The reports of George Romero’s death tell us that he passed away listening to the soundtrack of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The gentle Irish yarn was, apparently, among his very favourite films. Should we be surprised that the man who invented the modern zombie film was at home to such warmth? We should not.
A faith in decent liberal values runs through such horrible films as Night of the Living Dead and Martin. Moreover, like most great horror directors, not the smallest shed of the macabre attached to his everyday personality. I met him at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2005 and he could not have been more charming or more amiable.
Like contemporaries such as the late Wes Craven, Romero would not, as a young man, have expected to end up as a horror director. Raised in New York City, the son of a Cuban dad and a Lithuanian mother, he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and went on to a career shooting commercials. By the time he came to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968, he and his chums saw themselves as radical independent film-makers. Horror films were simply the easiest movies to get made on a small budget. His favourite film-maker was the eccentric Englishman Michael Powell, director of A Matter of Life and Death and Tales of Hoffman. So why didn't he make a sweeping romance?
Night of the Living Dead is now universally referred to as a "zombie" entertainment. But that was not how Romero then saw it
“Where would we have got the money for that?” he asked me. “But you look at a film like the Tales of Hoffman and it really is a horror film. There is no better Dracula than Robert Helpmann in that film.”
Focussing on an African-American man holding out against assault by the undead, Night of the Living Dead is now universally referred to as a “zombie” entertainment. But that was not how Romero then saw it.
“Actually I never called ours zombies,” he told me. “That description appeared in an article in Cahiers du Cinema. ‘They’re zombies,’ it said. Oh really. We originally thought of them as ghouls.”
He also claimed that the apparent allusion to the contemporaneous civil rights disturbances was an accident. Duane Jones, who played the lead, was not cast because he was black. He was simply the best actor that Romero knew. Politics were thrust upon the film before it was even released.
“We had finished the film, put it in the car and were driving from Pittsburgh to New York,” he said. “My partner and I were in the car and that very night we heard the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. There were race riots everywhere.”
It involves no hyperbole to suggest that Night of the Living Dead is among the most influential of all American films. The picture spawned a series of sequels – Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and onwards – that introduced previously unfamiliar levels of satire to horror.
The manner of its production was also important. Romero and nine of his friends initially chipped in $600 each to buy some film stock and to rent the farmhouse in which most of Night of the Living Dead was to be shot. Having put together some raw footage, they began gathering $10,000 donations from local businessmen and professionals. Today, we might say the film was “crowd-sourced”.
The picture emerged to a smattering of largely indifferent reviews. It gradually gathered acclaim from two different directions. Chemically befuddled college kids savoured its violent excesses and counter-cultural ambience. French intellectuals writing for Cahiers du Cinema approached it with greater seriousness and declared it a masterpiece in a whole new form.
Romero’s career passed through peaks and troughs. In this day and age, he would be exactly the sort of young independent that Disney would grab for a Thor movie. That didn’t happen then. In the 1970s he made some remarkable independent films — Martin, his 1977 story of a boy who thinks he’s a vampire, was particularly fine – but he never formed a satisfactory relationship with any of the studios. Films such as Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993) have fine moments, but they don’t have the character of the Dead films.
He was, however, revered by at least two successive generations of film-makers. When we met, he had to excuse himself to take a call from a young Edgar Wright, who was then enjoying success with Shaun of the Dead.
Romero’s last film was yet another episode in the Dead sequence. Survival of the Dead opened in 2009 to unhappy reviews and modest box office. He was asked to shoot a few episodes of the zombie TV series The Walking Dead, but he expressed himself uninterested.
Romero was a great American original like Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali or Mark Twain. Like them, he helped define the nation's character
A hugely tall man with a gentle voice and fondness for 1960 terms such as “cat” and “bread” he, nonetheless, gave every impression that he had lived a good life. He was always patient with fans and retained his believe in 1960s values. “We were all ‘60s guys,” he told me. “We actually lived in that farmhouse [where Night of the Living Dead was shot]. We bathed in the river and talked bullshit every night.”
Suzanne Desrocher Romero, his second wife, and Tina Romero, his daughter, were at his side when he died from a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer.”
He will be mourned by legions of horror fans and anyone who respects culture. Romero was a great American original like Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali or Mark Twain. Like them, he helped define the nation's character.
“I sort of wink at détente at the end of this picture,” he told me when promoting 2005’s Land of the Dead. “And if I die tomorrow I think that is the message I would like to go out on.”
We grant him his wish.