet equally goriffic look at a world overtaken by flesh-eaters. This time, a group of scientists getting to the root, and brain stem, of zombiedom, clash with the military in an underground complex. It gave audiences its most nuanced and endearing zombie yet in the delightful, Bub. In the 90’s, Romero joined forces with fellow horror maestro, Dario Argento, on the Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, Two Evil Eyes (1990), and re-teamed with Stephen King once again in bringing his The Dark Half to life in 1993. After the unusual Bruiser in 2000, Romero returned to the living dead once again with the long-in-gestation, Land of the Dead (2005), the hand-held camera shot, Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). While none of these films are held in the same esteem as his first three zombie films (akin to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels), it was still a welcome homecoming to the sub-genre Romero had created.

Though Romero’s filmed output ended with Survival, he remained busy, lending his talents to videogames, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops (at one point, he was considered to make the first Resident Evil film), and writing a 15-issue miniseries, Empire of the Dead, for Marvel Comics. Most recently, he was working on a new filmed endeavor, George A. Romero presents Road of the Dead, which he co-wrote with Matt Birman, who would actually direct what Romero was calling, “The Fast and the Furious with zombies.” Upon Romero’s passing, it is hoped that this project will still see the light of day, and the darkness of a movie theater.

While we may have seen less and less of Romero’s direct work in recent years, there is no question of how prevalent his creations remain in many forms to this day. Remakes of his films include the Tom Savini-directed Night of the Living Dead, which Romero wrote and exec-produced, in 1990, to a new Dawn of the Dead in 1994, which was written by Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn and directed by Watchmen and Justice League helmer, Zack Snyder, and The Crazies, starring Timothy Olyphant, in 2010. The Dawn remake was a particular success, featuring fast-moving zombies, which Romero himself was not a huge fan of, but were nonetheless very effective. And of course, without Night of the Living Dead, we would never have had the more comedic films, Return of the Living Dead and Zombieland, the intense Resident Evil videogames and films, and the current television juggernaut, The Walking Dead, and it’s spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead,  along with countless other movies, TV shows, games and comics. As popular as zombies are today, it wasn’t long ago that they remained a cult favorite. Though Romero indeed inspired all who followed in his path, he never achieved the massive success with his Dead films in the way that The Walking Dead has today. Perhaps the time was just right now as we may be headed for a post-apocalyptic world ourselves what with climate change, the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation or even a rogue asteroid or comet.

Again, though George’s output saw a decrease in his later years, he managed to connect with many a lucky fan who got the chance to meet the master at his frequent convention appearances. Chiller Theatre’s Kevin Clement remarked at how traffic on the NJ Turnpike was backed up for miles thanks to George’s first time at a Chiller, in East Rutherford, NJ, describing it as ‘the Woodstock of Horror.’ George stayed well past the bewitching hour signing autographs, a testament to how devoted he was to his fans. As can be seen in the photo above, he was loved by those both old and young, like 4-year old Brighid Macchia, who brought the Demonspawn Baby her mom, Stacey, had made for her to show him at Chiller. Upon asking if she could be in one of his zombie films, George replied, “Come see me in a few years!” The smile on George’s face says it all.

The influence Romero had on so many others can be seen in the multitude of tributes offered up by his peers. Stephen King said, “there will never be another like you.” Eli Roth found it “hard to quantify how much he inspired me; what he did for cinema.” Horror fan and producer, Slash, in referring to Romero, wrote, “Trailblazer is an understatement.” And Rob Zombie declared, “All the zombies owe him everything! He was the master.” It’s difficult to imagine the world without Romero in it or what it was like before his films entered the public consciousness. His Dead movies unfurled like nightmares that became all to real. This Gore4-er will never forget watching Night of the Living Dead in the family room one evening while my mom was in the kitchen with some other family members when the newscasts in the film depicting the horrific events could be heard. I called out to my mom, “are you hearing this, what’s going on?” My dear mom, God bless her (she’s still around), listened and answered, “no, that can’t be,” as Romero’s talents made her almost believe such a ghoulish scenario could be occurring for real. Romero once told NPR, “I have a soft spot in my heart for the zombies. They are multipurpose, you can’t really get angry at them, they have no hidden agendas, they are what they are. I have sympathy for them.” It was instilling these ideas and feelings into his living dead which helped make his work resonate so much with his fans. His zombies weren’t monsters, they were us, and oftentimes, we were the monsters. Thank you, George. Long live George A. Romero, and long live the dead!!!

— tribute by Brian de Castro

7 comments

  1. Dave (The Rave) Mele

    In light of the overwhelming success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, it’s easy to forget that it descended from the cultural foundation laid so remarkably well by the late George Romero. His zombie films, particularly Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, were rapiers to the stomach and hammers to the brain at the time of their respective releases. The destruction of the nuclear family, the erosion of cultural order, the futility of heroism, the emptiness of endless consumerism — these themes found remarkable expression in George’s more than capable hands. Considering all that’s followed it’s easy to forget what shocking cultural milestones those films were. Tragically, the man who birthed the zombie genre didn’t become the full beneficiary of its legacy. Fortunately, however, the films remain: dystopian masterpieces reminding us that we have met the zombie — and the zombie is us!

    • Dean " The Man" Schaefer

      Well said Dave the Rave. He will truly be missed and I will especially miss his humongous glasses!!!!! RIP. ZOMBIE MAN

    • Great words, Dave. Romero’s films may have punched you in the stomach with their gut-wrenching horror, but they also got you thinking with their underlying subtext. And Dean, those glasses were one-of-a-kind, much like the man himself!

  2. 'Walking' Ed Turner

    Nice tribute, Brian. Well said, Dave (The Rave). I, too, will miss George’s giant-screen-TV glasses, Dean “The Man”.
    And yes, George will be missed. He was an original influence in my horror film-watching and my love of the genre. I first saw “Night of the Living Dead” when it was first aired on late-night TV on ABC Channel 7, in 1972-73. I knew of the film before that — my older brother had told me that it was the scariest movie he’d ever seen. My older sister had seen it in the theater, on a date — she used to come home from her dates after a movie and tell me all about the films, in detail. So, I knew much about NOTLD well before seeing it (except for the shocking ending… That, I didn’t see coming!) My younger brother and I were scared to watch it when it aired, but we were determined to see it. It was somewhat edited, and during the TV news broadcasts in the film, ABC felt they had to put up disclaimers at the bottom of the screen to say it was not a real news broadcast, fearing it would cause some sort of Orson Welles-type of public panic. I couldn’t get the movie out of my mind for weeks, especially at night. It was still a time of life when movies could scare me. But, I loved it.
    I could go on telling stories for seeing each of George’s original “Dead” movies, but it would fill this comment section too much. So, let me say that George was one of the Titans, yet I don’t think he ever knew it. He was a big guy, but modest and humble. I wonder if he ever had any idea of just how much he was idolized and revered. He had to have seen how much he was emulated — from Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” and Simon Pegg’s “Shaun of the Dead”, to, as you mentioned, Brian, the high-tech “Resident Evil” and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Of course, “The Walking Dead” is, without a doubt, George’s grandchild. I will miss his presence in the world. He scared the pants off me, and I delighted in being scared. But, George isn’t really gone — like the living dead that he created, his films, his inspirations, and his influence, will never die.

    • Ed, that’s a great comparison, to Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Romero instilled a level of realism to what were extraordinary circumstances and that helped to reel you into his story. And I do think he knew how loved he was by the horror community and beyond from his many convention appearances with lines around the block of fans wanting to meet one of their heroes. Just look at the expression on his face getting a kick out of one of his littlest fans.

  3. Wow. Can’t believe he’s gone. I’ve been a fan since I first watched NOTLD on TV when I was a young child. My Mom told me the story about how she and my Dad went to a double feature at a drive-in, and NOTLD was the second shown. They didn’t know what to expect, and she became quite ill after eating pizza…. guess she didn’t have the stomach for it….hahaha.
    I was too young to get into the theater to see DOTD because of the rating, but you bet your butt I saw Creepshow as soon as it was released! Discovering Knightriders was a total joy for me. I am primarily a horror fan, but RenFaires and motorcycles rate pretty high with me as well. DayOTD holds a special place in my heart as the first Romero zombie film I got to view on the big screen.
    My little Ghoul Brighid, pictured above, is just as much of a Romero fan as I am. Zombies are her thing. She took to him as she would her grandfather, chatting his ears off. Each time I had the pleasure of meeting him, he was warm, sweet and very approachable to his fans. Nothing but love for this man.
    Thank you George, for providing such colorful family entertainment that also serves as social commentary to spark some pretty interesting conversations. Your presence will be missed. Your films will continue to be watched in our home.
    Thank you Brian, for a very eloquent and fitting tribute to The Godfather of The Living Dead….and Fluffy.

    • Brian de Castro

      You’re like so many people who remember when and where they first saw different Romero films, and the special place they hold in our hearts. Thanks for letting us use your delightful pic of your daughter and George. It really epitomizes the love he had for his fans and vice versa.

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