In a world where the term “icon” is often thrown around too loosely, Romero is an artist to whom the designation truly fits. Best known for his cycle of “Dead” films – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead – Romero established a new, modern zombie mythos that has had an enormous effect on contemporary pop culture.
Romero’s work extended beyond the zombie genre, however, including such films as There’s Always Vanilla, Knight Riders, Martin, and Monkey Shines. Whatever subject matter he worked with, Romero’s standpoint was always subversive. He had a contentious relationship with mainstream Hollywood, preferring to make most of his films independently. Regardless of whether he was working within or outside of the system, Romero always brought an outsider’s perspective to his movies; a perspective that was sympathetic to the oppressed and the marginalized. His films championed minorities, women and the disabled, placing them in central, heroic roles that allowed for the demonstration of their strength and potency, even if ultimately their stories ended in tragedy.
Although his films were always critical of racism and consumer culture, increasingly, toward the end of his career, Romero’s perspective became more and more cynical concerning humankind and the fate of the world. In films like Land of the Dead, he imagined a world in which the rich cruelly exploit and dominate the poor. Diary of the Dead ends with the narrator posing the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving at all, while in his final film, Survival of the Dead, Romero depicts an assortment of entirely despicable humans, stubbornly feuding and fighting with one another over nonsense. As he neared the end of his life, Romero’s outlook became progressively bleaker and more dark, with humankind, rather than undead zombies, playing the part of villains.
Night of the Living Dead played regularly on a local late-night program called Creature Features when I was a kid. It took me a few tries to work up the courage to watch the movie all the way through, but once I did, I was hooked. The world that Romero created in this film was intriguingly bleak and strange in comparison to most mainstream horror films. The African-American hero was strongly sympathetic, but ultimately flawed and misguided in many of the decisions that he made throughout the movie. The ending was depressing, offering no hope or redemption. There was no real explanation for the terrifying course of events depicted, and everyone that we were led to care about died in horrible ways. This was not Hollywood film making.
About 10 years later, in 1979, Romero made Dawn of the Dead, the follow up to Night of the Living Dead. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and I recall being so excited about the release of this film that by sheer force of will I overcame a fairly severe cold so that I would not be kept from going to the opening night screening, which took place at some sketchy movie theater in South San Francisco. Dawn of the Dead was released without an MPAA rating, a rebellious move on Romero’s part, motivated by his displeasure at initially being awarded an X rating for violence. His decision to release DOTD unrated meant that most mainstream theaters would not exhibit the film, almost assuring financial suicide. Nevertheless, against the odds, DOTD became both a financial and critical success. Romero’s mix of extreme gore and social commentary set an example that has been copied and developed (in both the movies and on TV) ever since. His success at releasing his film unrated also encouraged others to resist the taken for granted authority of the MPAA.
One of my prized possessions is a hand written letter I received from George Romero in response to a fan letter I sent him after I saw Dawn of the Dead for the first time. In it he answered my questions about the film, expressing a nihilistic sentiment that has stayed with me and influenced my own perspective over the years. In response to my curiosity about the cause of the zombie epidemic he replied, “…the cause doesn’t matter, since it is beyond the realm of human understanding anyway.” Quite right. We constantly try to master our world through the explanations offered by religion and science, but we often forget that the world as a whole far exceeds the power of human understanding. Our hubris always comes back to bite us, like the zombies in Romero’s movies.
I learned about Romero’s death when my wife and I were chatting with a friendly rockabilly clerk at the local supermarket. When he mentioned Romero’s passing, I was stunned, and I told our clerk that he had instantly ruined my day. After confirming that the report was true, I was overwhelmed with a mood of quiet melancholy that lasted the rest of the evening. My entire life has been lived during a time when Romero was also alive and actively making art. Now that he is gone it just reinforces the reality that a whole generation of cultural innovators is aging and moving toward death. In fact, my wife later informed me that Martin Landau also died on the same day as Romero.
Soon, they will all be gone.