THE DON OF THE DEAD
Empire’s Chris Hewitt remembers George A. Romero, a horror legend who spawned a genre
THERE WAS MORE to George A. Romero than zombies. A Romero triple-bill could avoid flesh-eating fiends and still take in the likes of psychological vampire thriller Martin, or modern Arthurian fable Knightriders, or the barminess of his Stephen King collaboration, Creepshow.
But zombies and Romero, who died in July after a short battle with cancer, will remain forever linked. When Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg pitched Shaun Of The Dead to Working Title, they called it “Richard Curtis shot through the head by George Romero”. The Walking Dead and Resident Evil wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the man who basically created the modern zombie with Night Of The Living Dead (1968), and refined it with gallons of gore in the pulpy Dawn Of The Dead (2004) and 1985’s presciently pessimistic Day Of The Dead.
For a guy who made films about brainless hordes, though, brains were one thing Romero didn’t lack. His movies were sly, subversive, satirical. They were progressive — the leads in his original zombie trilogy were black men (Duane Jones, Ken Foree, Terry Alexander), and women (Judith O’dea, Gaylen Ross, Lori Cardille). He was often ahead of his time.
He never had a great relationship with Hollywood, partly through sheer bad luck and that old independent sensibility that didn’t work in the studio system. As a result, he spent too long in the wilderness, attached to pet projects that didn’t get made (The Stand) or ended up with someone else (1999’s The Mummy, 2002’s original Resident Evil).
His return from the cold in 2005 was a result, ironically, of the revival led by Shaun Of The Dead and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn Of The Dead. Romero turned back to zombies with Land Of The Dead. The movie didn’t catch fire commercially, but the director — happily relocated to Toronto from his former Pittsburgh base — stayed with the genre for his last two movies, Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead. And while this second trilogy failed to match the first, he still had plenty of piss and vinegar. And his legacy and impact remained undiminished.
Romero was always self-deprecating about his successes, either unable or unwilling to face up to his huge cultural footprint. He also had a wicked sense of humour that shone through in his films. In 2005, while discussing Land Of The Dead, Empire asked him when this sudden zombie fever might end. “I guess, when I die,” he smiled. “I don’t know. I might come back.” We’d be just fine with that.
above: Romero in 2011; With his dysfunctional screen family — “I try to respect and sympathise with the zombies as much as possible”; And his 2005 comeback, Land Of The Dead.