Updated: Nov 12, 2020
George Andrew Romero 4 February 1940 16 July 2017
Zombies were a part of cinema lore before Romero and clearly are enjoying success after he has gone, but, he is considered the rightful father of the genre, even if he himself did not believe in the moniker.
Born in New York to George and Ann, Romero studied art and design at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh and made the city his base for most of his life. He formed a production company with friends after University that made commercials and short films before it funded the production of "Night Of The Living Dead" (1968). Like so much of what was to follow, "Night" was a series of cultural and social observations set against the backdrop of the apocalyptic rising of the dead. He defined the core rules of the genre, that the zombies were incidental to the plot, driven by cultural and social commentary. His debut became a cult classic. The claustrophobic horror of random strangers being trapped in a basement, a script which toyed with social expectations, a lead role given to a black man as water cannon and beatings were the norm on the streets; all filmed in a stark black and white that Romero wanted to evoke the news images of the time. Sadly, for Romero, the success did not translate to financial reward for himself, as the distributor renamed it and Romero's copyright did not extend to the renamed version.
It would be another decade before his second Zombie production was released. Not so much a sequel, as a further episode in the same perceived reality. He had made plenty of movies in the mean time, including Season of the Witch (1972) and The Crazies (1973), but it was Dawn of the Dead in 1978 that cemented his reputation. The film once again tackled a grand social theme with zombies interrupting the polemic. A devastating commentary on consumer culture, filmed in a Pittsburgh shopping centre through the night while the mall was closed to the public. The Zombie extras demonstrated a dedication and enthusiasm for their roles that was to become synonymous with Zombie productions. An assembly line of make up preparation and a competitive nature to get the extravagant wounds was fondly remembered by Romero. He spoke of the photo me booth in the Mall having done a brisk business with a constant queue of Zombie extras wanting to memorialise their image.
The film is often misunderstood by the younger generations of Zombie fiction viewers, often criticised for being boring. The film generates a different type of claustrophobia to the first outing. The protagonists carve out a materialistic paradise, secured against the hordes of living dead and slowly start to stupefy in their prison of mundane security. Lingering shots of Zombies gazing at Mannequins and characters enjoying the unfettered access to the trinkets of the modern age all set to a proto electro synth haunting and simultaneously derisory soundtrack generate a wanton desire in the audience for the chaos of post apocalyptic destruction. When the horror finally does arrive, it is at the hands of the living, not the dead. The 2004 remake failed to deliver the same nihilistic punch to the gut. Visually impressive and high tempo, it went for violence and horror over the subtle tones of critique Romero had woven his own opus around.
He returned to the genre with Day of the Dead in 1985 which once again tackled a cultural theme on a canvas of undead gore. A film that ostensibly studied the military industrial complex was originally imagined as something far more intense. The first draft of the film was driven to a climax that involved an inversion of the traditional messianic tale. A society that worshipped a man who had returned from the dead returned full circle to the new hope given by the tale of a man who did not return from the dead.
With the remake of Dawn and the emerging cultural fascination with the genre led by TV shows like The Walking Dead and the British romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead (a celluloid love letter to Romero) money and opportunity finally found their way to the Director and he wasted no time in producing three further chapters to his Zombie canon. Land of the Dead (2005) was set in the declining universe he had created previously, dealing with issues of political corruption and control before he rebooted his own timeline in Diary of the Dead (2007) where he wanted to return to a world were the Zombie playbook unfolded in front of characters who did not understand what was happening. Another astute commentary on the social mores of the time, it zeroed in on the rise of the youtube generation and gently demonstrated how and why people should not believe what they see on screen, predating the weary dismissal of prejudicial editing by a full decade. A final outing was made in Survival of the Dead in 2009, effectively a spin off from a brief character in Diary, but by this time the Master had well and truly been superseded by the proliferation of the genre. His apparent dismissal of the TV show Walking Dead as a "soap opera with an occasional Zombie" seems curious when his work is assessed.