We at Unbound Worlds were saddened Sunday to learn of the death of film director George A. Romero. He was 77 years-old, a victim of lung cancer. While Romero directed many movies —“Martin”, “Creepshow”, “Monkey Shines”, “The Crazies” — he was rightly celebrated as the godfather of the modern zombie.
Romero was not yet 30 years old when he and a group of friends finished 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Produced on a shoestring budget, the film depicted a group of terrified strangers trapped in a farm house besieged by the newly resurrected, hungry dead. The movie’s unflinching gore, claustrophobic setting, and smart script immediately set it apart from the schlocky vampire and werewolf films of the era, as did its monsters: somnambulant, anonymous killers driving by instinct alone. The film’s hero did, as well — perhaps even more so than anything else. “Ben”, the sole voice of reason in a maelstrom of panic, was played by an African American actor, Duane Jones.
Casting an African American as the protagonist in a horror film with an otherwise all white cast was a bold move at the height of the Civil Rights era, but according to Romero, Jones was cast simply because he was the best actor who showed up for the audition. Nonetheless, Ben, as an African American character, gave the story a deeper resonance than it would have otherwise had — particularly when it arrived at its bleak conclusion.
Romero continued to use his zombies to explore social issues throughout the film’s sequels. The second film in the series, 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead” was a spot-on satire of mindless consumerism, with the film’s protagonists whiling away their days in a fortified shopping mall. “Day of the Dead”, released in 1985, was a critique of the military industrial complex.
While it’s hard to imagine now that there was a time that zombies weren’t part of the cultural zeitgeist, these three movies were very much cult films. However, a new generation of writers, artists, and filmmakers who had cut their teeth on Romero’s great trilogy were coming of age, and they would drag zombie horror out of the shadows and into the light of day.
John Skipp and Craig Spector’s 1989 anthology The Book of the Dead would become the Patient Zero of the modern zombie revival. An anthology of short works set in Romero’s zombie apocalypse, Book of the Dead featured a foreword by the director himself, along with offerings by Stephen King, Robert McCammon, David J. Schow, Joe R. Lansdale, and many other top writers. The collection proved to be enormously influential, and was followed by second volume in 1992.
By that time, a Romero-inspired comic book had already joined the scene, Stuart Kerr’s Deadworld, along with no small number of movies — “Night of the Living Dead”’s co-writer John Russo’s “Return of the Living Dead”, most prominently, and plenty of novels and other printed works.
The new millennium saw the release of three major works that would give Romero’s zombies the final push it needed to take their rightful place in popular culture. The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), a tongue in cheek collection of tips by former “Saturday Night Live” writer (and son of legendary comedic director Mel Brooks) Max Brooks, became a surprise smash hit. During the same year, the first issue of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series The Walking Dead arrived on shelves, and a year after that, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s affectionate spoof “Shawn of the Dead” hit theaters.
With zombies fully back in vogue, Romero returned in 2005 with “Land of the Dead” (Look for Pegg and Wright’s cameos early in the movie). It was followed by two more films: 2007’s “Diary of the Dead”, and 2009’s “Survival of the Dead”.
Meanwhile, Brooks had written a sequel to The Zombie Survival Guide. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) took Romero’s ghouls global. Instead of a straight-forward narrative, Brooks’ book was a collection of chronologically arranged first-person accounts of the zombie apocalypse by its survivors. Like Brooks’ first book, it proved to be a huge hit: the zombie novel that everyone seemed to be reading. A big budget movie followed in 2013, and by that time a hit television series based on Kirkman’s comic book had been on the air for three years. The age of the zombie had arrived, and by the looks of things, it’s not going to end any time soon.
Ironically, Romero’s career was more often than not overshadowed by the works it inspired. Even now, there are well-meaning fans of “The Walking Dead” and “World War Z” unaware of the director’s work, and the seminal role it played in the modern zombie mythos. For his part, Romero was more bemused than bitter, and remained humble.
In an introduction to his last effort, Nights of the Living Dead, an anthology of fiction co-edited with horror author Jonathan Maberry, the director wrote, “I can’t appropriately express how proud I am to be considered among the greats who came before. I have devoted my life to film, and in that way I can feel justified for the kudos I’ve received over the years, but the title godfather of the zombie genre seems undeserved. It came to me as a stroke of luck.”
Romero’s stroke of luck became our own. We owe him our gratitude for the horrific yet utterly compelling vision of the apocalypse that haunts the pages of books and comic books, the screens of our televisions and theaters, and, most of all, our nightmares.
George A. Romero photo: nicolas genin derivative work: Andibrunt [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons