Minutes ago, literally minutes ago, I found out that George A. Romero died.
If, for some reason, you don’t know who he was, the simplest way of explaining it is to say that he was the guy who directed “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead” and dozens of other super-low-budget horror movies. But that’s kind of like saying Led Zeppelin was the group that did “Stairway to Heaven” – it’s technically accurate, but it leaves out about 95% of the story.
Just as Led Zeppelin spawned legions of musicians and bands who worshipped at the altar of heavy guitars, thereby creating the template for all hard rock music over the last 50 years, Romero invented the modern zombie movie. There had been zombie movies before, like 1932’s “White Zombie” 1955’s “Creature with the Atom Brain” and of course the all-time classic, 1959’s “Plan Nine from Outer Space.” But Romero took the rock-stupid concept of the zombie movie — the dead come back to life and start eating people — and turned it into a vehicle for vicious social satire, using it as a way to lob criticism at racism, consumerism, militarism, whatever “-ism” happened to be afflicting the nation at the time.
1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” was his filmmaking debut. Made on a budget of $114,000 and starring a cast of complete unknowns, it told the story of a small group of people holed up in a house in the Pennsylvania countryside, trying to repel an attack by flesh-crazed ghouls. In addition to its graphic violence, the movie also broke ground with its darkness and negativity. No one in the film survives who behaves heroically, selflessly or lovingly, a direct contrast to the way horror movie plots had always played out before that. Even the hero isn’t spared, pointlessly gunned down at the end by a member of a hillbilly posse.
It’s a grim, nihilistic horror movie, and while that’s so typical today that there’s almost no point in discussing it, it was new and unnerving at the time the movie was made. The hero had always gotten the girl, killed the bad guys and saved the day when you went to the movies before, but “Night of the Living Dead” defied all of those conventions. It mirrored the upside-down world of assassinated leaders, race riots and bad acid outside a lot of Americans’ windows, a full year before the Tate murders and Altamont made national headlines.
Romero went on to direct movies with bigger budgets and even produced a few masterpieces, “Martin” and “Dawn of the Dead” chief among them. But none of it would have happened without “Night of the Living Dead,” and without it, nobody would have known that if you see a zombie, you have to shoot it in the head and burn the body, if you want to prevent it from rising again and feasting on your warm brains.
Sadly, Romero lived long enough to see the zombie universe’s rules ignored, as the genre became entrusted to screenwriters who didn’t understand the rules that Romero had laid out:
- Zombies are slow-moving
- Zombies eat the living
- If you die during a zombie epidemic, you will become a zombie
- Movies depicting zombies should be unrated and super-gory
Honestly, that seems fairly simple and hard to fuck up, but in the 21st century, hack director after hack director made movies where the zombies could run, where their state was the result of a virus and where the zombies had no interest in eating anybody. Worse yet, some of them, like “World War Z,” were rated PG-13. Why not just piss in Romero’s face while you’re at it?
To honor the recently departed director, every one of these movies should be withdrawn from circulation and have the masters and negatives destroyed, and everyone responsible for them should have their Directors’ Guild credentials confiscated and set aflame. This will encourage future directors to play by the damn rules.
And so, we at The Z Review bid a fond and grateful farewell to one of the true masters. George A. Romero, we’re sorry you only got to walk the earth for a relatively short 77 years, but in that time, you created a whole new genre and stripped a layer of pre-code Hollywood bullshit away from horror films, to the point where “Martyrs” and “The Human Centipede” make horror fans barely bat an eye. And to his family, we say, “Shoot him in the head and burn the body,” lest he rise up to consume human flesh and create new zombie hosts.