Part I: Zombies, Couples, Witches, Viruses, Vampires, Shopping Malls, Motorbike Knights, and Underground Silos (1968-85)

If one director sums up the phrase ‘pioneer’, then it is surely George Romero. Horror has never been the same since his ground-breaking 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, where the zombie as we know and love (or hate!) it today was born. Indeed, so flooded in pop culture is the zombie now that we don’t really realize that it was one man all those years ago who successfully synthesized, portrayed, and revolutionized the horror genre-and zombie apocalypse sub-genre-so fluently.

This piece will be a succinct and fulfilling journey through the works of one of the greatest auteurs and genre filmmakers of the last 50 years, split into two parts mainly for the sake of establishing the two main Romero ‘eras’: his successful works, and not-so-successful works. There will be ups and downs, but hopefully you will come to agree that Romero left his footprint upon the very vein of film itself, bringing our fears to the surface, our hopes, and most importantly ourselves out of the shadow of the unconscious. This part will cover the period of his career from 1968-85.

Born on 4 February, 1940, George Andrew Romero quickly grew up to love film in all its guises, riding Bronx subway trains to Manhattan to rent film reels to watch at home frequently during his youth. His father being an artist in the commercial sector helped young Romero to form his filmmaking aspirations early on, and indeed, by the end of his college education, he had filmed a few commercials and formed his own film production company, Image Ten Productions. It was with pal Russ Streiner and fellow producer John Russo that Romero collaborated on what was then a shockingly original and extremely violent tale of the dead returning to life and consuming human flesh. Night of the Living Dead encapsulated everything Romero and company wanted to say about the time in which America was currently struggling; it rolls together issues such as racism, military incompetence, paranoia, violence, and particularly, the numbness we encounter in the presence of violence itself. So many images were circulating at the time of America’s less-than-popular involvement in Vietnam, depicting its soldiers as ignorant of the suffering they were causing with their bombs, guns, and cavalier attitudes, and they are all present in Night. The closing montage of still images after Ben’s ‘accidental’ death at the hands of Sherriff McClelland’s self-appointed zombie-killing posse is still highly disturbing precisely because it mimics the violence inherent in the 1960s media at the time. Romero even prefigures Friedkin’s shocking indictment of child-against-parent violence in The Exorcist (1973), with little Karen Cooper bludgeoning her mother to death with a trowel in the film’s closing scenes.

As powerful and influential as Night was, it was Romero’s films of the 1970s that present the most interesting works for study, and indeed, it can be argued that this decade represents his prime as a filmmaker. Although many know Romero through arguably his most famous film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), it is worth pointing out that Romero directed two films that don’t really fit with his previous (and soon to be forthcoming) works of horror; indeed, it seems almost impossible that Romero made a romantic comedy and a comedy-horror pre-Creepshow (1982) and Monkey Shines (1988). In 1972 Romero directed There’s Always Vanilla, a somewhat ponderous, yet comedic enough rom-com which follows Chris (Raymond Laine) and Lynn’s (Judith Ridley) mismatched romance as they fall in love, fall out of love, and deal with problems ranging from abortion to life-choices in the form of employment. The title cleverly derives from a conversation Chris has with his father where (Forrest Gump-like) he relates that life is similar to an ice-cream parlour, in that if all the exotic flavours decide to up and leave, there’s always vanilla left. The film does have a heart-warming moment at the end where Lynn, now happily married, receives a box with balloons in it, and a note attached from Chris, stating that while they were together, it was the happiest he had ever been; their relationship will always be the vanilla of the title for him.

Season of the Witch (also 1972), known alternately as Jack’s Wife, while back in the supernatural realm of horror, doesn’t feel like it has the weighty heft of Romero’s later horror works, and still feels like it was produced in the same vein as There’s Always Vanilla. It tells the story of Joan (Jan White) and her foray into witchcraft after realizing how dead-end her life is due to boring housework, an absent, violent, and controlling husband, and petulant teenager of a daughter. She becomes a witch in order to better her lot in life, and while the film does verge into violent side-tracks, and frightening dream-like scenes, it can’t seem to shift the tone of its predecessor; indeed, the scene at the end where Joan is inducted into the witches’ coven is at best campy, with ritual chanting and very cringey dialogue ripped right from something out of Monty Python.

It is the diptych of The Crazies (1973) and Martin (1978) that best epitomizes Romero’s talent in handling low-budget horror pre-Dawn, however. In The Crazies Romero brings the fear of viral and biological warfare to the forefront, as well as another favourite of his: the mistrust of the military. It tells the story of Evans City, Pennsylvania, in which the local military have lost control of a deadly contagion known as Trixie, which turns people into homicidal killers or just outright kills them (prefiguring, yet again, another modern horror duology, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel 28 Weeks Later), and the struggles of a few locals to try and survive. This particular slice of Romero presents his views on the immunity to violence his later films will cover, and shows very effectively that by using Trixie as a metaphor for the comfort some people embrace from committing acts of violence, it becomes apparent that we don’t need a super-virus in order to enact some of the shocking feats that are portrayed in The Crazies.

Martin, in my opinion, represents Romero at his most psychological in the genre, in which he attempts to dissect the vampire myth through the character of Martin (John Amplas), a young, mixed-up man who breaks into women’s rooms at night and paralyses them with drugs, only to then suck their blood. The great genius of Martin is its ability to produce multiple readings of its subject matter: if you really believe he is a vampire, then he is (his monomaniacal uncle certainly thinks so, especially considering the ending), but if you believe-as I do-that he simply represents a broken, unfulfilled, and alienated young man, then that is also a valid outlook. This is the social commentary that will come to underline the finest of Romero’s output, not so present in The Crazies, but extremely apparent in his next work; in the opinion of this author, the greatest horror film ever made.

In collaborating with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead seems the perfect horror organism, and indeed, it is. It is one of those quintessential horror pictures in which one cannot explain why one feels it is the best of the genre; it just is. With amazing performances, great special effects from the master, Tom Savini, wonderful cinematography, and gut-wrenching tension, Dawn portrays the zombie myth at its most feral and unforgiving. It is important to point out that Romero’s zombie is simply the device for the story’s synthesizing of its social commentary; in other words, they are not the focal point of the story, but they are its catalyst and its harbinger. In Night they force the survivors into the farmhouse; in Dawn they do the same, but this time it is that great lighthouse of Western necessity: the shopping mall. Of all Romero’s commentaries this is the one that bites (pun intended) the hardest: that in all the mess that ensues, while society breaks down and disintegrates, and violence becomes the norm, we will always feel at home in our little consumerist refuges, surrounded by the luxuries and amenities that we don’t and won’t need. Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott Reininger), Stephen (David Emge), and Fran (Gaylen Ross) believe they have struck gold in their seizure of the Monroeville Mall, but all they have really done is back themselves into a corner, a corner ultimately surrounded by the shambling hordes that represent death and retribution itself. It is a testament to Romero’s flawless filmmaking and remarkable social and cultural insight that Dawn was made for around $1.5 million and grossed $55 million, a-not-insubstantial sum at the time, and a marker that the film had, as Romero commented, produced “little snap shots” of the time it had been produced in. It had resonated, just as its predecessor had, with the American consciousness, which at the time was still wounded from Vietnam and Watergate, and was only through films like Dawn, coming to terms with its guilt and grief.

1981 brings Romero to his most experimental film in the form of the wonderful Knightriders. In this rather strange choice of narrative, Romero weaves together the story of a travelling motorcycle group, led by Billy (Ed Harris, in an early role) and Morgan (Tom Savini), who enact Arthurian chivalry and medieval jousting via the speed and intensity of their motorcycles. Billy is in the role of the group’s ‘king’ (the Arthur role, ostensibly) and Morgan is attempting to challenge this authority (in the mould of Lancelot) and become king himself. The movie is wonderful because it highlights exactly the mentality that Romero felt himself about making films in general: that of the independent underdog versus the idea of great wealth as success. While one should not read too much into the whole ‘the author is the main character’ theory, in this case Romero is clearly represented by the character of Billy. He is the traditionalist, the guy who champions the old ways, who will not cave into the dream of being rich and, God forbid, ‘successful’. Morgan on the other hand stands for the excessive, capitalist drive that pushes many an old dog to his demise, financially at least; the potential company man who has no qualms about accepting the money and the fame and the success of the guys at the top, while the everyman suffers. For Billy (as for Romero) the carnival, the sideshow, the chivalry is more than enough, his independence being the real factor in why he does it (just like the independent nature of Romero’s films themselves), whereas Morgan craves the excitement, the women, and the riches that come with high-end consumerism (as do the big studios, who on many occasions mocked Romero for his so-called ‘small-mindedness’). Watch carefully for a Stephen King cameo too, a foreshadowing of the two’s collaboration for the following year’s anthology film Creepshow.

In the final film of this part, we come to Romero’s last great work, and the last of his first, superior, Dead trilogy: 1985’s Day of the Dead. I initially thought of Day as the weakest of the three, but upon subsequent re-viewings and examinations, I believe it to be second only to Dawn; technically, however, even I must admit the film is miles ahead of Dawn, with absolutely amazing special effects for the time, way ahead of any other horror films of the 1980s. Greg Nicotero, Tom Savini, and Howard Berger created some of the most vicious, gruesome, and shockingly convincing gore and zombie effects you will ever see-without CGI! Even The Walking Dead (2010-) can’t claim that accolade. Day takes place after the dead have overtaken the Earth; we have lost the war, and the only remaining humans have all huddled underground for survival, with our particular survivors in a military silo under the command of the tyrannical Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato). Suffice to say, everything falls apart after Rhodes-played with perfect gusto and pomp by Pilatto-discovers the lead scientist, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) has been chopping up his men and feeding them to his ‘pet’ zombie Bub (Sherman Howard) in his attempts to find a way to control the living dead. The other scientists, led by Sarah (Lori Cardille), instigate a mass entry of the living dead into the silo, in order to destroy Rhodes and his psychotic and unhinged men, leading to probably one of the goriest zombie scenes ever put on film (minus maybe Braindead (1992)).

Day seems to be a critique of the military again, as Night, and even to some extent, Dawn was, but there is another, more nuanced criticism inherent in the film that perhaps even Romero didn’t consider (he has always maintained that the issues in his films are upon the viewer to decide, he never usually stuffs his interpretations down their throats): vivisection. Exploitation critic Calum Waddell, in his brilliant essay ‘For Every Dawn There Is a Day: Or, Why George Romero Would Never Direct a Rambo Movie’, written for the always-outstanding Arrow Video Blu-Ray release of Day, writes on the subject of Logan’s experiments: “This [vivisection], naturally, leads to the question of whether it can be considered acceptable to inflict such suffering on beings who are, ultimately, capable of feeling pain-yet unable to match our supposed ‘advanced’ levels of compassion and mercy.” This was an angle I had never even considered until reading this essay; indeed, we have probably subconsciously always wondered if zombies feel pain-or if they even remember their old lives and feel remorse for every person they kill or convert. It’s such a great philosophical angle to come at Romero’s zombie from, and it has probably occurred to Romero himself, seeing the massive mistrust his films seem to engender with regards to authority and society.

Sadly, because of bad marketing, the MPAA demanding cuts (and Romero standing his ground with the film’s uncut X rating), and limited distribution, Day failed miserably at the box office, making a paltry $34 million worldwide. It’s a crying shame that such a brilliantly made, directed, casted, and written piece of horror cinema was so shunted and derided upon its release, as it really is one of Romero’s finest and most in-depth satires in the genre. Luckily, this short-sightedness has been cast aside now thanks to home video releases, and the generally great work that cult distributors like Arrow, Blue Underground, 88 Films, Synapse, and Scream Factory do in getting these classics released for a potential new audience on Blu-Ray and DVD (Day has been released on Blu-Ray on both Arrow and Scream Factory labels).

Sadly Romero’s output falters slightly in the period of 1988-2009, but without having a full survey of his works, we cannot fully appreciate the whole picture; indeed, faults also make up a person, as much as perfection. Stay tuned for Part II…