glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | aug. 2017
There are film directors and then there are the directors who changed the world of cinema. George Romero was certainly one of those directors that managed to change the face of the horror genre whilst going a long way to lending the genre a sense of pride and credibility it so often lacks.
A life long film fan, he began in commercial filmmaking work, but in the late '60s he turned his attention to the film that would become a surprise hit. Helping to define the new wave of American horror in the late 60's the low budget horror film “Night of the Living Dead" was, without hyperbole, not only genre defining but helped shape a scene of intelligent movies that were as provocative as they were violent. “Night of the Living Dead" certainly resonated for many reasons, some intentional, some accidental. The inclusion of Duane Jones as Ben, the African American hero of the movie, sparked many reactions across the board including some censorship in certain areas due to him slapping the hysterical Barbara. Interestingly, Romero chose Jones for the role not out of some social motivation but because he was simply the best guy they could get for the role, many commentators since have made more of the casting than was intended, though Romero's work was very much up in the face of the country's tensions and politics often bubbled up through the surface of his work. There was something that was effortlessly confrontational about his work that poked at society's sore spots without malice. It addressed issues that polite society didn't want to think about, from issues like race or the madness of consumerism and he did it by creating his own little societies within the film, little groups that reflected the larger world. It was beautiful.
Romero wrote the rulebook when it came to zombies, his films were the benchmark by which all other zombie films were to be measured to this day and what was a minor sub-genre became his. No self-respecting horror film fan has missed out on “Dawn of the Dead" with its comic book excesses that poked a severed finger in the dislodged eyeball of consumerist society and any gore-hound that hasn't seen the claustrophobic madness of “Day Of The Dead" has an incomplete education. But those are just his best-known works. Romero went beyond his signature monsters with the plague horror “The Crazies" and brought Camelot into the modern day with “Knight Riders," his exploration of integrity in the face of commercialism. Looking back, “Knight Riders" could be seen as a self-referential story. His ode to the vampire film, “Martin," is a wonderfully disturbing modern take on a classic monster with his signature ambiguity regarding its protagonist. Romero was about so much more than zombies.
Unfortunately for him his zombie legacy was hard to put behind him and while he continued to make some interesting films like “Monkey Shines," “Two Evil Eyes" and so on, they never really captured the public imagination in quite the same way. There were occasional hints at a return to zombie films that faltered, with a notable fuss being made about possible involvement in a film version of the video game Resident Evil which eventually fell through (though he made an advert for the Japanese market) but eventually he found his way back to the series that made his name with three more installments of the Dead series.
Aside from his filmmaking though, Romero was well regarded by fans and filmmakers as being a great person to work with, someone who would allow others to contribute ideas and who approached films in a collaborative way. He found and nurtured talent including the special effects genius Tom Savini who in turn would mentor the likes of Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero. These two, later known for KNB EFX, went on to make the series clearly inspired by Romero's work “The Walking Dead." Romero's camp of collaborators have spread out and made a huge mark on the horror film world and it all stems from the legacy of the great George A. Romero.
Although his later works have not ascended to the dizzy heights of his classic trio of Dead films, Romero kept plugging away despite never quite making it as part of the studio system. His indie sensibilities always seemed to stop him from being a part of Hollywood and for me, that's to his credit. He kept making the films he wanted, the way he wanted and however he could and even stepped into writing for computer games and comics. He was a director that deserved more trust and respect from the mainstream than he was given, particularly when the mainstream was capitalizing on his inspiring work.
There is no measure big enough by which to assess the impact that he had on the world of filmmaking. So many film makers have been prompted to make their own films because of Romero's work that the loss to the fans and to the filmmaking community is terrific and will be felt across the board, from the amateur indie filmmaker, to the fans and on into the professional industry.
All I can say at this point is a huge thanks to Romero, to whom I owe my love of the genre in no small part. I remember being terrified by the mere trailer for “Dawn of the Dead" as a kid, I remember the thrill of finally seeing both “Dawn" and “Day of the Dead" uncut and in their full gory glory, the chills that “The Crazies" sent down my spine, the joy and sadness of “Knight Riders" and many other wonderful times were had with the big man's stories.
Thank you, Mr. Romero, we all owe you a debt of gratitude, us fans, filmmakers and all those whose entertainment you inspired. You will be missed.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
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