George A. Romero
George Romero's legacy will be that of a filmmaker ahead of his time, in terms of both independence and visceral violence. But before merely relegating Romero to the status of torchbearer, it must be remembered that his legend isn't based solely on his innovations but in the fact that he made great films.
George Allen Romero was born in the Bronx, New York on February 4, 1940. His love of film began early in his life, and by the age of 14 Romero was making 8-mm shorts. Romero attended college at Carnegie-Mellon University, initially studying design and drama, in what would become his adopted home of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
After college Romero began making TV commercials and industrial shorts, forming his own production company with some friends called The Latent Image. Along with another Pittsburgh advertising firm, Hardman Associates, and other outside investors, Romero raised $114,000 to make his first feature, Night of the Living Dead, in 1968. Romero wrote, directed, photographed, edited and acted in what became arguably the most influential horror film ever made. It was the forebear of all horror that has passed since, the beginning of the modern horror film.
The film's story was simple enough: The bodies of the dead have come back to life, craving the flesh of the living. While tying to escape the bloodthirsty ghouls, a group of seven people end up in an abandoned farmhouse fighting for their lives.
Though explicit violence and gore were not new to horror or cinema in general, mainstream success and acceptance of films that contained them was. And the violence and bloodshed, from cannibalism to a little girl killing her mother with a garden spade, rocked the world of cinema. Along with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Night of the Living Dead helped forever change cinema and the production codes that had shackled films for most of their existence.
But unlike The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde, both studio films with respected directors, bigger budgets and Hollywood stars, Night of the Living Dead was an independent production shot on location in Pennsylvania in black-and-white with no money, novice actors and a first time director.
The film was the definition of low budget: investors had roles when there weren't enough actors and a local butcher who had invested provided the intestines and entrails for the cannibalism scenes.
Inspired by Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" and originally title Night of the Flesh Eaters, Romero proved that a successful film didn't have to be made in Hollywood with studio money or big stars. All you needed was a camera, filmmaking know how and a great idea. All the best horror of the past three decades has thrived on that formula, and they all owe a debt of gratitude to George Romero. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and The Blair Witch Project would not exist if it weren't for his creative vision.
But what makes Romero so important in the landscape of film history is that his influence and the influence of Night of the Living Dead reached far beyond the horror genre. Though American independent film did have figures like John Cassavetes working in 1968, most of their films were critical successes, not commercial successes. George Romero proved that movies can be made outside Hollywood with a modest budget and succeed, not just critically but commercially. Every American independent filmmaker since, from John Sayles to Quentin Tarantino, owes Romero for opening up that door.
Though Night of the Living Dead's reputation is based somewhat on the way it changed cinema, it's more so based on the quality of the film itself. Gore and violence have come so far since the films release that Night of the Living Dead is no longer remotely shocking, but it isn't a film that relies on shock value for effectiveness.
More than anything else, Romero fashioned a character study. The people trapped inside the desolate farmhouse aren't cardboard cutouts waiting to be dispatched in gory ways, as is too often the case in the modern horror films. Though some of the acting is a bit stiff, to be expected from the novice actors the budget required, the film is more a study of human nature and how we react to adversity, fear and hate. Keeping with the theme of cynicism that pervades all Romero's best films, the horrors that the people predicate on each other inside the house are just as horrible and vicious as the demise that awaits them outside the house.
Though Duane Jones was cast not because he was black, but because he was the best actor Romero could find who would work for peanuts, it was one of those lucky accidents that made the film better. In 1968, amongst the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War, in an American tearing itself apart from the inside, Jones striking white woman Barbara and, in the finale, being shot and pulled with meathooks into a bonfire, took on added significance.
Another lucky accident that befell the production was the lack of funds for color stock, requiring the film be shot in black and white. The shadowy, grainy look that resulted adds much-needed atmosphere. The way the lighting casts shadows upon the walls, the way it eclipses faces and adds sinister tones adds immeasurably to the film. In fact, though Romero would later pioneer even gorier effects techniques, he never again made a film that was shot as well as Night of the Living Dead and few films have ever built tension as effectively.
Following Night of the Living Dead, Romero made three low-budget films in a two-year span, none of which met with much success. First was his one and only foray into romantic drama, Always Vanilla (1972). In 1973 Romero wrote and directed both Season of the Witch, a reality based film about modern witchcraft, and The Crazies, about the government accidentally poisoning the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town.
Romero then took a break from features and produced a series of hour-long sports documentaries called "The Winners" before embarking on two unforgettable masterpieces.
The first was an extremely low-budget vampire film called Martin (1977), shot in small-town Pennsylvania locales with an almost documentary-like visual authenticity. Romero completely reinvented and inverted the vampire genre, stripping all the mystique and legend and making the titular character, a 17-year old boy who believes he's a vampire, planted firmly in the realm of reality.
Though recent films like Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995) and Larry Fessenden's excellent Habit (1997) have, by modernizing the vampire, tried to make statements outside the realm of horror, Martin, like Night of the Living Dead, is more character study than straight horror film. The film also began two important collaborations for Romero: actress Christine Forrest, who would appear in many of his films and later marry the director, and that of make-up and effects magician Tom Savini, who also acted in Martin.
The next year Romero would release his masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead (1978). This sequel to Night of the Living Dead once again upped the ante on screen horror, with Tom Savini providing the most disgusting gore effects to ever grace the screen and spawning an entire generation of cheep, gory knockoffs, the best of which came out of Italy in the hands of Lucio Fulci.
While keeping the same kind of morally imperfect and complicated characters of the original, Dawn of the Dead added even stronger social commentary, this time a knock against American consumerism and greed. The zombies are now running rampant and beginning to take over the country, as four people from Philadelphia, two newspeople and two Philly cops, escape via helicopter.
The foursome eventually ends up at a Pennsylvania mall, which they turn into a sort of Utopia, locking out all the zombies and living in the lap of luxury with every modern convenience imaginable now at their fingertips for free. But eventually greed ruins that Utopia, as a band bikers break into the mall, allowing the zombies access and initiating some of the goriest 15-minutes ever put on film.
Filmed in Monroeville Mall, Monroeville, PA with a budget of $1.5 million, Dawn of the Dead lacked the tension and sheer terror of the original, but instead was in turn comical, insightful, horrifying, disgusting and entertaining. At over two hours in length, Dawn of the Dead is a horror epic with few contemporaries.
Dawn of the Dead was a huge success in the U.S. and in foreign markets, and with his new clout Romero opted for a change of pace. The result was Knightriders (1981), which told the story of a band of bikers living by their own code who eventually self-destruct. Tom Savini and a young Ed Harris starred. Again, Romero showed his gift for character and commentary, proving he wasn't limited to the horror genre. But audiences didn't respond to the non-horror Romero, and though he often says it's his favorite film, Knightriders wasn't a success.
Next Romero took a break from the serious and began what would become a long and successful relationship with horror master Stephen King. With the horror anthology Creepshow (1982), the horror masters paid homage to the E.C. Comics of the 50's they had so loved growing up.
Consisting of five short stories penned by King, Creepshow showed Romero's previously unexplored black sense of humor and gave him the best cast he would ever get to work with. E.G. Marhsall, Leslie Nielsen, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and a young Ed Harris and Ted Danson appeared in the film, whose tongue-in-cheek tone and excellent effects made it a hit.
But what made Creepshow so enjoyable was how Romero was able to capture the look and feel of the old comics. Full of fluorescent colors and abstract lighting, split frame visuals and inserted dialogue capsules, the film captured the feel of the pulp comic better than any of the anthology movies and series that followed. Romero himself executive produced an excellent anthology series called "Tales From the Darkside," which was made into a feature film in 1990 which Romero penning one of the stories.
The final installment of Romero's Dead Trilogy, Day of the Dead, followed in 1985. Romero had a grand scale in mind for the film, as zombies had now taken over earth, but budget constraints forced him to abandon his epic idea. The budget was cut from $7 million to $3.5, and Romero's zombie epic was reduced to an underground battle battle between science and military might, as both tried to find a way to deal with the zombies. Another great commentary on the battle between brain and brawn, the film was none-the-less the least successful of the trilogy, though it had many fine moments and even more stomach churning gore.
Maybe it was the fierce battles or his vision being destroyed on Day of the Dead, but Romero abandoned independent filmmaking and starting working within the studio system, making only four more films in the decade and half since Day of the Dead.
The first was Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear, made for Orion in 1988. Though the film had some interesting aspects (a monkey that has been injected with human brain cells begins to exhibit human traits) and Romero effectively mounted tension in the films finale, Monkey Shines couldn't overcome the ridiculousness of its premise or the fact that the cute little monkey simply wasn't scary.
A disappointing Poe adaptation called Two Evil Eyes followed in 1990, with Romero helming one story and Italian horror master Dario Argento directing the other. Romero's half, a version of Poe's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar," looked cheap and indifferently directed. It remains the worst effort Romero has put on film.
Romero also did some behind the scenes work during this time, writing and producing the abysmal sequel to Creepshow in 1987 and producing and scripting a disappointing remake of Night of the Living Dead, helmed by Savini, in 1990.
In 1993 Romero once again worked with Orion and Stephen King, adapting King's best-selling novel "The Dark Half" for the screen. The Dark Half is about a respected novelist and English professor named Thad Beaumont who secretly writes sleazy, violent pulp novels under the name of George Stark. When this secret is about to be exposed, Beaumont goes public himself and kills off his alter ego to return to more dignified writing.
For King, who used the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, and Romero, two artists who never intended to be pigeonholed in the horror genre, Beumont's battle with the artist and the commercial must have seemed particularly relevant. Romero provided some scares, mostly of the "jump out at you" variety and the film is his most visually polished, but despite a good performance from Timothy Hutton (playing both Beaumont and his "dark half") the film descended into supernatural aspects that didn't fit.
For years after The Dark Half, Romero suffered through "development hell", stuck in filmmaking limbo after project upon project fell through. A script for a new Mummy film was rejected by Universal. He was hired to write and direct a film version of the popular video game Resident Evil, but his script met with studio disapproval and he was dismissed from the project.
After being walked over by the studios and, in not making a film for over seven years, losing his identity as filmmaker, Romero wrote and directed a film that dealt with both. The film, called Bruiser, told the story of a put-upon and taken-advantage of magazine employee (Peter Flemyng) who wakes up one morning with his identity erased and his face replaced by a bizarre white mask.
Despite excellent production values, a much livelier camera than most Romero efforts and a perfectly bizarre performance from Peter Stormare as the magazine's editor-in-chief, Bruiser never gels. The initial set-up is well done, but the revenge saga that follows is ugly, sordid and unnecessary. The appearance of the mask also doesn't make much sense, seeming to have wondered in from a David Lynch movie. Bruiser lacked the two things that have always set Romero apart from his horror contemporaries: good characters and horror based in reality.
Whether his future projects (including a possible fourth Dead film) come to fruition or drift off into oblivion, Romero's place in film history, not just horror film history, has already been secured. His ability to raise horror above the realm of mere fright while adding social significance and personal relevance coupled with his ability to produce great films away from Hollywood make George Romero a brave, visionary and unique filmmaker.