The 13th Floor

A Tribute to George A. Romero: Father of Modern Horror

The grief you and I are feeling today is beyond measure, as the passing of legendary filmmaker George Andrew Romero impacts each of us uniquely — just as his iconic works have changed our lives and careers in so many different ways.

Whether you’re a horror fan who grew up on Romero’s classics, a filmmaker who learned valuable lessons from his practical but personal approach to the craft of cinema, or one of those who have met, known and worked with the man himself — no doubt your pain is proportionate to the imprint he left on our collective consciousness.

But even as we mourn, we should also take time to celebrate the many gifts George has given us over a career which spans half a century.

You’re going to encounter dozens of Romero-themed articles this week across your favorite horror and media sites, so I’m not going to spend so much time rehashing Romero’s career path and filmography — after all, most horror fans can easily list the man’s greatest accomplishments from memory — but I’d be doing him a disservice if I didn’t at least hit the high points, combined with my own personal takes on Romero’s body of work.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

His first feature film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD tapped into the fears of an entire generation in the turbulent late ’60s, while simultaneously exploding the relatively tame “castles-and-cobwebs” concept of horror, bringing flesh-hungry monsters right to our doorstep. One independent filmmaker and his small but dedicated local crew had rewritten the horror rule book forever.

Further still, the boundaries of what had once been considered acceptable mass-consumption motion picture entertainment had not only been forced outward, but smashed altogether — with NIGHT’s blood and internal organs spilling across the screen and into unprepared audiences’ laps.

Subsequent revisits to Romero’s DEAD universe tackled the societal demons of each new decade with incisive commentary and a wicked sense of humor; while each one resonates with fans in its own way, I can safely assume I’m in the majority when I choose the original DAWN OF THE DEAD as my all-time favorite of the franchise, and I consider it one of the greatest horror films ever made.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

It hit me like a freight train when I first encountered it as a teenager at a midnight screening… and although the print was scratched and gritty, and my neglected small-town theater smelled like a hoarder’s basement, I still loved every second of the experience.

I think my biggest takeaway from DAWN was the totally believable world Romero created — never straying from his own state of Pennsylvania, while at the same time conveying a realistic and palatable sense of global catastrophe. We experience the apocalypse at ground level, just like our four doomed heroes — who try in vain to rebuild an artificial microcosm of society, filled with the material things most of us take for granted.

While the end of NIGHT saw the grisly demise of its main characters, it also suggested local authorities had the resources to tackle the zombie epidemic, and some form of infrastructure to contain it (for the time being, at least). DAWN offers no such optimism, as society almost immediately begins its downward spiral; the living turn on each other in a matter of days, and even highly-trained police squads can’t contain the chaos.

Just as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD challenged modern concepts of cinematic horror, Romero pushed the envelope further with DAWN OF THE DEAD — one of the most successful and profitable films to be released without an MPAA rating. While he could have reached a wider audience immediately by cutting much of the film’s violence to satisfy the ratings board and the US distributors, he chose instead to release his vision exactly as intended — and despite a smaller-scale release (and the limited advertising that went with such a choice), the film played to packed audiences around the world. It was a savvy move by an artist who knew the bar had been raised for modern horror… because he’d already raised it himself a full decade earlier.

Romero stood on principle again with the third film in the franchise, releasing 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD uncut and unrated… but unlike its predecessor, audiences didn’t flock to the film during its meager theatrical run. DAY has enjoyed a massive fan renaissance since then, and still stands as one of Romero’s finest; in fact, he’s often claimed it’s his favorite among the DEAD films.

Although MARTIN was released (to a mere handful of theaters) before DAWN, I didn’t stumble upon it until several years later, when it arrived on VHS. I may have missed out on the theatrical experience — but the intimacy of this horror-tinged drama was well-suited to a quiet viewing in a darkened living room.

MARTIN (1977)

Whereas DAWN used Pittsburgh and its rural outskirts to hint at a larger-scale nightmare, George turned his lens inward for MARTIN, staging its more sublime horrors within the aging homes, crumbling churches and abandoned workplaces of a community virtually dying before our eyes. Once again, the filmmaker had broken new ground in the genre — this time by challenging the conventions of vampire movies with MARTIN’s deliberately ambiguous premise. “There is no real magic,” Martin laments… but we’re not entirely sure that’s true, and Romero’s script leaves us wondering long after the credits roll.

Despite its aura of overwhelming sadness, MARTIN still feels strangely warm and comforting to me; perhaps it’s the mystique that once hung over the film (hidden from many fans by DAWN’s epic shadow), and my excitement in discovering a previously unseen Romero movie on the video store shelf. More likely, it’s a combination of the dreamlike pacing (Romero’s technique of “director-as-editor” shines brightest between this film and DAWN, which is cut to a frantic rhythm), and a brilliant title performance by John Amplas.

When Romero teamed up for his first feature film collaboration with fellow horror icon Stephen King, I knew something special was in store — and CREEPSHOW delivered the goods in bloody buckets. Interestingly, while its creators had themselves individually redefined horror for a new generation, this big-screen collaboration was actually a loving glance backward, paying homage to the ’50s horror comics that influenced their respective careers.

CREEPSHOW (1982)

It’s noteworthy how those gory four-color tales once managed to generate as much controversy and shock on the printed page as Romero would accomplish soon after with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — and by resurrecting the malicious spirit of those comics with CREEPSHOW, Romero and King reminded horror fans that the best horror is constantly pushing forward, kicking down that basement door, straying down that dark path into the woods. By circling back to his influences, CREEPSHOW closed a creative cycle Romero opened back in 1968 with his very first feature.

I understand it’s sometimes hard to reconcile George’s latter-day films with the aforementioned cult favorites — but this is so often the case with genre filmmakers whose films are woven into our lives so intimately.

We tend to see their groundbreaking achievements as fixed points in our journey through horror movie history… and as we grow older, they become the gold standard by which we measure every subsequent film from the same director.

THE DARK HALF (1993)

But by doing this, we risk overlooking something important: the work of a true artist is distinctive, but his or her vision evolves and changes over time. Romero is one such artist, whose work is distinguished by his steadfast refusal to compromise that vision, and and as a result, many of his films have played a primary role in reshaping modern horror — even the ones that don’t shine quite as brilliantly in our memory vaults.

For his collective impact on the genre, he deserves our lifelong admiration — and his films will undoubtedly inspire even more fans and aspiring artists in the decades to come.

With that in mind, I’d like to close with a line from one of George A. Romero’s rare non-horror projects — the original, fun and surprisingly profound 1981 film KNIGHTRIDERS. It’s a stanza from the song “I’d Rather Be a Wanderer” by Donald Rubinstein, about a man who pursued his own unique vision — despite an ever-changing world that didn’t always understand his journey, but was forever changed by his passing. I think it’s kind of fitting.

A pity there’s just emptiness,

But with sorrow there comes joy,

And I’d rather die in a hurricane,

Than to never know a storm.

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