Cre­ated ‘Night of the Liv­ing Dead’

GE­ORGE A. ROMERO, 1940 – 2017

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tre’vell An­der­son

It was the night of April 4, 1968, and Ge­orge A. Romero was driv­ing to New York City from Pitts­burgh on a mis­sion: In the days to come he was to meet with film stu­dios in hopes that one might buy the hor­ror film he was lug­ging in his trunk, “Night of the Flesh Eaters.”

No stu­dio was in­ter­ested, but Romero still man­aged to get his $114,000 film in front of au­di­ences that year. And though crit­ics panned the pic­ture, reti­tled “Night of the Liv­ing Dead,” movie­go­ers were mes­mer­ized — pack­ing the­aters, hit­ting the driveins in droves and mak­ing Romero the fa­ther of the mod­ern movie zom­bie.

His “Liv­ing Dead” fran­chise went on to cre­ate a sub­genre of hor­ror movie whose in­flu­ence across the decades has en­dured, seen in movies like “The Purge” and TV shows like “The Walk­ing Dead.”

Romero died Sunday in

his sleep af­ter a “brief but ag­gres­sive bat­tle with lung can­cer,” ac­cord­ing to a fam­ily state­ment to The Times pro­vided by his long­time pro­duc­ing part­ner, Peter Grun­wald. He was 77.

Romero died while lis­ten­ing to the score of one his fa­vorite films, 1952’s “The Quiet Man,” with his wife, Suzanne Des­rocher Romero, and daugh­ter, Tina Romero, at his side, the fam­ily said.

Romero will be re­mem­bered best for co-writ­ing (with John A. Russo) and di­rect­ing “Night of the Liv­ing Dead,” which showed later gen­er­a­tions of film­mak­ers such as Tobe Hooper and John Car­pen­ter that gen­er­at­ing big scares didn’t re­quire big bud­gets.

“Liv­ing Dead” spawned an en­tire school of zom­bie knock­offs, and Romero’s own se­quels were 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” 2005’s “Land of the Dead,” 2007’s “Di­ary of the Dead” and 2009’s “Ge­orge A. Romero’s Sur­vival of the Dead.”

To get that first film made, Romero turned to a re­source­ful team of Pitts­burgh TV-com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers. For dis­tri­bu­tion, the rookie film­maker turned to the Wal­ter Reade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the par­ent of Con­ti­nen­tal Re­leas­ing, which spe­cial­ized in artsy movies like John Cas­savetes’ “Faces.” The di­rec­tor and his team got 14 prints made, han­dled pro­mo­tion and opened the pic­ture at 14 lo­cal the­aters. They fi­nanced a world pre­miere on Hal­loween night.

Most crit­ics trashed the movie, with Daily Va­ri­ety cit­ing “un­re­lieved sadism … which casts se­ri­ous as­per­sions on the in­tegrity of its mak­ers.” But au­di­ences loved it, and drive-in op­er­a­tors took out news­pa­per ads to apol­o­gize for turn­ing away so many cus­tomers.

Romero once told The Times that he was sur­prised at crit­ics’ re­ac­tions; he said Roger Ebert’s re­view all but called “Liv­ing Dead” a movie spawned by the devil.

Over time, fans have pointed out that, set­ting aside the vi­o­lence that made Romero’s work so dis­tinct, there were so­ciopo­lit­i­cal mes­sages that made his movies noteworthy, start­ing with the cast­ing of that first “Liv­ing Dead” pic­ture.

“I think the rea­son it got no­ticed was the fact that we used an African American ac­tor in a role that didn’t need to be played by an African American ac­tor, and then he gets gunned down by this posse,” Romero said, not­ing that the role was orig­i­nally writ­ten for a white man.

On the night of that drive to New York City, he said, “we heard on the ra­dio that [the Rev. Martin Luther] King had been as­sas­si­nated. So now all of a sud­den the power of the film was ratch­eted up that much more.”

“Liv­ing Dead” went on to gross up­ward of $50 mil­lion.

“He took the im­age of the zom­bie, which up to that point was rooted in the Caribbean and part of a black Caribbean cul­ture, and turned it into a metaphor for all sorts of things in American cul­ture,” said Leo Braudy, a USC pro­fes­sor who last year pub­lished “Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vam­pires, Zom­bies, and Other Mon­sters of the Nat­u­ral and Su­per­nat­u­ral Worlds.”

Up to this point, Braudy said, hor­ror movies fo­cused on in­di­vid­u­als like Franken­stein’s mon­ster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “The zom­bie is unique be­cause it’s part of a group rep­re­sent­ing the po­ten­tial threat of a mass mind,” he said.

Romero so­lid­i­fied his rep­u­ta­tion as a mas­ter of the genre with the se­quel “Dawn of the Dead,” which pre­miered in the U.S. in 1979 and be­came one of the most prof­itable in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tions in film his­tory. The fran­chise would even­tu­ally en­com­pass six films — the first four, re­leased decades apart, are one sto­ry­line.

“‘Night of the Liv­ing Dead,’ then ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a few weeks later, ‘Day of the Dead’ months later and ‘Land of the Dead’ is three years later,” Romero said. “Each one spoke about a dif­fer­ent decade and was stylis­ti­cally dif­fer­ent. Af­ter ‘Land,’ I wanted to do some­thing about emerg­ing me­dia and cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism.”

“Night of the Liv­ing Dead” evoked Viet­nam-era blood­shed and, with its black male lead trapped in a farm­house, echoed some of the hys­te­ria in the civil rights era. “Dawn of the Dead” poked fun at soul-dead­en­ing con­sumerism, and “Day of the Dead” ad­dressed ethics in science. In “Land of the Dead,” Romero tack­led safety and bound­aries, show­ing a com­mu­nity for­ti­fy­ing it­self against a mur­der­ous horde while its wealth­i­est cit­i­zens keep alive class di­vi­sions.

But part of what made Romero’s films so dis­tinc­tive was their un­bri­dled gore, which caused many of the movies to go un­rated.

“I just don’t shy away from it,” he said in a 2010 in­ter­view with The Times, not­ing that “the old DC comic books were very, very graphic be­fore the old Comics Code cleaned them up.”

“Hard-core hor­ror fans would like to see more and more of it. It’s the fun part. It’s the pay­off. It’s the down­hill dip on the roller coaster.”

Romero did, how­ever, draw a dif­fer­ence be­tween his gore-for-pur­pose ap­proach and new movies that he cat­e­go­rized as “tor­ture porn things.”

“They’re just mean-spir­ited and Grand Guig­nol all the way,” he said ref­er­enc­ing an in­fa­mous Parisian the­ater that spe­cial­ized in nat­u­ral­is­tic hor­ror shows. “I don’t find any sub­stance un­der­ly­ing it. I like to use hor­ror as al­le­gory.”

Ge­orge An­drew Romero was born in the Bronx on Feb. 4, 1940. He at­tended Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity in Pitts­burgh, grad­u­at­ing in 1961 from the univer­sity’s Col­lege of Fine Arts. He stayed in Pitts­burgh for much of his fea­ture film ca­reer.

In the years im­me­di­ately af­ter “Night of the Liv­ing Dead,” he made films that were less pop­u­lar, in­clud­ing 1971’s “There’s Al­ways Vanilla,” 1973’s “The Cra­zies” and 1978’s “Martin.”

He di­rected the 1981 film “Knightrid­ers,” star­ring Ed Har­ris; the 1988 movie “Mon­key Shines,” his first stu­dio­pro­duced film; and “Two Evil Eyes,” a 1990 hor­ror film he made with Ital­ian film­maker Dario Ar­gento in­spired by Edgar Al­lan Poe short sto­ries.

His last credit as a writer was for his char­ac­ters’ ap­pear­ance in 2017’s “Day of the Dead” from di­rec­tor Hèc­tor Hernán­dez Vi­cens.

The movies and TV shows that have taken their cues from Romero’s work — “World War Z,” “28 Days Later,” “Shaun of the Dead” — seem al­most too nu­mer­ous to count. And though the pop­u­lar­ity of some­thing like “The Walk­ing Dead” would seem to be a com­pli­ment to Romero, he once called that jug­ger­naut “a soap opera with a zom­bie oc­ca­sion­ally.”

“I al­ways used the zom­bie as a char­ac­ter for satire or a po­lit­i­cal crit­i­cism, and I find that miss­ing in what’s hap­pen­ing now,” he said in 2013.

But therein lies what set Romero apart, Braudy said.

“He re­mained true to his out­side Hol­ly­wood roots,” he said, call­ing the film­maker a “tremen­dous in­flu­ence on the in­de­pen­dent film in­dus­try be­cause he didn’t have to be in Hol­ly­wood to make films that at­tracted wide au­di­ences. He con­tin­ues to be a last­ing ex­am­ple of the idea that Hol­ly­wood needs to be reen­er­gized from out­side, in­de­pen­dent per­spec­tives.”

Romero is sur­vived by his wife, his daugh­ter, his son An­drew Romero and, from an ear­lier mar­riage to Chris­tine Romero, his son Cam Romero.

Robert Gau­thier Los Angeles Times

LEG­ENDARY DI­REC­TOR Ge­orge A. Romero’s movies blended un­bri­dled gore with so­ciopo­lit­i­cal mes­sages. “I al­ways used the zom­bie as a char­ac­ter for satire or a po­lit­i­cal crit­i­cism,” said Romero, shown in 2008.

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