George A. Romero

George A. Romero Headshot

Director • Writer • Producer • Actor

Birth Name: George Andrew Romero

Birth Date: February 4, 1940

Death Date: July 16, 2017

Birth Place: New York, New York

Dubbed the "Grandfather of Zombies," Pittsburgh-based independent filmmaker George A. Romero was a pivotal figure in the development of the contemporary horror film and the progenitor of the zombie apocalypse subgenre. Beginning with his first feature, "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), Romero not only upped the ante on explicit screen violence and gore, but also offered a satirical critique of American society that reflected the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most importantly, Romero ushered in a fascination with zombies and spawned numerous imitators over the ensuing decades. Though he had a massive hit in terms of box office versus budget, Romero failed to capitalize with his following films until he returned to zombieland with "Dawn of the Dead" (1979), which went on to become one of the most successful independent movies ever made.

Taking a brief sojourn into studio filmmaking with "Creepshow" (1982) and series television with "Tales from the Dark Side" (syndicated, 1984-85), Romero rounded out his trilogy with "Day of the Dead" (1985), only to take a seven-year hiatus from filmmaking. Returning in the new millennium, Romero reinvigorated his series with "Land of the Dead" (2005), "Diary of the Dead" (2007) and "Survival of the Dead" (2010), proving to all that even in the face of direct descendants "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) and "Zombieland" (2009), Romero was still the master of the zombie genre.

His death from lung cancer on July 16, 2017 at the age of 77 inspired widespread remembrance from peers and fans alike, as well as wry jokes such as one film critic's phrase "If his work has taught us anything, it's that we haven't seen the last of him."

Born on Feb. 4, 1940 in New York City, Romero became interested in filmmaking at a young age when he borrowed an 8mm camera from a wealthy uncle. Inspired by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's musical opera "Tales of Hoffmann" (1951), Romero began making his own short films and was arrested at 14 years old after he threw a flaming dummy off the roof of a building while making "Man from the Meteor" (1954). While attending Suffield Academy in Connecticut, Romero made two 8mm shorts, "Gorilla" (1956) and "Earthbottom" (1956); the latter was a geology documentary that won him a Future Scientists of America award. After graduating high school, he attended Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA where he earned his bachelor's in art, theater and design in 1960.

Romero continued making shorts like "Curly" (1958) and graduated to 16mm films with "Slant" (1958), both of which he made with sometime collaborator Rudolph Ricci. Following work as a grip on Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (1958), Romero shot the feature-length "Expostulations" (1962), a satirical anthology of loosely-connected shorts that showed hints of his later social consciousness.

After forming the commercial and industrial production company Latent Image in 1963, Romero cobbled together $114,000 in order to direct his first feature film, "Night of the Flesh Eaters." Renamed "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) after landing a distributor, the unrelenting film -- which was criticized at the time for its onscreen excesses -- became a landmark cult film and significant social barometer that forever changed the horror genre. With no clearcut heroes or redemptive ending -- only unstoppable nihilistic evil rampaging through small town America -- the movie popularized the zombie apocalypse subgenre of horror, spawning numerous imitators throughout the ensuing decades. Though decidedly low-budget in production values, "Night of the Living Dead" nonetheless stood the test of time as an innovative cult film that attracted new fans every generation and became Romero's signature work. He next directed "There's Always Vanilla" (1971), his one-and-only romantic comedy that saw an Army veteran-turned-aimless drifter (Raymond Laine) fall for a model and TV actress (Judith Streiner), only to find himself unable to make amends with his military past.

Touching on issues like the Vietnam War, abortion and working for corporate America, Romero was becoming unequivocal in expressing his views.

Romero ran into production and financing problems for "Season of the Witch" (1973), a horror thriller about a suburban housewife (Jan White) who starts practicing witchcraft that became one of his lesser seen movies. He next directed "The Crazies" (1973), a horror/action thriller about a government-made virus that is unleashed on an unsuspecting small Pennsylvania town, killing or driving the inhabitants insane. Though well-made and respected in the years since its release, "The Crazies" failed to live up to Romero's expectations of success in the wake of "Night of the Living Dead."

Romero soon followed by securing his cult status with two remarkable films, "Martin" (1978) and "Dawn of the Dead" (1979). The former -- later remembered by Romero as his favorite -- was a lyrical and deeply disturbing tale of a shy boy (John Amplas) who is convinced that he is a vampire. Produced by his partner Richard Rubinstein, "Martin" was Romero's first project for their company, Laurel Entertainment. It also began an important collaboration with Tom Savini, a brilliant special makeup effects designer who provided cheap but astonishing gore effects for many of Romero's subsequent features.

Their next project, the expansive sequel "Dawn of the Dead," was primarily set in a deserted suburban shopping mall where a hardy band of survivors are beset by zombies, bikers and their own personal demons. A powerful apocalyptic action film leavened with pitch black comedy, "Dawn" critiqued bourgeois culture, consumerism and machismo while spraying the screen with outrageous comic-book carnage. It became one of the most profitable indies in U.S. film history. Romero took a brief detour from horror with "Knightriders" (1981), a quirky, leisurely-paced take on the Arthurian legend with Ed Harris as the leader of a jousting motorcycle gang. He next directed the Stephen King-scripted "Creepshow" (1982), a blunt and commercial work featuring higher production values and a cast of seasoned professionals, including Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and Ted Danson. This boldly stylized homage to EC horror comics also contained a sly critique of patriarchy.

"Day of the Dead" (1985), the ostensible conclusion to the "Living Dead" trilogy, was brutally undermined by last-minute budget cuts, but still emerged as Romero's strongest horror film of the decade. Claustrophobic, talky, progressive and amazingly bloody, "Day" was Romero's last film as a director for Laurel Entertainment.

While still a partner at Laurel, Romero also worked in television as the creator, co-executive producer and occasional writer of "Tales from the Dark Side" (syndicated, 1984-85), an anthologized supernatural series about various people finding themselves on the dark side of reality. The thematic and stylistic concerns of "Creepshow" helped shape the early episodes, while frequent Spike Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson photographed the first season of this visually striking syndicated horror/fantasy series. Romero's first project as a journeyman writer-director was the psychological thriller "Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear" (1988), which was marred by a studio-imposed happy ending. For his next feature, "Two Evil Eyes" (1990), Romero and the celebrated Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento each wrote and directed a story inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Released widely in Europe, the film barely opened in the U.S. before being shunted off to the video stores. Romero fared better with the medium budget Stephen King adaptation, "The Dark Half" (1993). Hailed as a return to form for the horror master, this well-crafted film featured a strong dual performance by Timothy Hutton.

After a long hiatus from the screen, Romero returned with the unusual cheaply-made thriller "Bruiser" (2000), the lurid tale of a meek, rule-following man (Jason Flemyng), who wakes up one day to discover his face transformed into a smooth, featureless mask. Empowered by his new anonymity, he sets out on a path of revenge against everyone who has wronged him. After another hiatus from filmmaking, Romero returned to familiar territory with "Land of the Dead" (2005), a continuation of his zombie franchise long thought to be finished with "Day of the Dead." This time, however, Romero increased the energy with a fast-paced actioner that was not shy on the gore and violence, pleasing both fans and the uninitiated. He continued his zombie revitalization with "Diary of the Dead" (2007), which was more of a reboot than a sequel to the other four movies in the "Dead" series. He then made the sixth in the series, "Survival of the Dead" (2010), which saw the inhabitants of an isolated island off the coast of North America conflicted whether to kill their own relatives rising from the grave or try to find a cure. After executive producing a remake of "The Crazies" (2010) by director Breck Eisner, Romero quietly retired from filmmaking. He died at home in Toronto, Ontario following a battle with lung cancer, on July 16, 2017. He was 77 years old.

Credits

George A. Romero President

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Deadtime Stories: Volume 2

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Deadtime Stories: Volume 1

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Survival of the Dead

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Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero

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Day of the Dead

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Tales From the Darkside: The Movie

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There's Always Vanilla

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Season of the Witch

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