Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Late Great George Romero

Director George A. Romero, best known for his classic horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968), died on July 16 2017 at the age of 77. The cause was lung cancer.

George A. Romero was born in the Bronx on February 4 1940. As a child he was a movie fan, particularly the classic monster movies. He attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduated in 1961. Mr. Romero made a short film "Expostulations" in 1962. His first paying work came through Fred Rogers, for whom he shot short segments for the show Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood. Among the segments George Romero made for the show were " How Lightbulbs are Made" and "Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy".  George Romero and Fred Rogers would remain friends for the rest of their lives. He also shot commercials

It was in the late Sixties that George Romero formed Ten Productions with nine friends. They produced Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was directed by Mr. Romero and co-written with John A. Russo. Night of the Living Dead was met with controversy. Released shortly before the MPAA's ratings system was in place, theatres sometimes showed it at Saturday afternoon matinees where children would be present. On its initial release the film sometimes received a hostile reception from critics, particularly for its violence. There were a few critics who did acknowledge the overall quality of the film. The reviewer for Variety wrote, "Although pic’s basic premise is repellent – recently dead bodies are resurrected and begin killing human beings in order to eat their flesh – it is in execution that the film distastefully excels." Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Night of the Living Dead became a hit. It remains the most profitable horror movie not made by a big studio. And as history has shown, it has been very influential.

In the Seventies Mr. Romero followed Night of the Living Dead with the comedy There's Always Vanilla (1971) and the horror fantasy Jack's Wife (1973--later retitled Season of the Witch). While both of those films are largely forgotten by all but George Romero fans, in 1973 The Crazies was released. Dealing with a spate of homicidal madness brought on by a chemical spill, the film would gain some respect in the years following its release. These films were followed by two of his better known films. Martin (1978) dealt with a young man who believes himself a vampire. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead. He also directed TV movies in the Seventies, including O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose (1974) and Magic at the Roxy (1976), as well as episodes of the TV show The Winners.

The Nineties saw George A. Romero direct some of his best known films. Knightriders (1981) was a modernised version of Arthurian legend, centred around a travelling medieval re-enactment troupe that jousted on motorcycles. Creepshow (1982) was a horror anthology made in  collaboration with Stephen King. Day of the Dead (1985) was the second sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Monkey Shines (1988) was based on the Michael Stewart novel. He directed a segment based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" for the horror anthology Two Evil Eyes (1990).

George Romero would slow down in the Nineties. That decade he directed only two films--The Dark Half (1993), based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, and Bruiser (2000). In the Naughts he directed Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009).

In addition to directing feature films, George A. Romero was also an executive producer on the TV horror anthology Tales from the Darkside. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead, he made cameos in several of his own movies, as well as a few made by others, including Flight of the Spruce Goose (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  He also wrote comic books, including Toe Tags featuring George A. Romero for DC Comics and Empire of the Dead for Marvel.

Arguably Night of the Living Dead was one of the last great horror masterpieces, and there can be no real debate regarding its influence. In the wake of Night of the Living Dead there would be a whole plethora of imitators featuring their own versions of the living dead. Without Night of the Living Dead, there would be no Return of the Living Dead (1985), no 28 Days Later (2002), no The Walking Dead, no iZombie, no Z Nation. Alongside  Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Night of the Living Dead would introduce a new sort of monster in the horror genre, the dead raised not by the supernatural but through various pseudo-scientific means (radioactive contamination, viruses, and so on).

Of course, the fact is that George Romero did make more films than his "Dead" movies. He had proven himself an excellent director with Night of the Living Dead and so it should be no surprise that he would direct other films that would become cult classics. Martin numbers among his very best films, not simply as a variation on vampire lore, but more importantly as a film that is both satirical and thoughtful. Knightriders is one of the best takes on Arthurian legend, a film that addresses the dangers of having utopian dreams in a world that is definitely not utopian. Of course, as might be expected, George Romero was at his best directing horror movies, and he directed classics besides Night of the Living Dead and Martin: The Crazies, Creepshow, and Monkey Shines. What is more remarkable is that many of his films were made in Pittsburgh without the support of a major studio. Truly independent and extremely talented, George Romero was one of the best auteurs to emerge outside Hollywood.

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