With his satirical masterpiece Night of the Living Dead the director revolutionised low-budget film-making and inspired an epidemic of imitators, from World War Z to 28 Days Later
He was the film-maker who invented not merely a genre, but a whole grammar of can-do, low-budget American independent film-making. George A Romeros 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead was a crisply shot monochrome horror made for less than $120,000 and loosely inspired by Richard Mathesons story I Am Legend; the movie is about a zombie uprising apparently caused by contamination from space. The virus brought back from a far-off planet has caused recently deceased people to return from the dead and prey upon the living. They need to eat flesh. The term used in the film is ghoul but zombie became universally used later to describe the phenomenon which Romero had created.
His lethally brilliant satirical nightmare behaved insouciantly, as if it was nothing more than a very effective shocker, scaring up big profits from thrill-seeking young moviegoers. But it succeeded in denouncing American consumerism, conformism, careerism and the countrys own secret fear of the future. The science age and the age of prosperity these were things that the US was theoretically embracing, but nurturing a puritan fear that something awful was on the way, some terrible punishment not included in the Book Of Revelations. The image that George A Romero conjured up in Night of the Living Dead was truly hellish: people driven to eat each other, never satisfied, always existing in a waking-catatonic state of hunger and thirst and bestial hostility. Americans wanted new stuff, and they were employed by corporations who needed to sell new stuff. Always the new car the new kitchen the new washing machine
Romero had taken the traditional image of the zombie and made of it a key contemporary image of horror and despair. Zombie-ism as a folk belief among African slaves in Haiti had long been thought to have a political dimension: the horrifying idea of a dead body rising from the grave is the one thing an oppressed people might have to scare the oppressor. Cases of reported zombie-ism became widely and excitably reported in the US during the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Romeros genius was to intuit a way of evolving this zombie-ism. First they were used in Haiti to scare America; now America was using them to scare itself.
Romeros wildly successful film brought with it a string of sequels including Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as other microbial strains of epidemic horror, such as his The Crazies and his vampire film Martin. But Night of the Living Dead also inaugurated a new strain of low-budget horror, and a business model for exploitation film-making which was robustly profitable for decades. Generations of film-directors who wanted to make a scary movie knew that zombies were the easiest and most inexpensive to put on camera. You needed a lot of extras, and they could with relatively cheap-and-cheerful makeup be made to look grisly and gory. Then they had to shuffle along looking bestial. And they could be filmed in long-shot. An awful lot easier than werewolves or vampires. And these films could make money.
In the last 20 years, Romeros zombie genre was reinvented and gussied up in various ways. Danny Boyles 28 Days Later put zombies back on the map, making them scarier and more athletic able to run, in fact, which gave them a new edge on the uninfected. And Edgar Wrights madly successful Shaun of the Dead tapped explicitly into Romeros strain of black comedy. Then came the massive worldwide smash World War Z and the TV show The Walking Dead. George A Romero had very mixed feelings about these colossal hits; he described himself wistfully as someone who used to be the only guy in the zombie playground. But once the big names moved in, few were interested in his own new pitches for modestly budgeted zombie movies, in which the satire thrived by being left implicit. It now had to be a high-concept top-heavy blockbuster with the social commentary squeezed out. His zombie films were lean and mean; but Romero was worried that these flashy big-money zombie 2.0 and 3.0 spectaculars were just lumbering on without a beady eye on the state of the nation. Could it be that without Romero, the zombie genre was getting well zombiefied?
Increasingly, Romero can be seen as a brilliant satirist and I think his zombies arent so much like vampires or werewolves or the Frankenstein monster. They are the heirs of Jonathan Swifts Struldbrugs in Gullivers Travels, the grotesque human beings who cannot die, who are immortal, but without eternal youth, and just get older and more ravaged, and yet ever more malign and greedy in their unending old age. Both Swift and Romero had a brilliantly sharp and tactless sense of the hubris and arrogance in their own polite societies.