Each year we inevitably have to spend some time remembering the people we’ve lost in the entertainment world, but no losses this year cut quite as deep as the death of George A. Romero, aged 77.
As far as horror goes, the granddaddy of the zombie subgenre is a name that only means brilliance. Just finding a new angle in the horror genre isn’t enough, there has to be true innovation, and with the passing of Romero, along with the loss of Wes Craven, we mourn the loss of horrors two biggest innovators. Looking back at Romero’s work, we can admire not just his incredible work within the zombie subgenre, but within the horror genre in its entirety.
Night of the Living Dead, There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, The Crazies, Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Knightriders, Creepshow, Day of the Dead, Monkey Shrines, Two Evil Eyes, The Dark Half, Bruiser, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead.
Not only are many of Romero’s horror films landmark works in the genre, but they consistently show what was so important about his style: the use of subtext. Romero started with his low budget horror film, but one that had real (pardon the pun) bite to it. Night of the Living Dead didn’t just create the zombie genre we love today, it also showed what the horror genre could do. The subject of the film is clear: our hero is Ben played by Duane Jones, a black man. The film makes no big deal of his colour, the fact that he is both calm and resourceful only makes him more of a hero, and the fact that Romero cast him because of his talent rather than anything shows his egalitarian views. Despite this, there’s no denying the power of our black hero being shot point blank at the end of the film, by gun happy hicks.
Moving forward, works like The Crazies would go on to explore the cruelty the military can commit to those they should be protecting. Infecting a small town with a toxin and then killing them when the time is right plays into the Vietnam-Cold War era fear that Romero had a disdain for. 1978’s Martin, a film about a boy who might be a vampire, or might just think he’s a vampire, is the first window into the effect works of fiction can have on their audiences, the sort of morality tale his contemporary Wes Craven would expand on in works like Scream and New Nightmare.
Romero himself would return to fiction as a means of corruption and correction in his Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half, but it’s in his zombie works – and The Crazies – that his flair for subtext shone best. In Dawn of the Dead, his magnum opus, Romero savagely blends the gore wizardry of Vietnam Vet Tom Savini and wry satire with his take down of consumerism. Again, a strong, competent African American is front and centre in the form of Ken Foree, but it’s the use of Herbert Chapel’s The Gonk song and Savini’s gore effects that turn it from genre entry to masterpiece.
Day of the Dead goes back to the themes of The Crazies with the military as a figure of suspicion. The lack of humanity in the character of Captain Rhodes is the one we are meant to despise, a Kurtz-style messiah who’s lack of humanity makes him easy fodder for the undead, while Sherman Howard’s zombie Bud is the one who we invest our emotions in. And of course we have a female character front and centre who is intelligent, bright and smart, as the actress who played her Lori Cardille herself stated “he could’ve made me this sexy little twit bouncing around with a gun – much more the sexual element. But he made her intelligent and strong. In fact, whenever I would try and make her a little more emotional, he would not allow me to do that.”
Moving forward, Land of the Dead is a comment not only on our violent vengeful attack on the Middle East post-9/11 but also on the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Dennis Hopper’s Paul Kaufman is a clear stand-in for Donald Rumsfeld, and Fiddler’s Green, the rich haven in which he lives contrasts with the poor ghettos. The trotting out of zombies for blood sport and funny pictures, as well as Kaufman’s callous treatment of John Leguizamo’s Cholo all have the smack of the current economic climate, while the use of fireworks to distract the zombies clearly calls on the shock-and-awe treatment of the invasion of Iraq. Then of course he returns to the themes of zombies being intelligent with Eugene Clark’s Big Daddy — who hunts Kaufman down, gathers hordes, and can think — ending up as, in many ways, the second protagonist.
Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a found footage film, is a comment on societies obsession with recording things that are serious. Our need to photograph and video atrocities, violence and death has only become worse since Romero made his film, but in a time when happy slapping was all the rage, a group filming zombies eating dead humans seems painfully realistic.
But Romero was more than his work, he was a great interviewee and storyteller, generous with his time and his standing in the film making community. He was a great supporter of rising directors and talent, singing the praises of talents like Sam Raimi, James Gunn and the like, and someone who had always enjoyed the company and work of Stephen King, and someone who never forgot his friends.
His legacy is felt across the horror genre. Greg Nicotero, who worked on the gore effects for Day of the Dead is one of the creative forces behind TV’s The Walking Dead, and Resident Evil takes much inspiration from Romero’s work as a whole. He was a big fan of Shaun of the Dead, giving Pegg and Wright cameos in Land of the Dead, he sang the praises of Army of Darkness, and of the work by Wes Craven.
His back catalogue is available for everyone, and when we watch the next zombie output on our screens there’s no doubt it’ll be in the debt of Romero.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.