One of the most respected horror movie directors of all time, George Romero has managed to balance the often conflicting desires of genre fans and film critics since his debut in 1968. He's pushed the envelope of violence and gore shown on screen -- primarily through his groundbreaking work in zombie films -- but he tempers the exploitive elements with intelligent, insightful writing that often addresses socially relevant topics.
A pioneer and a visionary, he's set standards in horror by which others continue to be judged.
Night of the Living Dead:
Romero's 1968 feature film debut, Night of the Living Dead, was as daring as any that had been seen to date. With this bold, uncompromising movie, he reinvented the zombie sub-genre, which had become a steady string of stale, rehashed content. In the process, he unknowingly created a template for virtually every zombie film to follow for the next several decades.
While his portrayal of zombies borrowed elements from earlier films -- notably The Last Man on Earth and Invisible Invaders -- Romero created certain "rules" that would render his living dead the archetypes for zombie films to follow for the next three decades. First, the zombies' existence revolved solely around eating the living. Second, zombie attacks were shown in explicit detail, ratcheting up the level of cinematic gore. Third, zombies could be killed only by damaging the brain. Lastly was the notion that zombiism could be spread by a bite, although technically, in his universe, anyone who died became a zombie.
Beyond the zombie antics on the surface of Night of the Living Dead there lies the sort of biting social commentary that would characterize most of his later works -- particularly his zombie films. The movie has been interpreted as a critique of the turbulent times in which it was made, the carnage reflecting the inhumanity taking place in Vietnam in the late '60s. Furthermore, the casting of a black man (Duane Jones) as the lead during an era of civil rights struggles for African Americans made a bold, if unintentional, statement.
Dawn of the Dead:
After mining the human contagion angle of Night of the Living Dead once again in 1973's The Crazies, Romero set about working on the second of his Dead films. Released in 1978, Dawn of the Dead would become as profitable as Night of the Living Dead and almost as influential. It basically expanded the elements that made Night so revolutionary: intense gore, social commentary, apocalyptic imagery. This time, the social critique came at the expense of mass consumerism, as the film takes place in a large indoor mall -- a relatively new concept in the late '70s.
While the popularity of Night of the Living Dead grew slowly over a number of years, Dawn of the Dead proved successful upon its release, both domestically and overseas. Benefiting from a bigger budget that allowed for more elaborate, grisly makeup effects -- courtesy of legendary special effect wiz Tom Savini -- the second film's explicit gore inspired a generation of filmmakers. The movie proved so popular in Italy that Lucio Fulci's Zombie, released in 1979, was marketed there as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead. It spawned an Italian zombie movie craze (including three more Dawn "sequels") during the '80s.
Creepshow and More:
In 1982, Romero took a break from the zombie cycle to team with red-hot horror author Stephen King on Creepshow, an anthology inspired by 1950s horror comics like Tales From the Crypt. A departure from his usual dark socially relevant overtones, Creepshow's tone was unusually campy and straightforward -- horror for horror's sake. Audiences still ate it up, though, which prompted a 1987 sequel that Romero wrote but declined to direct.
The success of Creepshow also spurred Romero to produce (and in a few cases, write) the television show Tales From the Darkside, a horror anthology in which each episode is a self-contained story. Like Creepshow, Darkside tended to feature a camp appeal, and like Creepshow, the show spawned a sequel, this time in movie form. Romero wrote one of the trio of stories in 1990's Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, which performed solidly at the box office.
In the midst of his horror anthologies, Romero found the time to complete what was then considered his "Dead trilogy" with 1985's Day of the Dead. Generally considered the weakest of the three, Day nonetheless found its share of fans -- particularly outside the US, where it fared better than in its domestic release. Romero once again instilled a bleak, anti-establishment tone, showing a distrust of the military and a dark view of the nature of man, which is revealed to be just as dangerous as the zombies.
Return of the Dead:
Having completed his trilogy, Romero vowed that he was done with zombie movies. He turned to the killer monkey flick Monkey Shines in 1988, a hard-sell concept that failed to connect with viewers. He moved on to team up with a pair of fellow horror masters -- first Dario Argento in the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Two Evil Eyes (1990), and then Stephen King in the adaptation of his book The Dark Half (1993). Despite featuring the biggest budgets of Romero's career, both films flopped at the box office. Romero retreated from the movie business for a few years and returned with the smaller-scale Bruiser in 2000, which went straight to video in the US.
Perhaps due to his commercial struggles outside of the zombie realm, or perhaps due to a need to express his fondness for social satire, Romero returned to the living dead in 2005 with Land of the Dead. The green lighting of its production by a major studio (Universal) was aided by the success of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (also through Universal), with which Romero had no affiliation.
By far the largest in scope of the four Dead films, Land of the Dead portrays a world overrun by zombies in a manner initially envisioned for Day. Romero, having seemingly saved up a decade's worth of social criticism, unleashed a flurry of commentary on terrorism, the Iraq War, big business and the distribution of wealth. Although Land was received well critically and turned a profit, it was seen as a commercial disappointment, especially in light of the Dawn remake.
Still, Romero's creative juices began to flow, and he decided to make more zombie films, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, outside of the studio system. He also began producing another anthology, entitled Deadtime Stories, as well as a remake of his own The Crazies, ensuring that his stamp of quality would remain as potent in the 21st century as it had been in the previous three decades.
Select Horror Filmography:
- Survival of the Dead (2010)
- The Crazies (2010) [Executive Producer]
- Deadtime Stories (2010) [Executive Producer]
- Diary of the Dead (2008)
- Land of the Dead (2005)
- Bruiser (2000)
- The Dark Half (1993)
- Night of the Living Dead (1990) [Writer]
- Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990) [Writer]
- Two Evil Eyes (1990)
- Monkey Shines (1988)
- Creepshow 2 (1987) [Writer]
- Day of the Dead (1985)
- Tales From the Darkside (1984-88) [Executive Producer]
- Creepshow (1982)
- Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Martin (1977)
- The Crazies (1973)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)