Six definitive films: A beginner’s guide to George A. Romero’s directorial genius
“I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!” – George A. Romero
American-Canadian filmmaker George A. Romero is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Zombie Film’, thanks to his seminal Night of the Living Dead series that shaped the perception of zombies in popular culture. His works have influenced generations of filmmakers, from other masters of the horror genre like John Carpenter to contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino who said that the “A” in George A. Romero stood for “A Fucking Genius”.
Born in New York City in 1940, Romero found himself attracted to cinema from an early age. He was raised in the Bronx, but he would often take the subway to Manhattan in order to rent film reels. An avid cinephile, Romero expanded his knowledge about film history by watching as many films as he could. In doing so, he crossed paths with another future filmmaker who would become one of the leading figures of cinema. He was one of two people who kept renting Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann from a store that kept a copy of the comic opera; the other was Martin Scorsese. Romero cited it as his “favourite film of all time; the movie that made [him] want to make movies”.
Romero began his filmmaking career after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1960, starting out with short films and advertisements. With his friends, he founded a production company called Image Ten Productions in the latter half of the 1960s. The company would go on to fund Romero’s first major project: the 1968 cult-classic Night of the Living Dead which would become the defining standard of modern horror films and spawn a celebrated film series.
The burgeoning filmmaker would become an icon of horror because of the series, following up with other popular classics like Dawn of the Dead (1978) right up till Survival of the Dead (2009). Apart from being notable for experimenting with the boundaries of the horror genre, Romero’s works have been applauded by critics for their incisive commentary on class divides and grotesque consumerism. He also collaborated with other pioneers of the genre like Steven King, leaving behind a legacy of brilliant horror films.
On his 81st birth anniversary, we revisit six essential films from George A. Romero’s illustrious filmography as a tribute to his immense contribution to the world of cinema.
George A. Romero’s 6 definitive films:
6. Knightriders (1981)
Romero’s cinematic protest against being pigeonholed as a horror director, Knightriders was a deviation from the subject matter he was used to working with. It is a flawed work of sheer brilliance, arguably the most beautiful film in the horror pioneer’s filmography. Knightriders presents the story of a travelling renaissance fair troupe, delightfully subversive and mesmerising at the same time.
While recalling the significance of the film in the grand scheme of things, Romero said, “I would say Knightriders is maybe a bit more personal in that it is a little more about me – my own defiance. I won’t say I’m uncompromising but I won’t compromise just for the hell of it.”
5. Day of the Dead (1985)
The third addition to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series, Day of the Dead initially polarised the filmmaker’s fans but is now recognised as one of his more important works. In the film, Romero explores how societal collapse is intensified by a complete breakdown of communication in a stunning post-apocalyptic world. A television series based on the film will premiere this year.
“I used to have a van that had a TV in the backseat for the kids and they put on Day of the Dead. In the front seat, I am driving and I am listening to it,” Romero said. “It completely works as a radio show. I was cracking up, particularly at Joe.”
4. Creepshow (1982)
Directed by Romero and written by Stephen King, this 1982 horror anthology film was the filmmaker’s memorable attempt to translate the visual aesthetics of the E.C. horror comics from the ’50s to the cinematic medium. Creepshow tackles all kinds of evil, from zombies to an army of cockroaches.
Romero explained, “Steve King and I, as long as we’d known each other, would talk about movies and the old EC comics. Steve bought me some original panels and a couple of books. I had a couple of original Jack Davis paintings and so we were sitting around and decided to do Creepshow. Steve, basically, wanted to do a homage to those EC books. He thought an anthology [format] would be perfect for it. The script came in within three weeks. And that was it.”
3. Martin (1977)
Romero’s fifth feature was this psychological horror film about a young man who thinks he is 84-years-old and a vampire. Many consider Martin to be Romero’s best work, his insightful examination of the glamorous vampire subgenre by deconstructing the rampant clichés. It was also the first time Romero worked with special effects artist Tom Savini.
The filmmaker revealed, “Martin is my favourite film of mine, and the main reason is because of the experience I had shooting it. It was wonderful. We were non-union so we had no constraints. We were there to just do the work and make the film. I just have the fondest memories of that.”
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Romero’s seminal debut feature is now regarded as one of the most iconic zombie films of all time and there’s a good reason for that, it is the definitive work of the genre that has inspired countless successors. Night of the Living Dead presents a world where the radiation from a fallen satellite makes recently dead people turn in their own graves, urging them to venture into the realm of the undead by attacking the living.
Romero reflected on the problems he encountered while looking for distributors, “They told us their main reason for turning it down was that it was in black and white. And AIP then said it was too unmitigated. They said, ‘Well, if you shoot a happy ending to the thing, or shoot the guy surviving, or develop a romantic interest, then maybe we’ll talk about it.’”
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The second film in Romero’s zombie legacy, Dawn of the Dead strikes an ingenious balance between the spectacle of a zombie apocalypse and the subtlety of philosophical messaging. The apotheosis of Romero’s collaboration with Tom Savini, Dawn of the Dead employs a striking visual narrative to launch its satirical attack on hyper-consumerist culture.
“With [Dawn of the Dead], I wanted the slick took, I wanted to bring out the nature of the shopping center, the retail displays, the mannequins,” the director said, “There are times when maybe you reflect that the mannequins are more attractive but less real – less sympathetic, even – than the zombies. Put those kinds of images side by side, and you raise all sorts of questions.”