People usually laugh when I tell them I have a mortal fear of zombies, but for many years I did. I had a mortal fear of the walking dead, for reasons I can’t really explain. Fears are meant to be irrational. I can however pinpoint to where it may have all started, and it was with George Romero. One of my earliest memories as a kid was when my dad took a four year old moi to visit a friend of his, who watching this horror documentary on VHS. Mid-way through the footage there was the epic finale of “Day of the Dead” where the humongous horde of zombies is slowly descending in to the military bunker with light cast upon them.
They then scatter in to a swarm of flesh eating monsters making a bee line for the remaining soldiers, all of whom would be torn to shreds and eaten alive, screaming in pure horror and pain. The memory burnt itself in to my brain and consciousness for years and years, and that scene always popped up in my nightmares. These days I can watch zombie movies and television shows without any kind of nightmares, but for some reason to this day I can barely sit through “Dawn of the Dead.”
Maybe it’s because Romero just knew how to create zombies that looked like actual walking corpses. Maybe it was because the walking dead were merciless and without identity. The first time I ever watched “Dawn of the Dead,” I had trouble sleeping for at least a week, and that’s because Romero was a master of the sub-genre he re-invented and popularized. Without him we probably wouldn’t have “The Walking Dead,” or “IZombie,” or “28 Days Later,” and we certainly wouldn’t have had “Shaun of the Dead” or “Resident Evil.”
Romero directed “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 and to this day independent filmmakers are still ripping him off. Everyone still wants to be Romero, and everyone wants their own “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s that one independent horror movie that became a horror legend and mandatory viewing for any respectable horror buff.
As a person, I didn’t always agree with Romero in his later years. He was very outspoken, just didn’t understand “The Walking Dead,” and his final “Dead” movies were a bit phoned in, but even when at his weakest, Romero gave everything he had creatively. People will be talking a lot about his myriad zombie films for the next five months when paying tribute to George A. Romero, but Romero also delivered some widely lauded and very entertaining horror and genre fare.
“Creepshow” found Romero teaming with Stephen King and Tom Savini, in an absolute cinematic masterpiece paying tribute to the classic EC Comics. There was the incredibly creepy and excellent follow up “Creepshow II,” not to mention Romero’s entry in to television with the wonderful anthology series “Tales from the Darkside.” If you want to talk pure horror television, you need to look no further than Romero’s venture in to eighties television.
One of my favorite non-horror movies from King was “Knightriders.” A tale about loyalty, honor, and the knights code, Romero took a group of bikers who indulged in medieval games for sport, and unfolded a very engrossing and compelling drama where, in the end, main character Billy would rather die than watch the era of the knights fade away.
George A. Romero was the quintessential independent filmmaker who worked with what little resources he was given. He had a lot of his creative resources stifled and took that disadvantage, transforming them in to an advantage. Take for example “Day of the Dead,” which began as a zombie epic and was simplified as a claustrophobic tale about the final remnants of Earth’s civilization struggling with their dwindling sanity. Romero had a lot to say about civilization and our social climate, and many of his movies will be examined forever by new generations of movie buffs.
There will never be any stronger polemics on humanity and civilization than the first three “Dead” films; one about racial and class warfare, the sequel about the era of consumerism and the war for one mall, and the final about the military industrial complex. Romero’s final “Dead” films, while not as praised, were strong commentary about the Iraq war, our wasting of modern technology and misinformation from mainstream media, and the abortion debate. Romero was a gateway for many horror fans and his ambition always shone through every film, whether stellar works of art or botched ventures in to simpler fare.
Growing up as someone obsessed with horror, Romero was constantly mentioned by every horror fan I encountered, and his work, his wisdom, and his groundbreaking remolding of the genre will live on forever. “Night,” “Dawn” and “Day” are just flawless pieces of horror filmmaking, they’re strong and evocative reflections of our ugliness and viciousness toward each other, but they’re also statements about how humanity can thrive, survive, and adapt. Thank you, Mr. Romero for all the nightmares, and your priceless contributions to the art of horror filmmaking.