I only met George A. Romero — the late 77-year-old writer/director who pioneered zombie-apocalypse horror and revolutionized the horror film genre itself — once. It was on an expectedly chilly evening at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2008, back in the days when I dreamed of becoming a filmmaker (specifically and ridiculously, the next George A. Romero).
Romero was there to discuss and promote Diary of the Dead, the fifth entry in his groundbreaking Dead series. What I remember most about him — beyond his gravel-voiced humor and admission (to cheers and applause) of how drunk he was — was how warm and enthusiastic he was while getting mobbed by his incredibly loud fanboys and fangirls in attendance. He was up close and personal with young know-nothings gushing about how great he was, and he showed them an encouragement and a camaraderie that he simply did not have to.
I was one of those hyperventilating fanboys who couldn’t wait to get close to a living legend. He called me “kid,” as I’m sure he called so many other zealots and diehards that night. For him, it was just another drunken night at another film festival in the snow. For me, I’d just met my hero, who occupied the same pantheon as my other personal favorites John Woo, Martin Scorsese, and Takashi Miike.
In a funny way, Romero helped shape my young sense of political cynicism more so than any polemicist, pundit, or documentarian. It was no secret that his Dead films, beginning with 1968’s bone-chilling, black-and-white Night of the Living Dead, were his commentary on the social and political barbarity of the given era. Night of the Living Dead unleashed an army of the flesh-eating undead as a subversive reflection on the 1960s civil rights struggle and unrest over American aggression and atrocities in Vietnam. The movie starred Duane Jones as the hero — at a time when it was unusual to cast a black actor as the lead with an otherwise all-white cast.
“I thought it was about revolution,” Romero said while discussing the film in the documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. “We were ’60s guys and…sort of pissed off that the ’60s revolution didn’t work. ‘Peace and Love’ didn’t solve anything in the end, in fact, shit was lookin’ worse. And I said, what would be a really earth-shattering thing that would be revolutionary and that people would refuse to ignore? The dead stop staying dead. Oh, and here’s one thing more: They like to eat living people!”
And that’s exactly what made Romero’s lefty political wallop so invigorating: his take on a message-movie was defined by overwhelming disillusionment that he then channeled into revolutionary modern popular art. He wanted everyone to know just how endlessly angry he was that the war machine raged on; that Free Love didn’t win the day.
As a college kid who loved the blood and mayhem of horror flicks and spent his spare dorm hours holding bush league ad hoc symposiums on why the Iraq War was complete garbage, I gobbled it up. Romero saw an American empire so unjust, so decadent, so pornographically violent and militaristic that the only way to really skewer it was to graft it onto a landscape of reanimated corpses devouring our children and disemboweling our loved ones.
“If there’s something I’d like to criticize, I can bring the zombies out,” Romero said in Time magazine in 2010. “And I get the financing that way. So I’ve been able to express my political views through those films.”
Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978 during the mid-Carter years, tackled consumerist over-indulgence and materialism with the eye of a sharp satirist. (It didn’t hurt that the movie also featured some of the most thrilling and memorable action sequences committed to film.) Day of the Dead (1985) took a gory swipe at both the U.S. military and humankind’s inherently dark nature. Land of the Dead (2005) landed Romero in the middle of the Bush era, with the war in Iraq and class warfare weighing heavily on his brain.
It’s a gross understatement to say that virtually everyone alive today making political horror, whether it’s in the form of prestige TV or big-budget Hollywood films, owes Romero a titanic debt. But for all the social and anti-war commentary he could pack into a picture, he never lost sight of what was important in his line of work: the blood and the guts.
“We tried to make an action-adventure movie first and foremost,” the writer/director told the Miami Herald in summer 2005, chatting about his Land installment. “If you don’t want to pay attention to what’s going on underneath, you don’t have to. People may not pick up on some of the imagery at all—like the sight of an armored vehicle going through a small town and mowing people down, then wondering why they’re so pissed off at us—because I don’t clobber you over the head with it.”
“But to me, this is a story about people holing up in a city and believing they’re safe because they’re surrounded by water and the administration is telling them there is nothing to worry about and that they’ll take care of everything,” Romero continued. “It’s very important that the movie be entertaining on the surface, but it’s equally important to me that it reflects something about the times.”
Romero passed away not a year into the Trump era. Sort of makes you wonder what he could have done with this presidency, doesn’t it?