George A. Romero, the Night of the Living Dead director who helped turn zombies into a pop culture phenomenon, died Sunday. He was 77.
The horror filmmaker died following a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer” while listening to the score of the 1952 film The Quiet Man, his producing partner Peter Grunwald told the Los Angeles Times.
In addition to Romero’s revered, influential Zombie Trilogy – 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead – the director also helmed horror films like The Crazies, Creepshow and Monkey Shines.
After beginning his career making commercials and shorts, Romero – with a group of friends and a shoestring budget – filmed Night of the Living Dead, which became a cult horror classic that introduced man-eating zombies to a generation of movie fans. It was also one of the most successful independent films ever made: Shot for roughly $114,000, the film would go on to make roughly $30 million at the box office. (A recently restored version played at the Museum of Modern Art last October.)
“We always sort of refer to Night of the Living Dead as the Holy Grail of zombie movies,” The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero told Rolling Stone in 2013. “All of the rules – you’ve gotta shoot it in the head to kill it – before 1969, that little piece of folklore didn’t exist. Now it’s part of popular culture. So we owe a lot to George’s vision and the world he set up.”
“I never expected it. I really didn’t,” Romero told NPR in 2014 about the unexpected popularity of zombies. “All I did was I took them out of ‘exotica’ and I made them the neighbors. I thought there’s nothing scarier than the neighbors.”
In addition to its controversial content, Night of the Living Dead was also trailblazing in that it was one of the few films at the time to feature an African-American actor in a leading role.
“We shot it in ’67, but it was right in that period … where there was all that anger, you know race riots coming up,” Romero said. “There’s a story I always tell, when we were driving up to New York to show it to potential distributors, and that night, in the car, we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated… And here we had a black lead (actor Duane Jones) in this film, and so, I think that was largely what made the film noticeable… He was, quite simply, the best actor from among our friends.”
Following The Night of the Living Dead, Romero made his lone romantic comedy, There’s Always Vanilla, before permanently returning to the genre where he would be dubbed “the Godfather of the Dead” by his legions of fans, including Edgar Wright, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and Quentin Tarantino; when the Pulp Fiction director presented Romero with the Mastermind Award at the 2009 Scream Awards, Tarantino noted that the “A” in “George A. Romero” stands for “A Fucking Genius.”
Following The Crazies and the vampire film Martin, Romero returned to the zombie genre with Dawn of the Dead, a biting critique on consumerism that trapped the main characters inside a shopping mall while swarms of the zombies lurked outside. Day of the Dead followed in 1985, with the film once again confronting the question of whether human nature or zombies were more dangerous in the face of a post-apocalyptic world.
In total, Romero, a longtime independent filmmaker who only briefly made movies within the Hollywood system, made six zombie films: A second trilogy – Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, the last film Romero directed – arrived between 2005 and 2009, with each film holding a unique mirror to society. Romero would also serve as producer on the well-regarded Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, as well as a pair of Night of the Living Dead remakes and new versions of Day of the Dead and The Crazies.
“Sad to hear my favorite collaborator–and good old friend–George Romero has died. George, there will never be another like you,” Stephen King tweeted. Romero and King worked together on 1982’s Creepshow, an anthology of King short stories as well as 1993’s The Dark Half.
Director Guillermo Del Toro added, “Romero has passed away. Hard to find words right now. The loss is so enormous.”
“Just heard the news about George Romero. Hard to quantify how much he inspired me & what he did for cinema,” horror director Eli Roth wrote in a series of tweets. “Romero used genre to confront racism 50 years ago. He always had diverse casts, with Duane Jones as the heroic star of NOTLD. Very few others in cinema were taking such risks. He was both ahead of his time and exactly what cinema needed at that time. You can trace a direct line from NOTLD to Get Out. And…Romero created the modern zombie. The infectious bite. Shoot the head. Everything.”
Romero started it. pic.twitter.com/i4dnxi8EFV
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) July 16, 2017
Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell wrote, “Night of the Living Dead was a cornerstone of the genre. Massively influential. He was bright and very sweet to me. Safe journey, George.”
In 2013, Romero spoke to the Daily Dead about the outbreak of zombies in movies and on television, from The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z.
“I used to be the only guy in this playground, but now there’s too damn many,” Romero said. “It’s very hard now, particularly with World War Z. When I first saw it, I wasn’t thrilled with it, but the following weekend, I saw Man of Steel and I suddenly loved World War Z.”
Romero also joked in an interview with AV Club, “I expect a zombie to show up on Sesame Street soon, teaching kids to count.”