By Monte Yazzie
It's Halloween night, 2010, and the costumed kids were beginning to dwindle in the neighborhood. I remember repeatedly asking my wife throughout the evening to check the time. Why do I remember this evening so clearly? Because it was the premiere of The Walking Dead. In 2010, zombie pop culture was already bustling with popularity because of recent films like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Resident Evil (2002), and Zombieland (2009). However, it was a television show, based on a comic book, which would take zombies from genre fare to mainstream icons. Now, people talk about zombies the way they talk about Disney characters, in fact many people are both unabashedly fans of both.
But none of this -- all the films, television shows, video games, books, and toys -- is possible without one key element, an independent horror film made in 1968 called Night of the Living Dead directed by George A. Romero. While not the first film to establish the zombie mythos (that credit goes to the 1932, Victor Halperin-directed, Bela Lugosi-starring White Zombie), Night of the Living Dead is the most important zombie film ever made. It established the rules for the genre, the why and how zombies are the way they are. It defined that zombies eat the flesh of the living, that they are reanimated corpses, that they are immune to injury, and that the only way you can kill a zombie is to destroy its brain. It's a character mythology that has become so defined in the culture that going against it brings arguments from film fans, to the extent of having people ask in the description of a zombie film whether or not it's a "Romero-zombie". It also defined important aspects for the filmmaking process: specifically, what was possible for filmmakers, how one would make an effective movie on a budget, and, unbeknownst to Mr. Romero, how a genre story would garner social implications for the casting of an African-American man in the lead heroic role. It's undeniable that the world, not just the world of film, would look a whole lot different without George A. Romero's influence on it.
Birth of the Living Dead
The progression of Mr. Romero's career was predicated on the shoulders of Night of the Living Dead, but before his monumental movie, Romero's career started with short films and commercial work. With a group of friends, and inspired by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a horror/science fiction crossover that focused on a plague that turned humanity into vampire-like creatures, the director started a production company and began work on Night of the Living Dead. It's easy to see how these stories by Romero and Matheson resemble each other on the surface, but they also hold greater meaning when looking at the social commentary working underneath the monster movie characteristics.
What both stories imply is the notion of revolution; whether it be one man in Matheson’s novel or a group of people against insurmountable odds in Romero’s film, the world is trying to impart its influence by telling the people resisting to give into change. It seems all too perfect considering the social climate in the 1960's, that a film, let alone a genre film, would reflect some of the changes in the world. Though social implication, such as hiring an African-American actor, was never a direct choice by Mr. Romero but rather a choice to do what was best for his film. Actor Duane Jones was cast to play a role that was initially written from a Caucasian perspective. George did not change a line of dialog but left the role as it was written. It was a moment in cinema history that would have profound effect on the future of race in film. Night of the Living Dead was a success, though it would be ten years before Romero would revisit his zombie world with the horror classic, Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Romero's second film took a different turn, a romantic comedy turn, about a young man who returns home to Pittsburgh and meets an older woman who acts in commercials called There's Always Vanilla (1971). It's a film heavily influenced by the sentiments of the middle-class perspective in the 70's, specifically how the world was changing for middle-class people in America.
Merely a year later, Romero had another film in production, a horror drama involving murder and witchcraft called Season of the Witch (1972). Far less of a straightforward horror offering than more of a drama with horror elements, Romero again explored the world that he was familiar with, defining clearly that Season of the Witch was about feminism and women's rights, as opposed to the occult aspects it promotes to the forefront. If there is one thing clear about Romero's style as a filmmaker, it's that the director understands the power of genre film in storytelling. Season of the Witch is at times a balancing act, taking the melodramatic aspects of a lonely and neglected housewife looking to unleash her desires and pairing it with horror elements like witchcraft and dark magic. The horror here simply serves as a medium for Romero to allow his character to break free from gender stereotypes.
Mr. Romero kept his yearly film streak going, this time returning to something far more reminiscent of his first feature with The Crazies (1973), a film about a small town infected by a military biological weapon that turns people into crazed killers. Romero plays on the anxiety and untrustworthiness that Americans were having with the world, and the government, at the end of the Vietnam War. He makes it hard to recognize the bad guy here; is it the faceless soldiers in hazmat suits or the depraved victims attacking people they once knew? It’s easy to see the connection the filmmaker was trying to make. The Crazies is one of the highlights during this space in Romero's career.
These films after Night of the Living Dead led Romero towards two seminal films, one of which would go down in history as one of the greatest horror films ever made, Dawn of the Dead (1979). But before this, Mr. Romero patented his skills on the superb film Martin (1978). Taking place again in Romero's home state of Pennsylvania, Martin is a film about a young man living in the suburbs during the recession, who believes that he is a vampire. Still encapsulating his social concerns, though more subtle and refined than his previous efforts, Romero explores post-Vietnam themes of drug addiction, poverty, and the forsaken nature of the government against its citizens.
Martin is a film that shows Romero near the pinnacle of his skills. Here, the horror plays a stark contrast throughout much of the film. The violence is uncomfortable, and the progression of Martin's inherent need to be a vampire is never directly stated but left to the conclusion of the viewer. It's seemingly at this moment that the director begins to fully understand how to make his vision as a filmmaker and storyteller come to life, and also recognizing the role the viewer will play in transforming and interpreting film. You can feel everything that will eventually influence and define the structure of his masterpiece.
The middle period of Romero's film career is the most lauded and talked about. Dawn of the Dead follows a group of survivors who barricade themselves from the living dead inside a shopping mall. Romero’s film is bold and vicious, taking the special effects wizardry of Tom Savini and turning the violence into something gratuitous and comic. The story, at its core, concerns consumerism and the collapse of the American dream. The lumbering corpses aren’t necessarily the villains, they are merely operating within their nature. Instead Romero poses humanity as the depraved but also the righteous, the heartless but also the compassionate; these are the director’s most accomplished characters, which is why the film works on so many levels. Just as Romero changed the filmmaking game with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead changed what was possible within the genre of horror.
Romero would finish his “zombie trilogy” with Day of the Dead (1985), which shows humanity retreating into a subterranean bunker to escape the “ghouls” that have taken over the world. Humanity continues to devolve while the walking dead grow more aware. It’s far less of a raw experience or a socially relevant satire but instead an unnerving, uncomfortable character analysis. Romero proposes thought-provoking questions about what the future of the world would look like if the characters in the film were allowed the influence. It’s interesting to see how fitting this story would be today.
Between these two films also comes one of Romero's lesser talked about movies, but it's one of the best of his career. Knightriders (1981) gives the King Arthur mythology a modern take. Instead of horses, these knights ride motorcycles. It's an absurdist comedy that takes itself, like many of the director's films, completely serious. With a wonderful performance from future star Ed Harris in the lead role, the script tackles aspects of greed and stardom in the age before reality television stars.
The 80's and early 90's also allowed Romero an opportunity to collaborate with two iconic figures of modern horror: Stephen King with the anthology film Creepshow (1982) and Italian master Dario Argento with Two Evil Eyes (1990). Creepshow, based off the influential EC Comics books, would influence the world of horror and become the blueprint for anthology horror tales. Two Evil Eyes, adaptions of two Edgar Allan Poe stories, allowed Romero and Argento the opportunity to work on material from an author who was a significant influence on the work of both of the directors.
Mr. Romero's career wasn't without some hardships, as the director had a difficult time working within the studio system. Films like Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993) had studio interference that altered, changed, or ran out of money to support the vision that the director was trying to achieve. Even the smaller, independent film Bruiser (2000) found issues and was subsequently released straight to video.
The Dead End
In the end, Mr. Romero returned to the monsters he created, capping off a career with three continuing stories that further progressed the world of the living dead. Land of the Dead (2005) was the glorious return for the filmmaker. After twenty years, the creator of the zombie culture returned to tell another story, all this in the midst of a world that had come to love the "ghouls" that George created so many years before. Again, this wasn't just a zombie film, the auteur had something to say. Land of the Dead focused strong commentary on the privileged and underprivileged, the poor and the rich, the have and the have-nots. It had everything those familiar with the artist's work could have expected.
Diary of the Dead (2007), a documentary-style movie that follows a group of film students who happen upon real-life zombies, and Survival of the Dead (2009), a modern western that pits two families on an island against each other while zombies roam nearby, would round out the film career of George A. Romero. These pictures still had the unique touch found in all Romero films, underneath the guise of a monster movie is a story that is reflecting the thoughts of a filmmaker and the emotions of the world that is influencing him. Whether the social injustice found in the world, the consumerism and greed that corrupts people, the imbalance of power felt within society, or the future of filmmaking for new generations, it's always been a socially influenced story for George Romero with zombies glued in afterwards.
George A. Romero died July 16, 2017 -- a visionary director who changed the landscape of horror and created a sub-genre of film that literally took over the world, just like he said it would in his first film. Though Romero's influence is much more than creating a monster, what he did for the American independent film landscape in 1968 cannot be completely described because even as you are reading this right now, his influence is still shaping and molding filmmakers pointing cameras at their dreams. Without Romero the film culture in America may not be as free as it is now. George A. Romero...the Master.