December 28, 2017 George A. Romero – The Man, The Director, & His Legacy
When discussing some of the most iconic Horror film directors of all-time, a short list would include Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, and Mr. George A. Romero. A modest man born and raised in the New York City borough of The Bronx, Romero’s passion for cinema would lead him to a greatness all his own. Full of life well into his elder years, sadly, on July 16th of 2017 Romero passed away at the age of 77 while among his family at his Toronto, Canada home. A massive lose to the Horror community, Romero’s cinematic impact has been a ripple effect that dates back nearly five decades.
So, who is George A. Romero? Coming from a working class New York family, he was the average American kid who was bit by the entertainment bug at a young age. In fact, it is said he would often take the subway into Manhattan to rent film reels to view back at home across the river. A mix of Lithuanian and Spanish background, he would soon take his love for film to an academic level at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he studied Graphic Arts in 1960. A place he would adopt as the backdrop of some of his most memorable films, Romero embraced the Steel City as his own.
Naturally, most associate Romero’s name with such Horror film classics as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, and 1985’s Day of the Dead, but like any filmmaker, he had to start on the ground floor. Having to make a living, the aspiring, young filmmaker took jobs making commercials for some time until he finally saw his hard work pay off when given a chance to create his own theatrical film, Night of the Living Dead.
An independent film, Romero would make Night of the Living Dead with a good deal of help from his Pittsburgh friends and amatuer locals working together on an estimated minor budget of $114,000. In many ways, it would be one of the first do-it-yourself low budget Horror films paving the way for guerrilla filmmaking in the decades to follow.
Even more important, Night of the Living Dead would give Horror a new creature beyond the regular vampires, werewolves, and mummys, it would bring on the rise of the zombie. Sure, there has been zombies in earlier films, but nothing like Romero’s vision which would eventually become an intricate part of pop culture in the years to follow. He gave the the undead a look, a movement, but most of all, a terrifying perspective for viewers. Above all, Romero’s debut feature raised the bar for genre films because it did not pull creative punches. Within reason, it stayed true to a director’s vision, plowing barriers of heavy handed production for modern Horror cinema.
Unfortunately, a young Romero made little to no money on the original Night of the Living Dead. Taking it as a learning experience, he moved forward to 1973’s Season of the Witch and The Crazies, leading into 1978 when he would create a unique, new vampire film called Martin. Keeping the wheels of creativity turning, Martin would lead into arguably Romero’s finest cinematic film, Dawn of the Dead. A film that would follow the events of Night of the Living Dead, this time around with a stronger economic support system, Romero would have the resources to make a spectacular sequel.
Working with more of his friends, all hands were on deck as everyone gathered in Romero’s corner in the cold, brutal winter of 1977 after hours at the Monroeville Mall outside Pittsburgh to make Dawn of the Dead. Less than ideal working conditions, the cast and crew faced many obstacles such as lighting issues in the massive open spaces, frigid temperatures, and working until the early morning hours, only having to clean up prior to the mall reopening to shoppers.
Which raises the question, why would so many people eagerly want to be involved in a project? Well, Romero was not just making a movie, he was creating a family. Yes, he was the director and chief in charge, but he very much created a democratic environment where everyone was involved. Most of all, he made it fun and instilled a sense of pride in everyone on set – from the lead cast members right down to the zombies and production crew.
This type of fun-loving attitude is something that Romero carried on with him throughout his professional career. Additionally, many times when he could have easily bowed to big budget Hollywood politics, he stated true to who he was and his artistic vision. Even more so, Romero stayed true to the people who assisted in his work. Ask anyone who has been involved on screen or behind the scenes of any of his films, chances are next to no one has a negative story to tell. The common consensus has always been he Romero was a warm, generous, and caring man. He cared about the movie, he cared about the finest of details, but also cared about the people involved.
Making his mark, and enthralled in his Living Dead series, Romero would go on to create a darker chapter in 1985 with Day of the Dead. This time shedding the tongue-in-cheek social commentary seen in portions of Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead would take a more serious look at humanity and how we are truly our own worst enemy. Initially planned to be a much more grand production, Romero was forced to scale back some of his vision due to budget constraints. No worse off, in many viewers’ eyes, Day of the Dead is his underrated gem among the entire Living Dead series.
Through the years, he would stay true to the Horror film world collaborating with Stephen King for 1982’s Creepshow, Dario Argento for 1990’s Two Evil Eyes, but also crafting chilling films such as 1988’s Monkey Shine and 1993’s The Dark Half. He would even act as an executive producer for good portion of the hit Horror TV series Tales from the Darkside in the late ’80s. Always putting out a quality product, fans truly craved his return to the Living Dead series after the terror withstood in Day of the Dead. Thankfully, Romero would return to the series two decades later with Land of the Dead in 2005, followed by Diary of the Dead in 2007, Survival of the Dead in 2009, and a new entry to the saga was in the works prior to his passing.
Logically, one may ask, how far could you really take a film series about reanimated corpses? A valid question, it is one Romero answered with each of the installments in the Living Dead films he worked on. Assuring the each film was as close to his vision as possible, unlike other filmmakers, Romero would often act as writing, director, and film editor. Truly and unequivalently, he walked to the beat of his own drum as a filmmaker.
Although, breaking it down even further, the true bread and butter of each of Romero’s Living Dead films laid in the characters. Of course there is blood, gore, and plenty of action, but what really gives each story another dimension is the dialogue shared between characters.
Aiding in his sometimes unorthodox style, Romero would become a fantastic film editor thanks to his work in commercial production early on. A master of quick edits, his approach assured that no scene would fall stale.
Characters and editing withstood, Romero’s work shines brightly thanks to having something to say in his screenplays. As mentioned, there was a clear dark commentary on humanity in Day of the Dead, but take a closer look at Dawn of the Dead to see what really lies beneath the surface. Simply put, Dawn of the Dead saw the writing on the wall of a society lulled into mass consumerism, well, just like zombies. Around the time when mega indoor malls were popping up all over America during the 1970s, in the decades that followed Dawn of the Dead, consumerism would become the new religion.
All these aspects discussed together, it is easy to see why Romero’s films mean so much to such a large group of people. Ironically, much of his career, Romero often brushed off his own importance to the Horror genre or even considering himself the godfather of the zombie film. Simply modest, truthfully, without this humble man there would not be the plethora of zombie related films to follow including 1979’s Zombie, 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, and more recently, the massive commercial hit AMC series The Walking Dead. Romero essentially, with or without knowing, wrote the book on the anatomy of the zombie. There have even been remakes of a slew of Romero’s films including Dawn of the Dead in 2004, Day of the Dead in 2008, and The Crazies in 2010.
Beyond his filmmaking, those who knew him would agree Romero was a human being with character. From his oversized glasses to always having a cigarette in hand, whenever it may be, he always wore a smile. With an imagination and energy surrounding his very being, he created a sense of worth in all those who came in contact with him. He championed the everyday man/woman and proved you do not need big bucks to make a quality movie. A proverbial middle finger to the big machine, his work showed it is more about heart, dedication, and a love for what you do. A loving and caring feeling that carried over into his home, Romero’s children have fond memories of their dad growing up. This includes his daughter Tina, who recalls his efforts to ensure the children believed in Santa Claus. In fact, Tina recalls him going to the furthest lengths to instill it, even creating a wallet with currency from all over the world and documents baring St Nick’s names!
So who is George A. Romero? He was and remains one of the most underappreciated filmmakers of all-time. Candid as well as sincere, he is without question a treasure to Horror cinema community and the godfather of the zombie film. While he is gone, his legacy lives on in the hearts of fans, co-workers, and family from now until the end of time.
Below are thoughts from those who worked or were inspired by the work George A. Romero:
“George Romero was a driving force in the wonderful world of film, his extraordinary imagination and creative spark clearly inspired decades of filmmakers around the world. I am proud to say that he has inspired my own work in a very special way and would hope to make even a sliver of the impact he made to society.” – Jonathan Wolfe, Vespera Vocalist/Guitarist
“I grew up obsessed with Horror as a young child beginning when my Dad read HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe stories to my brother and me at bedtime. When Dawn of the Dead came out, somehow I was allowed to see it. I immediately fell for it and saw Night of the Living Dead as soon as I could at a double feature in the theater. I love how Romero suggested that the monster is in everyone just under the surface.
Throughout my career as a classical cellist I have cultivated a “nice girl” vibe in professional circumstances, but just get me to tell a joke and the room will stop because it is often so disturbingly and unexpectedly dark. I will give Romero and my early influences credit for helping to develop that darkness and am grateful that I get to play with SEVEN)SUNS as an outlet for all of that darkness that also lies beneath my surface.” – Jennifer Devore, Seven)Suns Cellist
“Nothing had prepared me like he had and how powerful Night Of The Living Dead was, is and always will be.“ – Sean Whalen, Actor (The People Under The Stairs 1991)
“Romero’s films infused themselves into my brain as a child and helped to mold me into the Horror nut I am today. I had VHS tapes of Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead that I’d watch endlessly as a kid. His influence lives on in some of the biggest zombie movies and shows of today. He was an absolute visionary that I will never forget.” – Alan Robert, Life of Agony Bassist
“I was around six years old when I first discovered Dawn of the Dead. My grandmother Almeda, aka Gi-Gi, was the one who instilled in me a love for Horror; and my parents were cool enough to let me rent Horror flicks. Even at that young age the visceral storytelling and realistic special effects would stick with me. Sitting on the floor trying to eat spaghetti while watching the living dead devour flesh was somewhat of a task, but I weathered through and can now vividly remember that viewing experience. It wasn’t until years later I would discover George Romero was the mastermind behind one of my most harrowing film watching memories, but his keen eye for what made a good story resonated with me as I watched his other films.
Now a Horror producer myself, I try to incorporate or even emulate Romero’s style in the sense that I want my audience to feel something when they watch one of my films, even if that feeling is disgust. I want them to laugh or jump or even for a brief moment actually think about what it is they’re watching. That was something that he knew how to do in spades with his films. I was lucky enough to be around him while helping co-coordinate the film festival for ScareFest in Lexington, Kentucky, however, I never got a real opportunity to thank him for having such an impact on me as a film lover and a filmmaker. I suppose now is that chance. George, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing what you do best.
For having such a big heart and spreading your love for the genre over nearly fifty decades. For meeting with and sharing that love and joy for the genre with your legions of fans. Granted we’ve never officially met in person, nevertheless, I’ve met your legacy and have been part of that journey from the sidelines for the last thirty years. You were a true Horror fan who created an army of Horror fans, myself included, and I’m going to do my very best to continue to strengthen the genre that you so lovingly pioneered.” – PJ Starks, Filmmaker (Volumes of Blood : Horror Stories 2015)
“Romero not only scared me but, through his movies and commentary, showed me how to scare others. It’s both funny and true to say he left marks on many us, ones that inspired us in own journeys as storytellers. He will be missed.“ – Jody Wheeler, Writer/Director (The Dark Place 2014)
“George A Romero in my opinion is the person that should be credited with the creation of mainstream Zombie films. He was truly the first one who made that subgenre of Horror commercially successful. I can still remember being terrified after seeing “Dawn Of The Dead” as a kid. He truly was a pioneer with a brilliant imagination.” – Tim King, SOiL Bassist
“I will always cherish the memories of working with writer/director George A. Romero on Land Of The Dead. Prior to this, George made all of his projects in Pennsylvania, so committing to making the picture in Toronto, I think was initially out of his comfort zone. But like most filmmakers, he adapted quickly, and I think he really saw the value of producing the project in Toronto and embraced our crew who were all thrilled to be working with George. We worked a lot of nights and split weeks to film in many of the locations.
Collaborating with Greg Nicotero of K.N.B. EFX Group really made the film come to the life and his creations were the heart of the project. I will never forget being on set filming The Bride and seeing Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), Butcher (Boyd Banks) or witnessing the transformations of John Leguizamo. We were all thrilled when Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright came to do cameos when we were filming at Downsview. The tremendous production design work of Arv Grewal, Miroslaw Baszak’s cinematography, the dynamic wardrobe designs of Alex Kavanagh and stunt coordination/2nd unit direction of Matt Birman were all achieved by the supportive collaboration of George. After Land Of The Dead George moved to Toronto, married a Canadian and maintained lifelong friendships with some of the crew.
George went on to collaborate with Editor Michael Doherty and Matt Birman amongst others on his next projects. He was one of a kind and I will miss him. George was a treasure, a visionary and we’re honoured that he chose Toronto as his home.” – Byron A. Martin, (Land of The Dead Production Manager)
“Like most independent genre filmmakers, George A Romero had a huge effect on me. He always seemed like the blue-collar filmmaker… willing to roll up his sleeves and get just as dirty as his zombies to make a film. Maybe because of that and his budget, his movies had this feeling that everyone on set was having a good time, which is hard to quantify. But it is always something I’ve strived for and I’m not sure I will ever achieve… but I keep going hoping to come close.” – Ryan Colucci, filmmaker (Suburban Cowboy 2016)
“I’m so grateful for the inspiration that he gave to the countless filmmakers who continue to push genre movies forward. The drive to make movies never left him and I really admire that.” – Ryan Bellgardt, Director (Gremlin 2017)
“George walked into the interview room in August 2004 and the first thing he asked me was, “Have you finished editing the film?” I replied that in my head, it was all done. It wasn’t until after I had finished Land of the Dead that I realized that my interview for the job was never about whether I could edit, but about whether George could see himself spending 5 months in a room with me. For George it was always about the personal connection. We became friends in the edit suite and went on to spend the next 13 years editing two more films together, travelling to 8 countries attending various festivals and, on many occasions, just hanging out. George created a ‘family’ in Toronto and I was proud to be a part of it. He will be sorely missed.” – Michael Doherty, Editor
“George A Romero was a legendary filmmaker of our time that really set the bar for Horror feature films and feature films in general.” – Keith Sutliff, Writer/Director/Actor (The Mason Brothers 2017)
“Romero inspired a generation of independent free-thinkers. George A. Romero is responsible for creating a cultural paradigm that took nearly 30 years to develop into a world wide folklore. He created a cinematic language and his ‘zombie’ is as recognizable as Shelley’s Frankenstein or Dracula. Romero worked most of his life outside of the system. A true independent filmmaker who had full control of his work and never answered to anyone by himself. His energy will be missed but it flows through independent cinema forever.” – Justin Price, Director (Alien : Reign Of Man 2017)
“My favorite thing he ever said to me was about the frustrations of writing and storytelling and how hard it was to finally feel “finished” with something. He said ‘If it’s in ya, ya gotta get it out of ya!’ Sounds silly, but it was truly inspiring.” – Matt Birman, (Land of the Dead Stunt Coordinator)
“George upped the game for all who revered Horror. He was a true visionary. Wish I had met him!” – Lesleh Donaldson, Actress (Happy Birthday To Me 1981)
“Even if you met George briefly, or knew him for just a short time, he was still a giant of a personality. He wasn’t loud, he was warm. He wasn’t ego-driven, he was results-driven. He wanted to make the best movies he could, telling his stories and sharing his vision. He was easy to like, talented and so good with people.” – Jim Krut, Actor (Dawn of the Dead 1978)