Flesh Eaters, Killer Apes, and Quasi-Vampires: The Deranged Genius of George A. Romero

Guest contribution from Brandon Engel.

George Romero may not have been the first movie-maker to develop the concept of a zombie, but he was the first to add characteristics that gave zombies the trademark looks, movements, and predilections we associate with these undead terrors today. Romero’s modernized zombies were far cries from their voodoo-hypnotized predecessors in the b-grade horror flicks of the thirties.

george romero

George A. Romero – The Granddaddy of modern zombie cinema!

The genius of the zombie creature Romero created was that his movie monster emerged from a normal neighborhood, in a normal town, attacking normal citizens. To achieve the believability of a monster that was once just like you and I, Romero’s modern zombie wore whatever clothing the creature had died in, showed signs of decomposition, injury, and bore evidence of attacking the innocent. In other words, they were sometimes bloody.

When NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released in 1968, the New York Times dismissed the film as an amateur production with badly dubbed sound and music. The critic referred to the film-makers as “some people,” apparently too put out to name even the director. What followed such a cold reception is remarkable.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD became a cultural phenomenon. The black and white film, made on a miniscule budget with unknown actors and an untried director, quickly cemented its place in cinema history as one of the best horror pictures ever made. The undertone of uneasiness raised by an African-American man (Duane Jones) in a lead role, emphasized the upheaval in society at the time of the film’s release.

Though unintentional, the choice to cast a black man as the lead was both groundbreaking and, to this day, largely unusual in the horror category. Humans aside, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD also established the iconic zombie. After NIGHT, zombies were forever pictured as reanimated corpses, shambling slowly through vacant streets, seeking a human to gnaw on for nourishment. They did not speak, and the only sounds they were capable of making were unearthly groans and shuffling noises as they dragged their feet. A shot to the head was the only solution when confronted with a human.

Duane Jones: Hired as the lead in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for his acting ability; not the color of his skin.

Duane Jones: Hired as the lead in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for his acting ability; not the color of his skin.

Ten years later, Romero would revisit his zombie creations, but first, he set out to charter other territory within the horror niche. He made the contagion film THE CRAZIES in 1973 about an entire town that’s put in quarantine after it’s discovered that a pollutant in the reservoir is driving people to violent, schizophrenic tantrums.

Romero also endeavored to reinvent the vampire in the 1976 film, MARTIN, which deserves more credit than it has received for its originality and ambiguity. MARTIN is not your traditional vampire movie. In fact, many vampire cliches are mocked, debunked, or dismissed in the film. It is not even clear if Martin, the title character, is really a vampire.

In 1978, Romero returned to zombies with DAWN OF THE DEAD. Unlike critics during the time of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a new generation of movie-goers ate the film up. In a glowing 1979 review, Roger Ebert lauded Dawn of the Dead as another masterpiece.

Ebert implores that the film is “not depraved,” but rather “about depravity.” However, Romero has made the humans, not the zombies, the source of depravity. Survivors take refuge in a mall that draws crowds, even dead ones, as a metaphor for the human race’s insatiable thirst to consume and deplete resources.

In 1985, Romero added a new chapter to his DEAD series with DAY OF THE DEAD. Romero pieced together a film which views the zombies in a sympathetic light. Experimented upon and held captive by the military, the zombies are no longer the pursuers, but are now a sort of victim. The film’s box-office performance and initial critical response were less than favorable, measured against the commercial and critical success of his earlier zombie films. But in recent years, many have changed their tune, and DAY has be re-embraced as a cult classic!

Following DAY OF THE DEAD, Romero explored other elements of horror. TWO EVIL EYES (1990) and BRUISER (2000), are two smaller scary movies that Romero made before his next DEAD installment. The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar was his segment in the horror collaboration TWO EVIL EYES. Romero’s story deals with murder, a reanimated corpse, and possession. BRUISER follows the story of a young man, who awakens one day to discover, after years of feeling anonymous and outcast, that he no longer has a face, but rather a blank mask.

Actor Jason Flemyng draws a blank in BRUISER.

Actor Jason Flemyng draws a blank in BRUISER.

Romero even collaborated with author Stephen King on a few occasions, with the most notable being the film CREEPSHOW (1982), a horror anthology which pays tribute to the classic EC horror comics of the 50s. The film is comprised of five unique stories, with animated wrap-around segments.

The most interesting tales are the one where King himself plays a hillbilly who turns into a weed after coming into contact with a meteor, and a segment where a gigantic, blood-thirsty primate (a la Murders in the Rue Morgue) is discovered in a crate tucked under the basement staircase of a college.

And while we’re on the subject of murderous monkeys, it’s worth mentioning Romero’s MONKEY SHINES (1988), which tells the story of a disabled athlete named Alan (Jason Beghe) who comes to rely upon a helper monkey who has been human brain cells. It turns out the monkey has a homicidal streak that is triggered, almost telepathically (a la David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD) by Alan’s anger.

Twenty years after DAY OF THE DEAD, Romero introduced LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). A moderate success, the film focuses on the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse and the politics involved in running a deconstructed society.

In the 2007 follow-up, DIARY OF THE DEAD, Romero tried a new style of filmmaking, utilizing a hand-held style of camera work for a “found footage” twist to his zombie series. His use of the trendy cinematography style, coupled with a distinct increase in CGI special effects, unfortunately left behind much of what made Romero’s DEAD movies so popular and unique to the genre.

The final movie (so far) in the series was 2010’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. A box office meltdown and critical failure, SURVIVAL was lackluster and was merely a rehash of played out zombie ideas. Despite this misstep, Romero has remained in the forefront of inspirational horror film directors, influencing the directors of hugely popular zombie films like 28 DAYS LATER, ZOMBIELAND, and WARM BODIES. The dark zombie comedy SHAUN OF THE DEAD even paid homage to Romero’s films, serving as an hilarious love letter to zombie cinema.

Zombies have even taken over television with the massive popularity of THE WALKING DEAD. The zombies may alter somewhat with the times and technology, but nothing can ever take away from the solid foundation that Romero created and built upon over the decades. Romero’s influence will continue to live on in every zombie that shambles across the silver screen.

George A. Romero, we salute you!

George A. Romero, we salute you!