After battling everything from racism and consumerism to the horrors of war, filmmaker George A. Romero sadly passed away on July 16, 2017 following his own personal fight with lung cancer. As any horror fan knows, it's no exaggeration to say that the world of film will never be the same again. From The Walking Dead and World War Z to video games such as Call of Duty, Romero's legacy spawned a zombie epidemic in film that continues to infect pop culture almost fifty years after Night of the Living Dead was first released.
As one of the few directors to invent an entire genre, Romero devised a number of key tropes that still live on today, including the zombie's hunger for flesh, a weakness for bullets to the head, and the idea that a virus could cause such outbreaks in the first place. What's even more impressive, though, is how movies such as Night of the Living Dead managed all of this while simultaneously revolutionizing the business model that popularized exploitation cinema in the years that followed.
Still, these aren't the only reasons why hordes of fans will pay tribute to the genius of Romero in the coming days and weeks. Despite being largely characterized by mindless creatures, Romero's iconic movies are among the most intelligent ever made, transcending the genre's drive-in origins to cut away at the decaying morals of society.
A True American Horror Story
Much like the genre he almost single-handedly invented, Romero always shuffled forward, determined to consume conformist attitudes with his unique brand of subversive filmmaking. In fact, social commentary infected each of Romero's films from the get-go, but this was never more apparent than in his debut, Night of the Living Dead.
While subsequent films in the franchise explored the ramifications of consumerism on the American people, protagonist Ben Huss fought a war on two fronts in Night of the Living Dead, tackling both racism at home and the Vietnam War abroad. By casting black actor Duane Jones as his leading man, Romero tapped into the political turmoil of the era with astounding insight, lending an unnerving allegorical power to his cinematic debut.
Released during the nightmarish year of 1968, Night of the Living Dead embodied the zeitgeist with a harrowing and yet all too real ending that no other movie has quite matched since. Reflecting a society already on the verge of collapse, Romero's debut ended with a lone African-American survivor who died not at the hands of cannibalistic zombies, but at the end of a gun held by white men. Any optimism that had lingered among Americans following the boom of the '50s was shattered once and for all by this single bullet, which remains painfully relevant even now, five decades later.
With their police dogs in hand, this gun-toting, all-white mob evoked painful parallels with the Ku Klux Klan and the violent resentment that many white Americans held towards the Civil Rights Movement in the late '60s. The decision to burn Ben's body at the end only serves to reinforce this further.
Studied in isolation, a number of the grainy frames seen in Night of the Living Dead could just as easily be archive photos taken from the lynchings of the '20s or the Birmingham campaign of 1963. Add color to these images though, and you could just as easily be looking at a photo taken today, encapsulating one of the countless acts of racism that continues to plague our society fifty years on.
The War Of Terror
The unsettling realism of Romero's work may have reflected America's internal war over race, but the grainy, black and white footage that characterized Night of the Living Dead also dug up the feelings of otherness that sparked off the Vietnam War too.
Resembling the news reels that aired in people's living rooms each evening, the use of hand-held cameras and natural lighting in Night of the Living Dead reinforced metaphorical comparisons between the #zombies and the soldiers. Both are presented as mindless killing machines, devoid of emotion or autonomy, and those who resisted "infection" were arguably resisting the conformity of the armed forces and the government's unpopular draft system. The consistent use of military language such as "search and destroy" only serving to heighten these parallels further.
With Night of the Living Dead, #GeorgeRomero proved that horror films can explore real-life nightmares in a way that no other genre can, crawling into our subconscious with more force than a horde of documentaries ever could. In the BFI Classics book that dissected the still vibrant corpse of Romero's debut, the filmmaker himself revealed his political motivations, explaining that:
“We really were pissed off that the sixties didn’t work, that the world didn’t change.”
Without Romero's readiness to share his dissent with the world, filtering the rage of a generation wronged through the lens of genre cinema, there would be no socially conscious horrors such as Jordan Peele's modern classic Get Out. Without Romero's inventive reinterpretation of Haiti zombie mythology, there would be no acclaimed zombie movies or TV shows such as #TheWalkingDead. Hell, without Romero's genre-defining exploits, #horror fans wouldn't even be able to enjoy the claustrophobic trappings of The Thing or immortal boogeyman such as Michael Myers who have stalked countless teenagers over the years.
Just Romero's name alone is enough to raise images of gore and dread from the darkest recesses of the mind, but after exploring the end of the world for decades, the world really has ended for those who first fell in love with his movies all those many years ago. It's fitting, then, that Romero's legacy will continue to claw at us in his absence, infecting countless works as it spreads rampantly through the veins of pop culture. No one can stop the contagion and why would we want to? We need George A. Romero's socially conscious brand of horror now more than ever.
What are your favorite scenes from Romero's filmography? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
(Source: Hervey, Ben. Night of the Living Dead. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.)