There are some filmmakers who are so iconic, so important, and so beloved to me that I could write about them and their work endlessly. George A. Romero is such a filmmaker, and to celebrate his 75th birthday, I will now proceed to gush over him— one of the horror genre’s greatest heroes— and his achievements as I would on any other day, really. Because his films are not simply entertaining, and they’re not merely political, either: they’re both, and they’re more than that, too. They’re inventive and inspiring. They’ve become classic landmark moments in the birth and evolution of an entire subgenre. For all that and more, I do believe we have great cause to celebrate this man’s life and work.
It all began in the late 1960s, when Romero and nine friends decided to create their own production company called Image Ten Productions, and the rest is history—horror movie history, that is. With 1968’s The Night of the Living Dead, the zombie genre was born, or at the very least it was revitalized and reinvented. And, even if horror isn’t your thing, this film deserves a great deal of respect for the way it defied odds of all kinds; it was shot outside of Pittsburgh on black-and-white 35 mm film, on a limited, ever-dwindling budget. The blood was actually Bosco chocolate syrup, the body parts being eaten or exposed were often roasted ham or other various byproducts donated by one of the actors – who happened to also own a butcher shop.
And of course, there was a black man playing the hero in the film. Ben, played by Duane Jones, was seen as a controversial casting choice and the events of the film– particularly his death by gunshot wound when a posse comes around to kill the undead— would eventually to many an interpretation about the film’s main messages, from the Cold War to Civil Rights.
I could write about this film alone for pages and pages, but what is more exciting and interesting would be to trace its legacy, lineage, and influence— especially that which Romero himself has had on our culture at large. Almost every single subsequent zombie flick in his “of the Dead” series poured salt into the American psyche’s other open wounds: Dawn of The Dead (1978) was about consumerism; Day of the Dead (1985) was about flawed human nature more generally; Land of the Dead (2005) was about class disparity and class struggles; Diary of the Dead (2007) was about technology. Though only the former few have gone on to be considered horror classics, the latter few still matter because they prove that Romero might still have something to say—and that zombies are, perhaps now more than ever, the perfect way of saying it.
Zombies are more popular and prevalent in pop culture now than they ever were. Night of the Living Dead, inspired by horror and sci-fi greats in literature and film that came before, was considered too vile, violent, and sadistic when it was first released, but it went on to inspire whatever would come next in the burgeoning subgenre. I’ve heard Romero is not a fan of The Walking Dead— he thinks it’s a soap opera with zombies and it doesn’t focus on the zombies enough. Romero’s films do focus on the zombies but in a method way of exploring some bigger issues. And yet, there’s no denying that without Romero, this hugely successful series of comics and television would not exist. And The Walking Dead not the only cultural phenomenon of the zombie variety that owes its existence to Romero and his many thought-provoking examinations of the living by way of the disgusting and disturbing undead.
Though his “of the Dead” series is considered to be the true game-changer that’s defined his 50 year career, Romero’s definitely had some other films that are less noteworthy in comparison. There’s The Crazies (1973), another allegory via an epidemic, this time a contagious craziness meant to critique the Vietnam War and militarism. There’s Monkey Shines (1988) about a quadriplegic man whose trained helper monkey begins to develop feelings of rage. I enjoyed this film when I saw it, but it was a box office failure—it was also Romero’s first studio film, and its failure could be attributed to said studio cutting the film against his wishes. And, in 1982, there was Creepshow— one of my personal favorite films of all time. This Stephen King penned, comic book-inspired anthology is campy and wonderful.
The one thing all these films have in common is that many of us forget that Romero directed them. They often get lost in his filmography among all those metaphors, found gorily oozing out of the shambling corpses. That’s why I thought it was important to mention them. And, I think once we do remember that there’s more to Romero than just zombies—and that even if there weren’t, his zombie films are so culturally significant that that’d be just fine too—we find there’s so much about this man’s life and work that is worthy of admiration and celebration. So here’s to George A. Romero’s 75th birthday and to the timelessness of the horrors he has left us with.