Sifting through the veritable mountain of tributes that have been flooding the internet since the announcement that the film world lost one of its truly great auteurs today, it seems to me that almost all of them miss a vital point : sure, the man, myth, and legend that was George A. Romero is among a small handful of people — King, Carpenter, Craven, Wrightson — who re-defined and frankly revolutionized horror across all media in the late 20th/early 21st centuries; he was beloved by fans for not only his staggering body of work but also his warm and engaging personality and infectious, perpetually-youthful enthusiasm; and there’s no doubt that he will forever be regarded as The King Of The Zombie Movie in the same way Elvis will always be remembered as The King Of Rock N’ Roll and Jack Kirby as The King Of Comics. These are all givens. But what most people fail to remark upon — perhaps because the aforementioned alone are more than enough to cement a legacy that, like his zombies, will never die — is that Romero was also one of the most important, and trailblazing, independent filmmakers of all time.
I’ll tell you who never lost sight of that fact for a second, though — all the celebrated indie directors who followed in his wake. Go on, ask folks like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith where they’d be without the road map Romero set out for them, they’ll tell you: nowhere. When a guy with a background in commercial and industrial film production hustles up $114,000, heads out to a Pittsburgh-area cemetery in 1968, and makes a flick that not only changes the face of a genre forever but plays both drive-ins and “proper” movie-houses for literally years on end, it fundamentally alters the definition of what is possible, and gives birth to the notion in many eager young minds that, hey, maybe they can do this one day, too.
Here’s the damndest thing of all, though — Romero affected this fundamental shift not just once, but twice. Ten years on from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, he doubled-down on his claim to cinematic immortality with DAWN OF THE DEAD, a rising tide that lifted any number of boats along with it. Just ask Tom Savini. Or Ken Foree. Or Goblin. Sure, they’d all done fine work in the past — and would continue to do so — but would any of them have risen to legendary status absent their involvement with Romero’s masterwork?
While we’re at it, let’s try to imagine the contemporary horror landscape had Romero never happened : there’s no 28 DAYS LATER, a film that made its mark by dint of its open flouting of Romero’s unwritten-but-so-effective-everyone-else-followed-them “rules.” There’s no ZOMBIE (or ZOMBI 2, if you prefer). There’s sure as hell no Walking Dead.
Like any number of artistic standard-setters, then, Romero gave birth to a veritable slew of either outright imitators on the low end or more slick, mass-audience-friendly progeny on the high, and surely others (thanks to an infamous copyright indicia oversight) profited from the fruits of his imagination, either directly or indirectly, more than he ever did himself — but if he let that bother him, he certainly never showed it: George was indie to the core, and while he did some damn fine work for the studios intermittently over the years (THE DARK HALF, MONKEY SHINES, CREEPSHOW), after returning to the by-then-an-industry he’d created with LAND OF THE DEAD (by my account still the best John Carpenter movie of the last 20 years, even if it wasn’t, ya know, directed by John Carpenter), he couldn’t wait to get back to his low-budget, DIY roots. DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD may not have been as well-received as NIGHT or DAWN or DAY OF THE DEAD, but do yourself a favor in the coming days as you program your home-viewing Romero marathons: Watch ’em again with an open mind and tell me that they don’t feel like the work of a guy who’s absolutely in his element, making the kinds of movies he wants to make, saying the things he wants to say, with an admirable lack of concern for commercial considerations.
And while you’re perusing through his unjustly-less-celebrated works, don’t forget to give MARTIN a go and silently weep for what the vampire genre could have become if it had chosen to follow Romero’s lead rather than Anne Rice’s; enjoy the ethereal and intriguing admitted near-miss that is SEASON OF THE WITCH; frighten the living shit of yourself with THE CRAZIES, a film every bit as prophetic as his zombie tales; check out KNIGHTRIDERS for proof positive that he could step outside horror altogether and produce a damn-near-sprawling moody character-driven drama tinged with understated melancholy. There’s a lot to choose from, and all of them are “master-class” offerings on how to do a whole lot with very little by way of resources — other than the two most important, vision and will.
Others have commented — and will continue to do so — on the expert analysis Romero offered on subjects ranging from racism to consumerism to sexism to Cold War and post-9/11 “security state” paranoia in his films, and it’s no secret that he proudly wore his “social justice warrior” bona fides on his sleeve well before that term became either a badge of honor or an intellectually lazy, reactionary insult, depending on who’s using it. Suffice to say, though, that even the most politically conservative viewer would have to admit that what Romero’s perspective revealed was a guy who understood that horror is most effective when it’s rooted in the world we know, and when it both reflects and lays bare certain uncomfortable truths about our society, indeed or reality, that we’d rather not talk about. George understood, intuitively it seems, the words of the late, great Walt Kelly — “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
In today’s early morning hours, then, this writer would humbly suggest that we lost a whole lot more than the father of the modern zombie movie. We lost a pioneering independent filmmaker, an insightful social and political commentator, and a singular artistic talent. We lost the best there is at what he did, and I don’t think any of us would begrudge him getting back up from the dead for a minute in the least, if only to take a well-deserved victory lap.