It is hard to think of a genre filmmaker who has had more of an impact than the great George A. Romero. After all, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD helped shape how modern cinema saw this classic monster. The atmospherically creepy black and white 1968 masterpiece featured a small group of survivors fighting off a savage hoard of zombies in an abandoned farmhouse and it was sensational. The crude documentary style camerawork mixed with the shocking social commentary helped cement the image of this mythical flesh-eater. Plus it gave me too many nightmares to remember. Even to this day with the hit series “The Walking Dead” as well as the many infestations of the undead that have been unleashed on the big and small screen, Romero’s influence is unmistakable.
As popular as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was, for me it was his 1978 sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD that proved what a visionary filmmaker he was. The setting, a shopping mall in Pittsburgh, was a perfect place to take his nightmarish living dead to all new horrific heights. While his first foray into this world featured far less gruesome effects, DAWN reveled in the gory goodness of people being ripped apart. Yet it was all the more powerful as a very sharp and relevant social commentary not unlike his original zombie classic. With these two films the name Romero became synonymous with the living dead sub-genre. The problem with their success however is that Hollywood clearly won’t allow the filmmaker to step out of the shadow of the dead. And that is a travesty my friend!
Looking back at his earlier work, it was clear he had more on his mind than just walking corpses. In 1973 the director offered up a new kind of epidemic in THE CRAZIES about a government created virus turning ordinary citizens into psychos – although personally I prefer the 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant. A year before he explored the dark adventures of a bored suburban housewife who begins to experiment in witchcraft in SEASON OF THE WITCH (aka HUNGERY WIVES). That same decade, Romero took a bite out of another classic monster with his unique twist on the vampire mythology in the 1976 cult classic MARTIN. From the very beginning the director has displayed an original and non-conformist vision about movie making. This is certainly one reason that studios seem to be so damn frightened of him.
While his already impressive career should have awarded Romero a massive name in Hollywood, the success of his zombie pictures had created a nightmare of its own. With nineteen directing credits , only six of these films are part of the DEAD universe. As a writer/director he has made a number of terrific non-zombie related films and dammit he is capable of more. One of my all-time favorite flicks is the 1982 anthology horror movie CREEPSHOW where he collaborated with Stephen King – he contributed to the screenplay for the 1987 sequel CREEPSHOW 2. This campy horror classic alone should have given folks an idea that Romero is good for more than simply bringing the dead to life. F*ck! While we are at it, can we please have a sequel to this that is actually good? I’m talking to you CREEPSHOW 3… Ugh!
Aside from that incredibly awesome flick, Romero has made a few other terrific yet terribly under-appreciated genre gems. In the 1988 psychological thriller MONKEY SHINES, he pitted a quadriplegic man against a scary smart monkey giving the man vs. nature sub-genre a shot of his directorial skill. In 1993 Romero once again tackled Stephen King’s work with the effective THE DARK HALF. Timothy Hutton stars in the film as a writer whose fictional alter-ego begins to terrorize those around him. Hutton along with his co-star Amy Madigan are both great in the film. With this impressive cast Romero ably handled the material and created one of the better King adaptations to date. Plus future “The Walking Dead” star Michael Rooker is featured here as a sheriff and that is always good news.
With his next feature BRUISER (2000) failing to leave a mark, Romero needed to find the right spark to re-energize his career. So what is an artist to do but return to his bread and butter so to speak. While Romero’s own DAY OF THE DEAD (1995) didn’t connect like the first two films in the series, Hollywood began to see a sort of “zombie” resurgence within the horror world. This came thanks to films like the not really a zombie flick 28 DAYS LATER in 2002 as well as the Zack Snyder directed hit remake of Romero’s own DAWN OF THE DEAD and Edgar Wright’s loving tribute SHAUN OF THE DEAD in 2004. Soon Romero was finally given a little bit of money to make LAND OF THE DEAD in 2005. The film scored some decent box office, thus he found himself in his old familiar territory. He continued in this franchise with DIARY OF THE DEAD in 2007 and the less successful SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD in 2009.
Maybe it’s the booze talkin, but can we please let George Romero direct NON-zombie related movies for a change. As much as I admire and respect his classic DEAD franchise, it’s time to let it rest in peace. The director is capable of so much more - including his terrific work with author Stephen King- that it would be a worthwhile venture to see him take on something brand spanking new. I respect the hell out of Romero. The fact that he is so loyal to his LIVING DEAD movies is commendable, especially since he earned next to nothing for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD thanks to a major copyright mistake on the part of himself and his distributor. I’m always excited for a new Romero flick, even with his recently announced work on the script for THE ZOMBIE AUTOPSIES I guess. However, it would be a breath of fresh air to see him put the dead to rest. Who wants another THE DARK HALF, CREEPSHOW or MONKEY SHINES or something else that is not dead and buried? I know I do!