My movie world took a pretty big blow when George A. Romero died on Sunday, July 16, at the age of 77. He was a visionary horror film director who basically invented the modern zombie movie genre with his iconic 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead.”
As the director of my own zombie film (“The Dead Can’t Dance,” which we shot here in Wichita in 2009 and released in 2010), his passing was particularly meaningful to me. But not just because he created the zombie genre. He also inspired countless others like me with his low-budget inventiveness and can-do spirit.
His legacy is far-reaching. From the many movies through the years to video games to comics, there have been more zombie apocalyptic visions than you can shake a severed arm at. And it just keeps getting more popular with each incarnation.
Just what is it that Mr. Romero gave us that still strikes such a strong chord today? Here are some ways that “Night of the Living Dead” was so influential:
▪ It was straightforward. The film actually has a simple premise: A group of strangers end up trapped in a farmhouse as slow-moving ghouls (the film never actually calls them “zombies”) try to break in and eat them.
What’s novel here is that the action almost never leaves the house, creating tension and a sense of claustrophobia. The best zombie scenarios keep it simple, man vs. zombie, and go from there. But the possibilities are endless.
▪ It was ripe with social commentary. Much has been said of the film’s underlying societal and political commentary, that it’s a metaphor for America’s collapsing social order.
And then there’s the matter of race relations. One of the men at the house is black, and he emerges as the hero, trying to take control of the situation. Black men weren’t usually the heroes of films during the 1960s. And the fact that he gets killed (oops, too late to say spoiler alert?) by police at the end of the film was very topical during the dawn of civil rights.
Romero’s underlying commentary in his films set the stage for horror movies to be entertaining but also thought provoking – particularly with zombie movies.
▪ It was artistic. The film’s black-and-white verite images perfectly set its tone. The film’s low-budget aesthetic actually enhances its eeriness. I can’t imagine how bigger production values would have improved “Night of the Living Dead.” Color photography would only ruin it.
But the film also let Romero pay homage to some of his own inspirations. Those crooked Dutch angles certainly seem reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. The black-and-white visuals are perhaps reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Romero himself said the novel “I Am Legend” was a huge inspiration for him.
His filmmaking has inpired other filmmakers to pursue their own creative filmmaking homages (such as those dazzling long takes in “Shaun of the Dead” or the feeling of stark, poetic isolation in “28 Days Later”) that are downright filmmaking artistry.
▪ It took chances. The film went places in its narrative that aren’t typical choices, such as killing off its main character.
But the biggest gamble was by Romero and his crew for just making “Night of the Living Dead.” It was his first feature, so there was undoubtedly a lot of experimentation. They made up their own special effects. They created their own zombies. They even set fire to crew members. All for the sake of a movie that they had no idea would have the impact that it did.
And that’s cause enough for any artist, filmmaker or dreamer to pursue their own creative visions. Just like him, you never know what you will create. And you never know what will become of it unless you try.
So thanks for the lessons and the inspiration, dear Mr. Romero. Because of you, zombies, “Night of the Living Dead” and your championing spirit will never die.
I will give a special presentation about my films as part of the Mid-America All-Indian Center’s “Indians in the Arts” exhibit opening at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 22, at the Indian Center, 650 N. Seneca. Admission is free.