George A. Romero Had a Knack for Making Zombies on a Shoestring

DAY OF THE DEAD, Director George A. Romero, on set, 1985.
© United Film/Courtesy Everett Collection

What started as a brotherly joke on his sister eerily foreshadowed a fictional nightmare of epic proportions in a western Pennsylvania graveyard.

“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Johnny says in a creepy voice, frightening her after visiting their father’s grave.

If only Johnny knew the extent of this, ahem, dead-serious ambush in the cult classic Night of the Living Dead, the original masterpiece by horror master George A. Romero, who passed away on July 16, 2017 at age 77. The 1968 shocker flick about flesh-eating corpses — which grossed some $30 million worldwide from a meager $114,000 budget — started the popular zombie genre that continues to grow today. In recent years, especially, the zombie club has exploded with highly popular series like AMC’s The Walking Dead and movies like World War Z.

It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Romero expressed resentment about the modern zombie shows. He told IndieWire earlier this year that he “used to be the only guy on the zombie playground,” and that the current movies and television shows about the undead were making the zombie genre Hollywood-ized. Romero said he had hoped to do another zombie film with a modest $2 to $3 million, but the big-budget blockbusters ruined his chances.

But a lack of modern opportunities for more Romero zombie films does not tarnish the creative genius’ legacy. Who needs a new zombie film anyway? Retro lovers are satisfied with Romero’s oldies from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, including 1978’s Dead sequel Dawn of the Dead, with box office success that topped the original.

Even if the zombie genre isn’t your thing, Romero created several other horror classics. As a child of the ’80s, my personal Romero favorites are the campy Creepshow movies. Romero joined forces with famed horror writer Stephen King to make Creepshow (1982) and Creepshow 2 (1987). Romero’s horror anthology combines the macabre and scary with a dark, quirky sense of humor, as is typical for ’80s campy flicks.

CREEPSHOW, US poster art, 1982.

©Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Perhaps Romero’s most notable ability among horror creators was the underlying satire and social commentary he weaved into many seemingly simple films. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombies served as a cartoonish and gory symbol for excessive capitalism and consumption. One also can see a definite, environmentally friendly warning in Night of the Living Dead, since radioactive contamination from a space probe is speculated to have caused the massive global resurrection of evil corpses.

DIARY OF THE DEAD, (aka GEORGE A. ROMERO'S DIARY OF THE DEAD), director George A. Romero (right), on set, 2007.

©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

May George A. Romero rest in peace. And if someone wants to honor his legacy by making another low-budget undead movie, featuring an actor playing Romero’s own bodily zombie — well, he probably would feel honored.

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October 2019

Cinematic history of the bandaged monster, from the 1932 Universal classic starring Boris Karloff featuring an incredible cover by artist Ed Repka!

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