Father of the zom­bie film is dead at 77

George A. Romero cred­ited with rein­vent­ing the genre with 1968 cult clas­sic, Night of the Liv­ing Dead

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - JAKE COYLE

NEW YORK — George Romero, whose clas­sic “Night of the Liv­ing Dead” and other hor­ror films turned zom­bie movies into so­cial com­men­taries and who saw his flesh-de­vour­ing un­dead spawn count­less im­i­ta­tors, re­makes and homages, has died. He was 77.

Romero died Sun­day fol­low­ing a bat­tle with lung can­cer, said his fam­ily in a state­ment pro­vided by his man­ager Chris Roe. Romero’s fam­ily said he died while lis­ten­ing to the score of “The Quiet Man,” one of his favourite films, with his wife, Suzanne Des­rocher, and daugh­ter, Tina Romero, by this side.

Romero is cred­ited with rein­vent­ing the movie zom­bie with his di­rec­to­rial de­but, the 1968 cult clas­sic, “Night of the Liv­ing Dead.” The movie set the rules im­i­ta­tors lived by: Zom­bies move slowly, lust for hu­man flesh and can only be killed when shot in the head. If a zom­bie bites a hu­man, the per­son dies and re­turns as a zom­bie.

Romero’s zom­bies, how­ever, were al­ways more than mere can­ni­bals. They were metaphors for con­form­ity, racism, mall cul­ture, mil­i­tarism, class dif­fer­ences and other so­cial ills.

“The zom­bies, they could be any­thing,” Romero told The As­so­ci­ated Press in 2008. “They could be an avalanche, they could be a hur­ri­cane. It’s a dis­as­ter out there. The sto­ries are about how peo­ple fail to re­spond in the proper way. They fail to ad­dress it. They keep try­ing to stick where they are, in­stead of rec­og­niz­ing maybe this is too big for us to try to main­tain. That’s the part of it that I’ve al­ways en­joyed.”

“Night of the Liv­ing Dead,” made for about $100,000, fea­tured flesh­hun­gry ghouls try­ing to feast on hu­mans holed up in a Pennsylvania house. In 1999, the Li­brary of Congress in­ducted the black-and-white mas­ter­piece into the Na­tional Registry of Films.

Romero’s death was im­me­di­ately felt across a wide spec­trum of hor­ror fans and film­mak­ers. Stephen King called him his favourite col­lab­o­ra­tor and said, “There will never be an­other like you.” Guillermo del Toro said, “The loss is so enor­mous.”

Romero’s in­flu­ence could be seen across decades of Amer­i­can movies, from John Car­pen­ter to Jor­dan Peele, the “Get Out” film­maker. Many con­sid­ered “Night of the Liv­ing Dead” to be a cri­tique on racism in Amer­ica. The sole black char­ac­ter sur­vives the zom­bies, but he is fa­tally shot by res­cuers. When Edgar Wright made 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead,” he ac­knowl­edged, “What we now think of as zom­bies are Romero zom­bies.”

Ten years af­ter “Night of the Liv­ing Dead,” Romero made “Dawn of the Dead,” where hu­man sur­vivors take refuge from the un­dead in a mall and then turn on each other as the zom­bies stum­ble around the shop­ping com­plex.

Film critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the best hor­ror films ever made — and, as an in­escapable re­sult, one of the most hor­ri­fy­ing. It is grue­some, sick­en­ing, dis­gust­ing, vi­o­lent, bru­tal and ap­palling. It is also ... bril­liantly crafted, funny, droll, and sav­agely mer­ci­less in its satiric view of the Amer­i­can con­sumer so­ci­ety.”

Romero had a some­times com­bat­ive re­la­tion­ship with the genre he helped cre­ate. He called “The Walk­ing Dead” a “soap opera” and said big-bud­get films like “World War Z” made mod­est zom­bie films im­pos­si­ble. Romero main­tained that he wouldn’t make hor­ror films if he couldn’t fill them with po­lit­i­cal state­ments.

“Peo­ple say, ‘You’re trapped in this genre. You’re a hor­ror guy.’ I say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m able to say ex­actly what I think,’” Romero said. “I’m able to talk about, com­ment about, take snap­shots of what’s go­ing on at the time. I don’t feel trapped. I feel this is my way of be­ing able to ex­press my­self.”

The third in the Romero’s zom­bie se­ries, 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” was a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial fail­ure. There wouldn’t be an­other “Dead” film for two decades.

“Land of the Dead” in 2005 was the most star-packed of the bunch — the cast in­cluded Den­nis Hooper, John Leguizamo, Asia Ar­gento and Simon Baker. Two years later came “Di­ary of the Dead,” an­other box-of­fice fail­ure.

There were other movies in­ter­spersed with the “Dead” films, in­clud­ing “The Cra­zies” (1973), “Martin” (1977), “Creepshow” (1982), “Mon­key Shines” (1988) and “The Dark Half ” (1993). There also was 1981’s “Knightrid­ers,” Romero’s take on the Arthurian leg­end fea­tur­ing mo­tor­cy­cling jousters. Some were mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful, oth­ers box-of­fice flops.

George An­drew Romero was born on Feb. 4, 1940, in New York City. He grew up in the Bronx, and he was a fan of hor­ror comics and movies in the pre-VCR era.

“I grew up at the Loews Amer­i­can in the Bronx,” he wrote in an is­sue of the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute’s Sight and Sound mag­a­zine in 2002.

His favourite film was Michael Pow­ell and Emeric Press­burger’s “The Tales of Hoff­man,” based on Jac­ques Of­fen­bach’s opera. It was, he once wrote, “the one movie that made me want to make movies.”

He spoke fondly of trav­el­ling to Man­hat­tan to rent a 16 mm ver­sion of the film from a dis­tri­bu­tion house. When the film was un­avail­able, Romero said, it was be­cause an­other “kid” had rented it — Martin Scors­ese.

Romero grad­u­ated from Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity in Pitts­burgh in 1960. He learned the movie busi­ness work­ing on the sets of movies and “Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bour­hood,” which was shot in Pitts­burgh.

The city be­came Romero’s home, and many of his films were set in west­ern Pennsylvania. “Dawn of the Dead” was filmed in sub­ur­ban Mon­roeville Mall, which has since be­come a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for his fans.

Romero strug­gled to get films made late in life. The last film he di­rected was 2009’s “Sur­vival of the Dead,” though other film­mak­ers con­tin­ued the se­ries with sev­eral se­quels, in­clud­ing the re­cently shot “Day of the Dead.”

But Romero held strong to his prin­ci­ples. A movie with zom­bies just run­ning amok, with no so­cial con­scious­ness, held no ap­peal, he of­ten said. “That’s not what I’m about.”


A scene from the clas­sic Romero film, "Night of the Liv­ing Dead."


Di­rec­tor and writer George Romero turned zom­bie movies into so­cial com­men­taries.

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