It seems unreal that one of the godfathers of horror George A. Romero died last year. Since 1968, his presence at comic-cons or on DVD making-of features was almost taken for granted. I’ve made several short films since 2006, trying so hard to get better with each that I almost forgot how much Romero influenced my first efforts: my friend Hank as a chained up zombie coated in chocolate syrup like they used in Night of the Living Dead; gray-ish blue zombie makeup in my short Dawn of the Living, a nod to Dawn of the Dead‘s (1978) unique zombie design. It was a safe space to play as I grew into filmmaking by exploring different narratives in a world Romero created. But his world was more than just zombies – it was about art, politics, being a generous collaborator, and the way we create in a capitalist world.
I was introduced to Romero in a very roundabout manner, catching the 1990 re-make of Night (surprisingly good) on TNT’s MonsterVision as a ten-year old kid terrified of DEATH and even more of the idea that the dead might come back. Later in high school I’d finally see the original Night and then Dawn, whose social commentary showed me the importance of saying something with your work – not just going for empty gags.
Romero’s work has continued to follow me as I teach film studies courses between shooting new films. Just this year I taught Night of the Living Dead to my undergraduate students, discussing the politics embedded within the film (Vietnam, Civil Rights) and the rise of independent filmmakers like Romero in the wake of Hollywood’s decay. Despite the fact that it’s a 49-year-old black and white film, they jump when Ben is shot dead, squirm when Helen is stabbed by her undead daughter, and sit in stunned silence as the meat hooks drag Ben’s body to a burn pile. Any black and white film that can make undergraduates gasp nearly 50 years later has earned its keep.
And the cultural significance of Romero’s work doesn’t begin to sum up what we’ve lost with his passing. Here was a filmmaker who dared to make films outside of the Hollywood system and create a genre picture with an unflinching psychological and emotional bite, compared to the cheap exploitation films of the era. He worked with friends in a farmhouse with no running water, using cameras from their ad agency to shoot a film they weren’t sure they’d finish. Out of that struggle he made a film that birthed an entire horror subgenre and was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for its cultural significance. That story of struggle and success illustrates the importance of a democratic cinema, a filmmaking ethos that’s not dependent upon studio facilities and financing.
After the huge success of Night, the industry norm would have been to accept the usual Hollywood offers to shill lesser, bigger budget fare; but Romero turned these down in favor of a continued struggle for complete independence. For his sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), the MPAA threatened a poisonous X rating which was scaring off distributors. Instead of cutting the film to the MPAA’s specifications, he rented a NYC theatre, took out a small ad to promote it, and held a sold out screening for ravenous fans. He found distribution that night, his film released “unrated.”
George Romero did all of this at professional expense. He remarks in a documentary about Dawn of the Dead that not immediately jumping into another zombie film after Dawn may have hurt his career. He shrugs it off, “But that’s the way it went.” He was acutely aware that the complete freedom was going to cost him in some places, but was willing to make the trade-off.
Even the man’s way of directing is out of sync with other famous male directors: Kubrick emotionally terrorizing Shelley Duvall for The Shining, James Cameron yelling at his crew so often that they make T-shirts about it, David Fincher shooting an average of 50 takes to get what he wants. Some of it is abusive, some a little perfectionist, but Romero regularly collaborated with his cast and crew in a way that deserves more attention than the current crop of dude filmmakers.
In behind-the-scenes docs for all of his zombie films, actors and crew recall fondly that Romero welcomed new ideas, which in turn made them want to work harder for him. The zombies in Night eating bugs and animal parts, or Dawn‘s Roger sliding down the escalator – these moments were all improvised by the actors.
Even in the documentary Birth of the Living Dead, Romero humorously stares into the camera and says to the documentary director, “Crews are, you know, it’s where it’s at, man. I mean, you’re reliant on all these people. And it’s the only way it happens, ever. You can’t go out a make a movie. You can’t make this movie [the doc] without this guy [pointing to cameraman off-screen].” Romero wasn’t stuck up his own ass about the work he was creating; from concept to execution he saw it as a collaborative art, rather than the quest for a singular authorship most have come to accept as gospel.
And it was through his collaborative spirit that he was able to correct one of his blind spots – writing female characters. Infamously, Barbara from Night is a catatonic wreck in need of saving, a trope that was already old by the film’s release in ’68. When shooting Dawn of the Dead he began the same damsel in distress cycle for his lone female character, Francine (played by Gaylen Ross). But Ross, tired of this same trope, told Romero she wasn’t going to play a falling, crying caricature – and Romero agreed: Romero would go on to write the script for the 1990 re-make of Night with Barbara updated to be a badass hero instead of a hapless twit, which one could almost read as an act of contrition.
For plenty of horror connoisseurs, Romero’s passing means an official end to the Dead films that launched his career. But for filmmakers, Romero’s death is also a reminder to dare to create hard-hitting art that does more than shock and awe: it asks hard questions while remaining accessible (Romero was great at giving the audience sugar to go with the intellectual medicine).
It’s a reminder, above all else, to use your kindness, wits and creativity to make art. Don’t merely ape the film industry practices of Hollywood and Indiewood that too often include a license to abuse your cast and crew because of your “genius”. And it’s a reminder that we need to make art that’s going to matter long after we’re gone –even if it might cost us in various ways in the short-term.
Romero may be dead, but this semester I have another 25 students who have no idea what they’re in for when Barbara and Johnny drive up to a creepy cemetery in Pittsburgh.
– Remington Smith