1940 – 2017
By Jerry Chandler
There aren’t a lot of people who you can say created a new genre in film; certainly not in the more modern eras of filmmaking. You can say that about George Romero. He created- somewhat by deliberate design, somewhat by accident -the modern zombie in horror. If it had not been for this (at the time) overly ambitious young filmmaker and his friends, the zombie of film, television, books, and comic books as we all now think of it would never exist. It is a legacy left behind that will live on for more years than he or even most of us could probably ever truly comprehend.
Sadly, while ensuring him a place in history, it may have also been something of an albatross around his neck at times. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead are probably three of the most well-known horror films in existence at this point. They have spawned hundreds of imitators in film, thousands in the print mediums, and more than just a few in audio productions as well. The zombies inspired by Romero’s creations have appeared in the most unexpected of places over the decades; even invading a galaxy far, far away via the Star Wars novel Death Troopers. Zombies spun off from the Romero mold have proven to be so adaptable that there seems to be no limit to where they might appear. They’ve proven they can be effectively used while still being properly used in comedies and romances. They even became event additions to reality based military video games where the players might not have been as accepting of other fantastical creations. Romero himself even made an appearance in some of these games alongside his undead creations.
But George Romero as a filmmaker was far more than just zombies. While in recent years his 1982 collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow, has been seemingly gaining more fans and more acclaim as time goes by, his filmography is filled with many things that are not zombie films and are far too often overlooked.
Some of his early films, such as Season of the Witch, are merely enjoyable little entries into the horror genre. One of his earlier films though, Martin, is a criminally overlooked film about a teen that may or may not be a vampire, and may or may not be deranged. Martin as a film was a noticeable visual and stylistic departure from Night of the Living Dead, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies, and it may well be his best film in many ways. It’s truly worth tracking down to both and enjoy and to see another part of the legacy in film he left us.
Overshadowed by Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow was 1981’s Knightriders. Knightriders was an amazing if bizarre Arthurian legend fantasy without the magic set in the then present day and populated by a troupe of not quite renaissance performers who wear armor but ride motorcycles. The film is filled with the typical Romero observations on society, but it’s also filled with craziness and gore FX. It’s a movie that comes off as the type of film you’re either going to hate or love, but it seems like over the years it’s simply been one met with indifference; even by self-professed hardcore fans of Romero.
This is seemingly more true than not for many of his non-zombie works. Eventually, even the powers that be at the studios seemed to take this view of Romero’s films. If it wasn’t a zombie film, it seemed in later years like the studios weren’t interested in a Romero film either. I’d even seen a few interviews and convention panels over the years where Romero seemed to say much the same himself.
During the later years of his life, there were times I felt sorry for him because of that. It had to be the filmmaker’s equivalent of extreme typecasting. It had to be creatively frustrating at times to go to people and say that you had these creative endeavors you wanted to undertake only to have them nod, smile, and ask you if you had any zombie ideas instead.
But he also seemed to become more and more at peace with that in the later interviews I saw with him. He recognized the zombie as it became in his films as his legacy. Sometimes I thought he got maybe a little too proprietorial about it, but at the same time I don’t think I can ever fully comprehend what it is to create something like he did and see it go out into the greater popular cultural to be used and sometimes misused by his point of view by so many. Once he fully accepted it as his legacy, I suppose I can understand him wanting to protect the legitimacy of that legacy.
And what an amazing legacy it is
There have been times over the last decade-plus where I’ve had some issues with George. There are things he’d said or done where I wished he’d have relaxed a bit, enjoyed the ride, taken the offers to play in other people’s zombie sandboxes, and especially seen more of the rewards from his creation that he very much deserved. But that wasn’t George, and I suppose a George like that might not have been the type who could have given us the specific visions he left behind for us in his films. There have been times over the last two to three decades where I wished his lesser known but just as deserving movies were embraced by horror fandom by even half the number of people that embrace his zombies. But that doesn’t seem like it will ever come to pass. But, despite those things, what he will be remembered for and how long he is remembered for it is probably more than any of us could even hope for.
George Romero did something with the original trilogy of Dead films that few people can say they’ve done. As many people have said not only this week but for years now, Romero and his zombies largely ushered in a new age of horror. You can love them, like them, be indifferent to them, or hate them, but you cannot say that the age of the zombie in the wake of Night of the Living Dead did not help sustain and grow some of the horror community over the last few decades or that they have not had an influence in popular culture well beyond just the horror community.
The Romero styled zombie, the flesh eating ghoul risen from the grave and stopped only by the destruction of the brain, is now a true horror icon. It sits prominently alongside Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, and the Creature on the Mount Rushmore of major horror creations. The zombie is right now more popular than ever. It’s probably bigger right now than almost any other specific creation in horror. It will very likely continue to grow in popularity, maybe fading a bit in popularity after a while, and then just come back again some time down the road. But when it comes back, you can bet it will return with a back to basics approach to that return and it will be every bit what fans see as the Romero zombie.
RIP George, we owe you so much more than we can say.
At this time, we here at Needless Things cannot confirm the rumors that they destroyed the brain “just to be sure.”
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.