Regular listeners to the flagship show of this collective, Cinepunx, will have heard the story a few times of my introduction to horror when a less than attentive parental figure allowed me to join my not yet “step” siblings to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is, honestly, a pretty good story. It doesn’t tell the whole story though, as NOES was inflicted upon me. I didn’t choose it. Horror, though now something I had been exposed to, was not my choice. But it was Night of the Living Dead which I first chose: a cheap VHS available at our library used, and it was this movie which I studied as a voracious 11 year old over and over.
It was the first black-and-white film I enjoyed, and my most unknowing exposure to independent film. And really, the movie that would remain in my nightmares. What’s more is the way it manages to invite conversation on race and culture without truly intending to; simply in being what it is, it would shape me as a thinker not just about film but about our world. In fact, though I avoid the word here as so much of this website is meant to obscure my one true discipline, I must admit that it shaped my theology; that is, how I understand the complex language we use when we discuss meaning. Thus, George Romero was not just the first director that mattered to me, but was the muse of my “project” as such, conversations on art and culture and politics that are inevitably and deeply religious, if and only if one’s religion is simply the life and liberation of all people.
He is also really good. Romero is known for one thing by many (or perhaps still not enough) in literally creating the current mythos of the “zombie,” such that we can still talk about “non-traditional” zombie narratives and, when we do so, we are simply and only referring to how closely they steal his ideas. Yet, this was not his only accomplishment. I say that not to be edgy, or to ignore his deep cultural legacy in a world suddenly obsessed with his undead children: zombies, for better or ill, matter right now. Instead, I simply want to reflect on what I came to know and to feel, which is that while his filmography is not perfect, George A. Romero is one of our most important directors, genre or otherwise. One need only watch Martin or Monkey Shines or Creepshow or The Dark Half to know that, while zombies cannot be ignored, they do not define his legacy.
When I heard about his passing, I was at first not so affected. Romero was old, and he left this world surrounded by his family. I will not say he chose his time, but he left in what might be the best hoped for circumstances considering the seriousness of his condition, both his cancer and as a mortal man. Yet, as I really considered how deep an impact his films had on me, I was inconsolable. His life and his work are a triumph, but I cannot help but feel a bit bitter at his passing. While horror fans and genre fans broadly defined his genius, few in the wider world ever really understood how creative, passionate, and inspiring he was as a filmmaker. No matter how often contemporary directors and writers would cite his work, it felt like Romero never truly got the deep respect (dare I say reverence) he deserved. Not only because of his abilities, but because of who he was. By all accounts, including my very brief experience meeting him, George Romero was a sweet and kind man, whose cheery disposition never reflected the ways his work was stolen from again and again with little respect shown. This image as a sweet elder statesman of the “new American horror” just fills me with joy and hope as much as regret that so few will ever really understand that a giant was among us.
We asked our team and folks beyond that team to submit some thoughts, reflections, and respect for one of the greatest directors this country has seen.
– Liam O’Donnell: Editor-in-Chief
Oh, George Romero. When you died, I just imagined I’d get this amazing kick out of posting something humorous about your rising again, throwing back to you basically creating and perfecting an entire horror sub-genre. Instead, I find myself too sad to get any real delight from that sort of thing, though I’m hopeful my insistence on doing it is making you smile somewhere. I would love to live in a world where you rose from your grave and starting devouring flesh, most likely starting with the folks at the United States Copyright Office.
I knew you through Stephen King. Long before I associated you with zombies, you were the guy who directed Creepshow and The Dark Half. As a kid obsessed with Stephen King, those were big deals to me, and hearing King call you his ‘favorite collaborator’ makes total sense. Lots of directors don’t understand the tone of King’s work. You always did. You always found the wicked dark comedy under the surface of all the horror and that is what set you apart from all the other horror directors who called themselves ‘peers’ of yours. In truth, you had none, but I can see how using that terminology probably made them feel better.
When I discovered Night of the Living Dead, I was about 12-years-old. I had seen bits and pieces of it on television over the years but had never watched it straight through. I went to the local video store and asked if they had that film. Mike, the guy who ran the store, told me that they did, but that I needed to watch two other films with it – Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. He was quite insistent that I not watch one without the others. So, I did. I rented all three films and stayed up all night with my best friend watching them, diving into a world I had already seen via Italian horror filmmakers, but had never appreciated fully from the man who invented the entire sub-genre to begin with. To say it was formative would be an understatement.
The moment I finally realized who you were as a filmmaker, I went crazy. I went on a Romero streak where I found and consumed everything you’d ever directed, stumbling across gems like Martin and Monkey Shines, the latter of which traumatized me substantially. I went from wanting a monkey like Ella to being quite certain Ella would kill me in my sleep. You had this way of making the normal seem terrifying. You did it with a shopping mall in Dawn, you did it with plants in Creepshow – ‘normal’ is what terrified you, so you made it terrify us.
I had the pleasure and honor of meeting you at a convention in Atlanta once, and you were kind and warm and probably 20-years younger. I brought an old Martin poster I had found for you to sign. I remember your seeing it, chuckling, and saying – “I always hated this poster. Nothing scary about it.” I then asked you what you thought was the scariest film you had ever made, and you didn’t miss a beat and said – “I haven’t made it yet.” At this point, you still had Land, Diary and Survival of the Dead up your sleeve.
Without you, we don’t have zombie films as we know it. Without you, we don’t have independent cinema as we know it. You were a true icon of not just horror cinema but cinema as a whole. You made real honest to god movies and you weren’t afraid to get political or controversial. You did things your way for your entire career and your filmography speaks for itself. So, if you do rise from the grave, I hope you have the wherewithal to head to the nearest camera and do in death what you loved to do in life – entertain. And, if you need the occasional arm or leg to keep you going, I’ll send you the address to that copyright office.
I will never forget the first time I ever went out of town with a band. We were playing the Mr. Roboto Project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, roughly a five hour drive across the state. Despite the long drive time and epic sing-a-longs to quest metal records, we all agreed that we needed to stop at the Monroeville Mall first. High priority. Non-negotiable. It wasn’t for food or shopping. It was to see the mall where Dawn of the Dead was filmed.
To say that the movies of George A. Romero played a huge part in the formative years of my movie appreciation is a huge understatement. My dog is named after him, it says “George A. Romero” on his collar to prove it. My wife and I have watched his movies together since before we were dating. I have watched and re-watched everything from The Crazies to Creepshow, from Monkey Shines to The Dark Half, like a man obsessed. When I was an R.A. in my college dorm, many weekends on duty (when we servants of underclassmen were conscripted to guarding the dorms from Friday night to Monday morning) were drenched in fear and zombies as I tore through movie after movie by Romero. There were other directors, to be sure. I also did the Carpenter / Fulci / Craven flicks on these marathons. None captivated as Romero did.
Two years ago, Romero did a signing at a horror convention somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania and Meilani and I went. We stood in line, looked over posters and other collectables, paid the money and each got a picture with the man. Now, given my high profile status as a local rock star and co-creator of a prominent movie / music podcast, you’d think that I rub elbows with the cultural elite all of the time. I do. Meeting George Romero that time, however, stands out as one of my most cherished fanboy moments. He was charming and fatherly in a weird way. We even got a plush version of the man. It was awesome.
It pains me to think of a world without this man out there. How many hours have nerds spent debating which zombies were cooler between the Romero slow movers and this newer ilk of fast running zombies (although I would posit that the fast running zombie appeared first in the 1980 Umberto Lenzi flick, Nightmare City, but, alas, that is a discussion for another time). Romero’s movies are responsible for a genre of film that means so much to so many. With him goes a fervor of not only horror movies, but social insight that fuels great art.
I am not unique or special in saying this but Romero was the first director I fell in love with. There have been many to follow, but I always (and will always) hold Romero close to my heart. Night of the Living Dead was a staple on television when I was growing up, and it scared me to death. This was the first time I saw a zombie (shortly after the release of clearly-Romero-inspired Resident Evil for Playstation would reintroduce that fear into my life) and the thought of being eaten alive by human monsters was just about the most terrifying thing I could imagine. It was a few years before I was able to get my hands on any of his other work, but when I finally did it was like magic all over again.
I maintain that each installment of Romero’s Dead trilogy is a masterpiece in its own right. Night is the classic, defining film; Dawn is perfection; and Day, while maybe a fraction of Georg’s original vision, showcases the director at his best. But it’d be wrong to reduce Romero to zombies. While he helped define modern horror cinema with Night, he remains one of the greatest directors to every live — I mean, show me a more interesting modern spin on vampire lore than Martin (let alone adding the backdrop of the industry collapse in Braddock to almost every frame of the film). He did just what great cinema does: he put meaning into his images. Romero’s films were smart, fun, and deeply affective.
He will be missed. This is a hard loss for us.
I had passed on viewing Night of the Living Dead many a Halloween when flipping through the channels. It was just some cruddy black and white boring old horror movie to me. But, eventually, I shut up and watched it, and found it to be a tense little potboiler with some rather obvious but necessary things to say, at a time when it wasn’t exactly popular for a filmmaker to do. His subsequent films are hit or miss for me, but his most fun film is a result of his collaboration with Stephen King: Creepshow. That flick is a hoot! An anthology the way it should be! And for that I will miss this so-called ‘Grandfather of the Living Dead.”
Genre filmmakers have long been the only ones who can easily get away with adding socially conscious subtext to their work: some early examples are the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the 1959 television premiere of The Twilight Zone, continuing on into the 1960s with films like Rosemary’s Baby, Eyes Without A Face, and The Innocents. In 1968 George A. Romero added his name to that list of filmmakers with his impactful and necessary look at racism in America, Night of the Living Dead. Even though Romero wasn’t the first filmmaker to use social commentary as a fuel, he probably was the one who made those films accessible to a larger majority of filmgoers. I mean, Rosemary’s Baby – however brilliant – was still a film that arthouse stuffed-shirts went to see, but, Romero, with his easy-to-understand stories, brought his message to the masses, and for that he deserves recognition. Night of the Living Dead is, I think, his most serious and compelling work, and it totally shows his chops as a man with an eye for filmmaking. I saw the film for the first time at Nashville’s only truly independent film theater, the historic Belcourt. The old-style theater with rickety seats and lush velvet curtains on Halloween (joined by a real Yinzer!) was probably the most perfect place and time for me to have witnessed it. And even though his subsequent ‘Dead’ films kind of fizzle out for me, I do really enjoy the more fun moments in his career like Creepshow and Tales From The Darkside (and I promise everyone I will watch Martin soon!). So, farewell, Mr. Romero, and thank you for all you’ve done for the horror community.
Romero was a game-changer. His zombie apocalypse films tapped into a deep well of social and political unrest, and with Night of the Living Dead, he sparked a cultural shift that still ripples through the zeitgeist nearly 50 years later. As much as I appreciate this aspect of his legacy, however, it’s one of his un-“Dead” films (pun very much intended) that resonates with me the most. As a young teenager, having just renounced the dogma of Catholicism I grew up resenting, I serendipitously stumbled upon Martin. It was foundational, not only to my sensibilities as a horror fan with its unique subversion of vampire tropes and lore, but also in its themes of rejecting perfunctory faith and embracing self-actualization. Romero, however inadvertently, helped facilitate a way for me to navigate that aspect of my coming of age. For this and so much more, I am grateful.
George A. Romero redefined a subgenre of horror and rightfully made it his own. Not only that, he truly started a cultural revolution with Night of the Living Dead. When I look back at the Zombie Walk I took part in years ago in Pittsburgh, where hundreds of people walked through the streets dressed as zombies, it’s apparent the world lost a revolutionary. Romero left an impact on our lives and the world of cinema that won’t ever be forgotten.
Every horror fan has the same before/after moment. Doesn’t matter your age, gender, none of that. All of us who love, respect, and admire this genre have at one point or another experienced the same revelation. It’s a bomb going off, a key being turned in a lock, a combination clicking into place. It’s the moment when we see Night of the Living Dead and its sequels for the first time. I had that moment. You had that moment. All of us.
It’s important on a historical front, of course. It’s not every horror film that launches an entire subgenre. Once you see the original Night of the Living Dead and the original Dawn of the Dead, you suddenly have an entirely new understanding of what all of your favorite films are borrowing/stealing from; the source code at the heart of the design. It’s like being handed a blueprint of a huge estate house: “Aha! So here is where the secret passage leads to Grandfather’s secret treasure!” Once you have those foundations, you can build from there.
But on another level, the Romero Dead films are important to the horror and to horror fans because all three films, for all their limitations of budget and resources, represent an invitation of sorts. They’re an invitation to horror fans and horror filmmakers to understand that this genre can be so much more than mutilations and monsters, though those don’t hurt at all. They’re an invitation for audiences to challenge their own safe spaces, to re-consider the things that give them comfort and notice the rot that exists beneath our culture and in our bodies. And Romero’s films invite artists of all mediums and all persuasions to reject those voices that would tell them to sell out, buy in, to dampen their voices in the service of some machine.
And for all the bleakness and cynicism at the heart of his Dead films, Romero’s life and nature also belied a humanistic, idealistic soul, a man who depicted the worst in order to exalt the best.
There’s another film of his that I would ask you to track down, if you can, a film that embodies that spirit. I saw it only recently, and was taken aback by how its sincerity radiates still, even decades removed from its release. Knightriders is an imperfect concoction, shaggy, slack, and wearing its low budget like a badge of honor. But in depicting a man attempting to maintain his chivalrous code in the wake of a modern world that doesn’t give a shit about it, Romero encapsulated better than I ever could the power of art and community. There are harsh, bitter truths that have to be faced in Knightriders, but the film argues that that darkness doesn’t have to win, that idealism and hope can find purchase in new hearts and be carried onwards.
And so I take comfort in knowing that somewhere out there, there’s a young horror fan having a before/after moment. A bomb is going off. A key is being turned.
And George Romero lives on.
There’s so much I could say about the impact that George Romero’s works have had on me personally–how Creepshow was the first VHS tape I ever rented, or how I made it my 13 year old life’s mission to expose as many of my friends to Dawn of the Dead as humanly possible–but honestly, who cares about me? My experience is not unique; every horror fan can say the same things about how much the director meant to her or to him. Let’s take this outside of the realm of the personal and talk about Romero’s lasting impact on culture:
George Romero changed the world.
I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it is not. Countless “fantastique” filmmakers have had remarkable influence in the realm of cinema over the last 100 years or so, but I can’t think of another who single-handedly added a brand new monster to our cultural mythology. Sure, the idea of zombies and undead beings has existed for millennia, but the specific concept Romero came up with–the flesh eating ghoul who can only be killed by a bullet to the brain–has taken an incredible hold on the human imagination, so much so that the layman likely doesn’t realize that the cannibalistic corpse as a monster trope is a very recent invention, let alone that it was created by a blue-collar guy from Pittsburgh.
Consider how much of our culture–pop or otherwise–is indebted to George Romero’s “Living Dead” movies: the flesh eating zombie is now the most common monster represented in media, far surpassing its older and moldier cousins the ghost, the vampire, and the werewolf. Zombies are omnipresent in movies, television programs, video games, novels, comic books, cartoons, generating billions of dollars in revenue–essentially none of which ever made its way back to poor George. But the zombie is more than just a cadaverous cash cow; it is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Night of the Living Dead is a permanent fixture in the Museum of Modern Art. The Center for Disease Control’s website features information on how to plan for the zombie apocalypse. Let that last one sink in for a minute: a United States government agency has a full website page dedicated, however tongue-in-cheek, to helping American citizens avoid being eaten by ghouls.
All of this art and commerce is owed completely to the work of one man. Romero’s zombies have become a multipurpose metaphor for our modern world, standing in for the horrors of warfare, classism, racism, crass consumerism, the generation gap, and pretty much any societal issue we wish to project onto their dead stares and gaping maws. That Romero famously never reaped the financial benefits of his ingenious creations is infuriating, yet sadly poetic: the one responsible for unleashing the hungry dead on an unsuspecting world was himself consumed by them, or at least chewed up and spit out. Though he was not duly credited or rewarded in life, my one hope for George Romero is that in the years to come, his name is remembered alongside and equal to Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley–like them, he changed the face of horror for all time.
Just a couple of stories about Mr. Romero, and his impact.
The “Millennium Edition” DVD release of Night of the Living Dead came out in 2002, my junior year of high school. It was a blind-buy, as I had never seen it before (or any of Romero’s films up until that point). I was still a practical newbie in the horror genre (my full-blown awakening would come a year later) and even though I’d seen some cool titles, I was heavily missing out. Night of the Living Dead was the “video nasty” I had heard of for most of my life, and it was unattainable. Back then, even the few other DVD releases of the film were already OOP. Elite Entertainment decided to make my dreams come true and released what I still consider to best version of that film. You’ve seen it, right? The all-red case with the grey tombstone front cover, and on the back a seemingly endless list of special features. I made zero plans that night; just some dinner, in my room with all the lights off, and my DVD player hooked up to my big TV with the fat ass in the back (I was spoiled, I get it). That night was unforgettable, because it was the first night I had a nightmare about zombies tearing me to shreds. I woke up crying, and I was hooked.
It wasn’t before long that I became more familiar the works of George A. Romero. Dawn, Day, Creepshow to name the essentials. It was a couple of years later that I actually got to meet the man himself. I was going to filmschool at Full Sail, and he came to talk to my class. It was at some point in 2004 after the release of the Dawn of the Dead remake. The very first question someone asked him was what the thought of running zombies. I’ve never seen a man say “fucking ridiculous” as nice as he did, and without even using those words! But he did it somehow, and we all laughed because he sported the biggest smile. No more Dawn remake questions. He talked to us for about an hour, about his history, working on Land of the Dead, and what it was like growing up. He always had that smile. Afterwards, he sat down at a table and happily signed some DVD cases for us. I was one of the last to have mine signed, and as he was writing, I saw my golden opportunity to bring up a film that just wasn’t talked about by anyone, including Romero himself. “By the way, I wanted to say I really love Bruiser.” I’ll never forget the way his face lit up. Next thing I know I’m sitting down at the table at his request and we’re talking about (at the time) his personal favorite film. We talked for about half an hour before he said he had to leave; I remember feeling really down that we had to stop talking. “You’re a good kid,” he said as he shook my hand one last time. “I wish you the best of luck with your dreams.” Even as I type this, the look in his eyes is still what gets to me. They were full of life, and joy. He was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in my life.
So I shall take this time to say thank you to Mr. Romero. Thank you for scaring the shit out of me one minute, and giving me the strength to embrace the genre all over again.
A few years ago at a horror convention in New Jersey (Monster Mania Con, to be exact), I was standing in line to meet George Romero. I had been waiting for this moment for years; growing up, Dawn Of The Dead had been my favorite movie and I was about to meet a legend. As I stood there in line, the middle-aged woman behind me struck up a conversation. She asked if this was the first time I was meeting “George” (we were all on a first name basis.) I said that yes, in fact this was the first time I was meeting him. She smiled and laughed in a slightly anxious way and said this was the first time she was meeting him as well. She looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place where I knew her. She asked if I was nervous to meet him. I said I was and hoped I didn’t make a fool of myself. She said she was scared that once she started talking to him she would just blabber on and on until he told her to shut up. I reassured her that by all accounts he was an absolute sweetheart and would likely never tell her to shut up. All the while I couldn’t place how I knew and I was certain I had seen her before somewhere. Another convention? Just someone from the horror community? Someone I followed on Twitter or Instagram? It was right there where I knew her from. Right in that awful spot at the edge of memory that you can’t quite get, like a sneeze that isn’t quite ready. You know the feeling.
Anyway, I met George. I shook his hand and I remember being somewhat impressed with his handshake. He was a big man, even in his 70’s. I told him how much his movies meant to me, and thanked him for having such an impact on my life. He smiled that big toothy grin that anyone who’s met him is familiar with, that kind of frozen mid-laugh smile that made him look all the world like a kindly grandfather, his eyes crinkled up behind those iconic glasses, and he thanked me for the kind words on his work (George Romero thanked me!). We got our picture taken together, and again I shook his hand and thanked him and again I was given that ‘aw shucks’ smile and delightful laugh. I was on cloud nine at that moment and myself couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot because I had just met George Romero, the undisputed king of zombie films, the man who started it all back in the ‘60s with Night Of The Living Dead and then went on to make some of the most seminal horror films of all time.
As I walked away, I heard the woman behind me, the one who was so excited to meet George that she just had to tell the weird tattooed guy ahead of her in line and see how he felt about the situation, tell George’s assistant her name so he could sign the glossy 8 x 10 that came with the photo op. “You can have him make it out to Lori”, she said, and that’s when it hit me: the woman standing behind me was Lori Petty, star of Tank Girl, Point Break, and A League Of Their Own, as well as several other TV roles like Gotham and Orange Is The New Black. She was a guest at Monster Mania that year, and was apparently a huge George Romero fan. By no means is she a superstar in the realm of genre films, but nonetheless it was telling that someone who was a guest at the convention, who themselves had spent the weekend signing autographs and doing photo ops and Q & A sessions and all the other fun stuff guests do at cons, was at the end of the day just another fan waiting in line to meet George. She didn’t try and pull rank to get ahead of me in line. She didn’t arrange for some secret one on one meeting with him, or some pricey VIP package bullshit. Her love for his films made her equal to the rest of us. She saw herself in that moment as another fan of the man who redefined horror films, the man who is singularly responsible for the way the whole world sees the zombie as a character. She saw me waiting in line and there was camaraderie there. I was a fan of George, and so was she, and she ceased being a celebrity in that moment. We were just two nerds getting ready to meet a legend and hopefully not embarrass ourselves.
At the time of this writing, it’s the day after George passed away. He died on July 16th, by all accounts peacefully and surrounded by family, at the age of 77. I heard about it from an ex-girlfriend via text as I was leaving the supermarket. That bears repeating: the power of George Romero was that women will text their weird ex-boyfriends to offer condolences over his death. I sat in my car and wept. I didn’t know him personally, and I doubt he remembered me. Nonetheless I wept. It felt as if a loved one had died, and in a very real way that is exactly what happened. A few years ago I decided that An American Werewolf In London had dethroned DOTD as my all time favorite film, but nonetheless his Dead films were still very near and very dear to my heart, and I’ll go to my grave rightfully claiming that DOTD is the greatest zombie film of all time. Every fall I watch his movies and every time I marvel over how good they were. Every single time when Peter tearfully executes Roger after Roger is bitten it tugs at my heartstrings. Every time Flyboy emerges from the elevator in all of his undead glory I’m amazed at how scary it still is (so scary I’ve got that visage tattooed on my shin). Every time Colonel Rhodes is eviscerated by the horde of zombies I’m delighted that he, racist murdering piece of shit he is, has met a fitting end while Bub, that loveable and domesticated zombie, watches with grim satisfaction. And when Duane Jones emerges from hiding (after Judith O’Dea is murdered by her brother, nonetheless) only to be casually gunned down by rednecks it’s brutal but effective, grim but honest, and while its heartbreaking and hopeless I wouldn’t have it any either way.
I won’t talk about George’s contributions to horror as a genre. There’s been enough of that in the past 36 hours, and rightfully so because those contributions are near immeasurable, especially in a post-Walking Dead world. Nor will I talk about his contributions to the genre by turning it from seemingly low art into an engine for protest as again: hundreds of people, from Jordan Peele to Guillermo del Toro to Eli Roth to Tony Todd, have pointed out that he used the medium to point out social, economic, and racial injustice at a time when doing so was even more dangerous to do so than it is now. This was about his impact on me as a fan, a weird kid who grew into a weird adult who still loves scary movies. Last night I watched Dawn, and when George makes a brief cameo as a frazzled TV station worker, I smiled the same way I would if I came across a picture of an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Watching that movie was bittersweet, but still good and powerful the way it’s always been and always will be. George’s impact on the world of horror cinema has already been well documented and is likely to only be fully realized now that he is no longer with us and his catalog is complete. But like I said…I’m not here to talk about how his movies literally changed the genre forever. I just wanted to tell you about my friend George and all the amazing things he’s done for me.