Remembering George A. Romero

By
Westley Smith

As years go on, we begin to realize just how sacred it is to get a new film from a director we grew up with and love. Sadly when that director passes away, we are hit with the reality that we’ll never see another movie from the filmmaker. It’s a bittersweet moment that makes you feel both heartbroken and thankful; for at least a small moment in time, we were graced to have that filmmaker on this earth to enthrall us with their movies.

Sadly, on July 16 2017, we lost the great George A. Romero to lung cancer.

For most, Romero will always be remembered as the godfather of the modern zombie films with his creation of the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, which he directed, co-wrote (along with John Russo) edited, and produced on a shoe-string budget of just of $100,000.

Night not only defined the modern zombie movie (and spawned countless rip-offs, spinoffs, sequels, TV shows, books and comics) it also paved the way for independent filmmaking while at the same time taking on social issues and breaking down race barriers with the casting of Duane Jones (a black man) as the lead in the film.

Though Romero will always be remember for his Dead trilogy (Night, Dawn, and Day – Day of the Dead was Romero’s personal favorite of the series) he had a long history in the film business, and sadly, to some, a lot of his other credits are very seldom talked about or remembered.

Let’s take a look back now at Romero’s life and history in film:

George A. Romero was born on February 4th 1940 in The Bronx, New York. He grew up in New York until he moved to Pittsburg, Pa to attend the renowned Carnegie-Mellon University. Though he would become very influential in film, and to fan’s around the world, Romero never set out to become a filmmaker.

In the 1960s he and his pals created “Image Ten Productions” where they would shoot short films and commercials. In 1968 he would direct Night of The Living Dead, which would go on to be one of the most influential films of the 1960s and be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress of the United States in 1999.

For the next several years, Romero would continue to work steadily releasing several films: 1971’s There’s Always Vanilla. 1972’s The Season of The Witch. 1973’s The Crazy’s. 1978’s Martin. Though, at the time, these films were not as critically or commercially as successful as Night of the Living Dead, but all had Romero’s signature horror flair with a healthy dose of social commentary, and were shot in Pittsburg.

In 1973, on the set of Season of the Witch, he met his second wife Christine Forrest, they share two children together. The couple would later divorce.

In 1978 Romero would returned to zombies with Dawn of The Dead. Persuaded to make a sequel to Night by none other than fellow horror director Dario Argento, Romero would surpass Night with Dawn and take zombies to a whole other level with the help of make-up artist Tom Savini. Produced on a 1.5 million dollar budget, Dawn would take in a healthy 40 million dollars worldwide.

After Dawn, Romero would take a break from horror to shoot Knightriders, starring a then unknown Ed Harris. Knightriders is about a group of medieval reenactors who find their family-like group is falling apart due to fame, the police, and a leader who is becoming unbalanced and delusional. It was a vastly forgotten film in Romero’s filmography, but has since gained a huge cult following that many fans are now praising for its genius.

Next would come Romero’s first paring with horror author Stephen King. That movie would be Creepshow (1982). They would again team up for Creepshow 2, but Romero would pass off directing duties to Michael Gornick. Romero would venture back into the world of Stephen King in 1993 when he directed and wrote the screenplay for The Dark Half starring Timothy Hutton – it would prove to be the last film Romero would direct in the 1990s.

In 1985 he would returned to his zombie roots yet again for Day of the Dead. Day was nowhere near as influential as Night nor successful as Dawn, and was quickly panned by critics and fans alike and would be, at the time, considered the worst in the trilogy – it has now earned more praise from fans. It would take Romero another 20 years to work on another zombie film – though he would write and produce the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, directed by Tom Savini.

Following Day of the Dead, Romero would shoot Monkey Shines in 1988 and then Two Evil Eyes in 1990.

For most of the 1990s Romero was absent from the film world; he would return in 2000 with Bruiser and find that his film would be dumped on the direct-to-video market and very few people had found out that the director had put out a new movie. It was an eye opening experience for the director that he loathed and talks about on the Dawn of the Dead Commentary track.

During this time, Romero had relocated to Canada, (where Bruiser was filmed) and where he would live out the reminder of his life. In September of 2011 George would marry his third wife, Suzanne Desrocher, and would be with her until his death.

By 2005, times had changed in the film industry. Romero, always wanting to stay independent from studio influence, had to change with the times as well if he wanted to get another project off the ground.

That film would be Land of the Dead.

After 20 years away from zombies (though Romero was set to direct the movie adaptation of the Resident Evil video game; he actually shot a few commercials for RE2 – here is the link to them) Romero would come back to where it all began. If life imitates art, one can fully see that in this film with its social commentary message as a direct result of the Bush administration and the 9/11 attacks. Though Land would hit #1 in its weekend opening, audiences and critics were split on the final outcome of the film. Land would come out after the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and in the wake of 28 Days Later – zombie films had changed, evolved to modern audience’s tastes; Land seemed to be a step backwards.

In 2008 Romero would direct Diary of the Dead on a budget of just 2 million. Diary returns to the night of the zombie outbreak, following a group of college students capturing the first hours of the outbreak on video camera. The film was released limited (just 42 theaters across the United States) and on VOD, but pulled in a hefty profit of roughly 11 million dollars on just its worldwide theatrical run, enough to greenlight the first-ever direct sequel to one of Romero’s Dead films. But like Land, Diary came out too late; it was no longer innovative or original, since found footage had, at that point, been done to death and so had the zombie crazy. But there was another film in 2007, that really captured audience’s attention from Italy, and used the found footage angle extremely well featuring zombies (or infected) REC. While REC will go down in history as one of the best zombie and found footage movies in cinema history, sadly Diary will be largely forgotten.

Romero would direct his final feature in 2009 with Survival of the Dead, a direct sequel to Diary of the Dead. Most fans agree that this is Romero’s worst dead film, and by this point it seemed the well had run dry.

Recently it was announced that Romero was gearing up from Road of the Dead a Mad Max/Zombie film. He was set to produce and had co-written the script. Only time will tell, now with the director’s passing, if this film will actually be made as it was still in the process of securing financing.

As sad as this day is in horror history, be thankful that we had a man like George Romero to entertain us, to open our eyes with social commentary in his films to things we may have overlooked otherwise.

Were all his films great? No, of course not. No one, I don’t care who you are, will have the perfect track record of films – including Hitchcock or Spielberg. I have heard people complain about Romero’s last few films, saying awful things about him and the films, and I just shake my head. We are all on this earth for such a short amount of time, why spend it bashing a film, especially when it was created by someone you say you admire. Enjoy what they have created for you; it is, after all, their vision they are bringing to the screen for you.

Relax and enjoy your favorite director’s films (good or bad) and don’t turn your back on them just because they did not live up to your expectations. Do you have to like all their films? No. But you don’t have to bash them or the director either. Appreciate them while they are on this earth, because when they are gone, there will never be another to replace them.

Thank you George Romero – RIP.

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