Discussion and debate about the best directors of all time usually covers the same ground; who has won the most Oscars, who has the most classics in their back catalogue, who has covered the most genres. Something that’s regularly missed is legacy. Sadly it’s the sort of thing that isn’t looked at until a great filmmaker passes away, and this week one of Hollywood’s most legacy rich directors departed for pastures new.
I say Hollywood director, George A. Romero was better nown for being a Pittsburgh director, and proud to be so. Born in The Bronx, New York City in 1940, Romero first supplanted himself to Pittsburgh aged 19 to study at Carnegie Mellon University. Graduating in 1960 his first forays behind the camera were for commercials and short films. Earning just enough to take the brave step in to film production, Romero gathered together a group of nine close friends and formed Image Ten Productions. Their first feature film was Night of the Living Dead (1968); for the picture Romero was director, editor, co-writer and even actor.
With the possible exception of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) no other directorial debut has featured so highly in so many lists of the greatest films of all time. And not even Shawshank can match NOTLD for reach and influence. Gathering together a crew of acting and filmmaking friends from the Pittsburgh area, Romero took a budget of $114,000 and delivered a landmark of horror history that earned $30million. The ‘zombie’ had appeared infrequently in cinema for some years prior to 1968, but it had never been fully formed. NOTLD changed that, setting down the cinematic rules from which countless artworks flowed. Simply put, no Romero, no The Walking Dead, no Resident Evil, no Shaun of the Dead, or anything else that used the shuffling, grey skinned, flesh munching ghouls NOTLD gave us.
It would have been impossible for anyone to top NOTLD and Romero’s career, commercially at least, took a dip following NOTLD’s release. There’s Always Vanilla (1971), and Season of the Witch (1973) failed to wow critics and cinemagoers, while The Crazies (1973) returned to safer territory, a leaked government virus turning the occupants of a mid-west American town in to violent zombie-like fiends. Romero was always at his best when taking risks. It was good but it was no NOTLD.
Eschewing expectations and returning to unconventional cinema, Martin (1978) also returned Romero to the good graces of film critics. A dark comedy horror, the film offered an alternate take on the vampire mythos, following a young man’s struggle with his new vampiric tendencies. Buoyed by the return to critical form, Romero then released the film horror fans had been waiting for, a sequel to NOTLD.
Rather than lazily repeat the tropes that made his debut a success, for Dawn of the Dead (1978) Romero ditched much of the terror and replaced it with dark humour and a level of viscera previously unseen in mainstream cinema. While the spectacular gore grabbed the headlines, Romero’s social commentary on America’s slide in to rampant consumerism shone through on repeat viewings and Dawn became another milestone in horror movie history.
Still not content to fall back on delivering more of the same, Romero’s next picture became his most unique and underrated movie. Knightriders (1981) follows a group of traveling ‘knights’ who live as Arthurian legend whilst staging motorbike jousting shows across America to fund their alternative lifestyle. Largely unappreciated on release, Knightriders is now held as one of the finest cult films of the eighties.
Perhaps as a reaction to the negative response Knightriders received, Romero once again returned to his emblematic series with Day of the Dead (1985). Though not the measure of the preceding two films, it still presented enough unique ideas to make it a great horror watch. Finally deciding to lean upon his horror reputation, over the next few years Romero stepped back from filmmaking duties, only being lured back behind the camera for the occasional scary movie, Monkey Shines (1988), Two Evil Eyes (1990), The Dark Half (1993). The zombie villain that Romero created also shuffled off out of fashion.
Some years later a zombie comeback was mounted, the charge fittingly led by two more strong directorial debuts both directly inspired by Romero, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004). With zombie’s once again earning plaudits and box office dollars Romero finally received the backing needed to add a fourth instalment to the Dead franchise, Land of the Dead (2005). Choosing to take aim at the rich / poor divide, the social commentary over shadowed the scares and horror too much on the fourth go round, though the quality of Romero’s direction was still clear to see.
Opting again for the unique, a surprise fifth instalment arrived just two years later, Diary of the Dead (2007). A smaller side instalment to the Dead film zombie pandemic, Diary followed a group of students filming their way through the chaos. Deftly answering the difficult ‘why would they still be filming this’ question, Diary was the best entry in the franchise since Dawn and showed that Romero still have sharp filmmaking senses. The series last entry Survival of the Dead (2009), whilst not as distinctive as Diary, included some smart moral wranglings set amongst an island based side story.
Romero passed away this week at his Toronto home at the age of 77. The obituaries didn’t recap on Academy Awards won or the mountains of box office dollars earned, but that’s a good thing. Oscars and box office receipts fade quickly in the memory; do you remember who won the Best Director Award in 1968? Probably not, but you’ll know Night of the Living Dead. Even up to his passing Romero was considering another entry in the Dead series. Tentatively titled Road of the Dead it was to be a blend of Mad Max, Fast and the Furious, and Dawn of the Dead. It’s just this sort of stirring and creative filmmaking that will ensure that decades from now the name Romero will still be recalled with affection and admiration by film fans.