Legacy of the Dead: George A Romeo's Contribution to the Zombie Canon
With his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, horror director George A. Romero effectively re-invented not merely the zombie mythos but the horror genre as we know it today. Since that movie came out, zombies have become ubiquitous in pop culture, seeing a resurgence in the past decade with the smash TV hit The Walking Dead along with not only self-aware “zom coms” like Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, but also Romero’s own work. Read on to learn more about his indelible contribution to the horror genre.
Night of the Living Dead is largely considered one of the most frightening films of all time. Made with just $114,000, it went on to gross more than $30 million worldwide, becoming a bonafide classic that is preserved in the National Film Registry, and it’s been imitated countless times. Beyond its introduction of the concept of “modern zombies” (though the film never once uses the word “zombie”), the movie was revolutionary for its casting of an African-American man as the film’s hero.
After following up the success of Night of the Living Dead with several other films (including cult horror classics Martin and The Crazies), Romero returned to the zombie genre with 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead. This film, set in a shopping mall after the events of Night, is largely considered a commentary on consumer culture as zombies return to the materialism they practiced while alive. Dawn of the Dead was a successful venture that grossed more than $55 million worldwide.
In 1985, the third film in the saga, Day of the Dead, was released to mixed reviews. Since that time, however, the film has garnered increased praise as a cult classic. In this installment, survivors of the zombie apocalypse live in isolated colonies after the living dead have effectively taken over the world. Though many initially found the film to be slow compared to the action of its predecessors, it remains a strong entry in the classic zombie milieu. It’s even garnering a following of younger viewers who are discovering the film through its many screenings on television, particularly on Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey network, and on-demand from providers that carry that (check this site).
After Day and its comparably unfavorable reviews, Romero took almost 20 years off from the genre he helped create. In the meantime, he directed a variety of other projects, including the Tales from the Darkside television show and film; Monkey Shines, about a murderous monkey; and an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Dark Half. In 2000, just as zombies were again becoming popular in comics and film, he relaunched the series that made him famous.
With 2005’s Land of the Dead, Romero depicted a zombie attack on a post-apocalyptic society based in Pittsburgh, his hometown and the site of the original films. The film, which many saw as an allegory to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the political landscape of the first half of the decade, received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Romero returned with a smash hit that grossed more than any other film in the series besides Dawn.
In 2008, Romero delved into the popular found footage genre with Diary of the Dead, an intimate look at the lives of survivors who are attempting to film a documentary about the post-zombie world and the events of the undead invasion. Rather than a straight sequel, Diary is often seen as a reboot of the franchise, receiving positive reviews and proving that Romero could put a different spin on his own work and still keep up with newer directors in the crowded, often-fickle horror genre.
The latest film in the Dead series, 2009’s Survival of the Dead, unfortunately failed to match the critical and commercial success of its predecessors. Many found the film to be a retread of earlier ideas, in contrast to the other movies in the series which each put its own fresh lens on the zombie motif.
Despite the disappointment of Survival, Romero has proved himself time and again to be a master of the horror genre. His work has shaped countless other pop culture touchstones, from The Walking Dead to the Resident Evil series. Much more than just gore, the films in his legacy use sharp satire to promote horror as a lens of the often frightening events of the world’s political and social landscape.
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