George A. Romero, 1940 – 2017
There are few directors who could claim to have almost single-handedly invented an entire genre, but George A. Romero, the director who made his feature film debut in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, is certainly one of them.
While the concept of the 'Zombi' first originated from Haitian voodoo culture and had featured in one or two books in the early 20th century, as well as a handful of films such as Victor Halperin's White Zombie and Ed Wood's spectacularly terrible Plan 9 from Outer Space, Romero's 1968 film - and its many sequels - essentially wrote the rulebook for the modern zombie. In every film, TV show, comic book and video game involving zombies that has appeared since, from 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland and The Walking Dead, you will find things borrowed from Romero's work; everything from the method of infection to the the only means of halting a zombie in its tracks has been sourced, adapted or otherwise purloined from the ideas in Romero's films. Not only that, but Romero single-handedly transformed the zombie film from standard monster movie fare into a subversive means of social commentary, offering a satirical take on everything from corporate greed to consumer culture.
Born and raised in The Bronx, New York City, Romero's interest in film began early and as a teenager he would take frequent trips to Manhattan to rent film reels, citing the likes of Michael Powell's The Tales of Hoffman and Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls as early influences. The beginnings of a career in the film industry involved various odd jobs, including work as a gofer on Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest.
Perhaps surprisingly for a director who has been so closely associated with horror films, Romero's first paid work behind a camera came courtesy of Fred Rogers and his much-loved, long-running children's TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for which a young Romero created a series of short segments. These included skits on everything from the production lightbulbs to a sequence named 'Mr. Rogers gets a Tonsilectemy', which the director considered his first big production: “Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film”, Romero said in a 2010 interview. “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”
From those unlikely beginnings, Romero gradually made the move into directing feature films and, having formed a production company, Ten Productions, with several friends in the mid-1960s, Romero began writing and shooting his first feature film, Night of the Living Dead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since his debut, Romero has worked on several other projects outside of the 'Dead' series, including collaborations with a couple of other legends of the horror genre, directing the Stephen King-penned series Creepshow in the 1980s and co-directing the 1990 horror film Two Evil Eyes with Dario Argento.
While zombie films have drifted in and out of fashion over the decades that have passed since Night of the Living Dead, the last few years have seen a resurgence in not just the zombie genre but the ideas surrounding it; comic-book writer Robert Kirkman, novelist Seth Grahame-Smith and a list of filmmakers that includes John Carpenter, Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino have all cited Romero as an influence (the latter, when presenting the director with a lifetime achievement award in 2009, told the audience that the initial 'A' in his name stood for “A f***ing genius”). Meanwhile, in cities across the world from London to Adelaide, you can find the annual spectacle of the 'zombie walk', featuring people dressed in costume and performing their own take on the zombie's cumbersome movements throughout the streets.
Romero continued to work on the 'Dead' series of films right up until his final weeks, whereupon the director was diagnosed with lung cancer. His battle with the disease was described in a statement announcing his death on July 16th as 'brief but aggressive', before Romero finally succumbed to the disease at his home in Toronto this weekend, surrounded by his family. Romero's passing leaves a huge, zombie-shaped hole in the world of filmmaking, but also a legacy that will remain as undead as the zombies he turned into a global phenomenon.
Rest in peace, George, and thanks for everything.