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George A. Romero, Pioneering Horror Director, Dead at 77

‘Night of the Living Dead’ filmmaker and father of the modern zombie film succumbs to lung cancer.

'Night of the Living Dead' filmmaker and father of the modern zombie film succumbs to lung cancer.

George A. Romero, the Night of the Living Dead director who helped turn zombies into a pop culture phenomenon, died Sunday. He was 77.

The horror filmmaker died following a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer” while listening to the score of the 1952 film The Quiet Man, his producing partner Peter Grunwald told the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to Romero’s revered, influential Zombie Trilogy – 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead – the director also helmed horror films like The CraziesCreepshow and Monkey Shines.

After beginning his career making commercials and shorts, Romero – with a group of friends and a shoestring budget – filmed Night of the Living Dead, which became a cult horror classic that introduced man-eating zombies to a generation of movie fans.

“We always sort of refer to Night Of the Living Dead as the Holy Grail of zombie movies,” The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero told Rolling Stone in 2013. “All of the rules – you’ve gotta shoot it in the head to kill it – before 1969, that little piece of folklore didn’t exist. Now it’s part of popular culture. So we owe a lot to George’s vision and the world he set up.”

“I never expected it. I really didn’t,” Romero told NPR in 2014 about the unexpected popularity of zombies. “All I did was I took them out of ‘exotica’ and I made them the neighbors. I thought there’s nothing scarier than the neighbors.”

In addition to its controversial content, Night of the Living Dead was also trailblazing in that it was one of the few films at the time to feature an African-American actor in a leading role.

“We shot it in ’67, but it was right in that period … where there was all that anger, you know race riots coming up,” Romero said. “There’s a story I always tell, when we were driving up to New York to show it to potential distributors, and that night, in the car, we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated… And here we had a black lead (actor Duane Jones) in this film, and so, I think that was largely what made the film noticeable… He was, quite simply, the best actor from among our friends.”

Following The Night of the Living Dead, Romero made his lone romantic comedy, There’s Always Vanilla, before permanently returning to the genre where he would be dubbed “the Godfather of the Dead” by his legions of fans, including Edgar Wright, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and Quentin Tarantino; when the Pulp Fiction director presented Romero with the Mastermind Award at the 2009 Scream Awards, Tarantino noted that the “A” in “George A. Romero” stands for “A Fucking Genius.”

Following The Crazies and the vampire film Martin, Romero returned to the zombie genre with Dawn of the Dead, a biting critique on consumerism that trapped the main characters inside a shopping mall while swarms of the zombies lurked outside. Day of the Dead followed in 1985, with the film once again confronting the question of whether human nature or zombies were more dangerous in the face of a post-apocalyptic world.

In total, Romero, a longtime independent filmmaker who only briefly made movies within the Hollywood system, made six zombie films: A second trilogy – Land of the DeadDiary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, the last film Romero directed – arrived between 2005 and 2009, with each film holding a unique mirror to society. Romero would also serve as producer on the well-regarded Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, as well as a pair of Night of the Living Dead remakes and new versions of Day of the Dead and The Crazies.

“Sad to hear my favourite collaborator–and good old friend–George Romero has died. George, there will never be another like you,” Stephen King tweeted. Romero and King worked together on 1982’s Creepshow, an anthology of King short stories as well as 1993’s The Dark Half.

Director Guillermo Del Toro added, “Romero has passed away. Hard to find words right now. The loss is so enormous.” 

In 2013, Romero spoke to the Daily Dead about the outbreak of zombies in movies and on television, from The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z.

“I used to be the only guy in this playground, but now there’s too damn many,” Romero said. “It’s very hard now, particularly with World War Z. When I first saw it, I wasn’t thrilled with it, but the following weekend, I saw Man of Steel and I suddenly loved World War Z.”

Romero also joked in an interview with AV Club, “I expect a zombie to show up on Sesame Street soon, teaching kids to count.”