Are you feeling all right today? Maybe a little listless, fuzzy headed … harboring a strangely intense craving to consume the brains of all those around you? Not to fret, that just means you’re— ready to join the party, and help celebrate the man heralded as the father of the zombie film, George Romero! On this, what would have been his 82nd birthday, we gather to remember an icon of horror and dark fantasy one who not only contributed hugely to his genre, but to pop culture as a whole.
So grab your best living friend, pop open their skull, and grab a snack as we get things started!
On February 4, 1940, George Andrew Romero was born in the Bronx borough of New York City. As a young boy, Romero would take the subway to rent film reels to watch at home. Taking after another legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, he repeatedly watched the opera-based film The Tales Of Hoffman, which featured a collection of shorter stories within it and is at its core a tragic film.
The movie proved to be a significant inspiration for Romero, as explained in an interview for the book The Film That Changed My Life:
“It was the filmmaking, the fantasy, the fact that it was a fantasy and it had a few frightening, sort of bizarre things in it. It was everything. It was really a movie for me, and it gave me an early appreciation for the power of visual media — the fact that you could experiment with it. He was doing all his tricks in-camera, and they were sort of obvious. That made me feel that, gee, maybe I could figure this medium out. It was transparent, but it worked.”
This influence would follow him as he went to college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Carnegie Mellon University. The city of Pittsburgh would become essentially the epicenter of Romero’s career going forward. Graduating in 1960, he got his start in shooting TV commercials and short films, one of which included an item you would never expect to find on the resume of a horror genius: a segment from Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood, in which Mr. Rodgers underwent a tonsilectomy.
1968 was the landmark year for Romero, as he released the original Night Of The Living Dead, the seminal zombie movie that Romero himself directed, photographed, edited, and did the majority of the writing for. In later years it became a cult classic, but during its time it engendered huge amounts of outrage and controversy despite being heralded within five years as the highest grossing horror film developed outside of a major studio. Released before the existence of the MPAA and a ratings system, even very small children were able to purchase tickets to its premiere at a Saturday afternoon matinee. Those same children would leave the theater not delightfully scared, but absolutely terrified by the film.
During the 70s, Romero tried to branch out with other films such as There’s Always Vanilla, Season Of The Witch, and The Crazies, but none of them received the buzz nor replicated the success of his first movie. In 1978, he returned to the formula with a follow up, Dawn Of The Dead. Going on to become another classic and cult juggernaut, and continued the Dead series with third movie, Day Of The Dead, in 1985. Between these movies, he filmed others like Monkey Shines, a movie about a service animal gone rogue, and the Stephen King film Creepshow. That particular film would go on to spawn the horror anthology TV series Tales From The Darkside.
George Romero remained a relevant force in film for the rest of his career, working his way through the Nineties with things like the remake of the original Night Of The Living Dead, a speculative pilot about professional wrestling called Iron City Asskickers, and was tapped to direct a commercial for the Resident Evil 2 video game franchise given that the game was so heavily inspired by Romero’s previous work. This, as well as Romero being invited to write the first Resident Evil movie, were the first indicators of just how greatly Romero’s zombie films would go on to leave a lasting impression in popular culture, with games such as these giving rise to other successful zombie-fueled media franchises, such as The Walking Dead.
As the 2000’s arrived, he not only continued to appear in the video game industry, but worked his way into comics as well, writing the 15-issue Empire Of The Dead for Marvel in 2014. He would continue to write, direct, and influence other zombie films, such as those in the Dead franchise, and leave his mark on the zombie mythos in popular culture until his death in 2017 from the aftermath of a brief but brutal fight with lung cancer.
To this day, Romero’s work remains a massive influence that has stood the test of time. The world’s fascination with the undead shows no signs of flagging, with most every popular media franchise eventually releasing its own version of a zombie spinoff, from Marvel to Archie comics to even the Zombies action figure line produced by professional wrestling juggernaut WWE. His films are a testament to his talent, which may have scarred the youth of Pittsburgh in the late Sixties, but is looked upon with fondness and respect in the modern day.
George Romero, we salute you on the anniversary of your birthday – and who knows? Perhaps he might yet show up as one of the monsters he made so famous. If he gets a little peckish, however…
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.