Before Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, before The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980) there was George A. Romero and Night of the Living Dead (1968). Released in the same year as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary Baby, it was Romero’s small release of Night of the Living Dead that created a new wave of horror filmmaking outside of the studio system. The big horror names of the 1970s including Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and Wes Craven, were deeply inspired by Romero’s grass roots approach to storytelling and production. Although masters in their own right, the potential for critical and financial success with “Do-it-Yourself Horror” started with Romero. But where did Romero start?
The answer, believe or not, is Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Produced in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Romero worked a number of jobs, including director, on the legendary PBS program. This early experience with grassroots production help prepare Romero for his journey as an independent filmmaker. Directing on location with limited resources, and dependent on practical lighting, the Romero of horror was born on that legendary kids program. In fact, it was during his time on the program that Romero began to develop and produce Night of the Living Dead.
Although completely different in genre, tone and style, the ideas presented in Romero’s classic are not unlike Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Mr. Rogers stood for community, love, inclusion, and so did Romero. He just showed it in a slightly more obscure way- reminding us of the walking monsters we can easily become.
With his original zombie trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), Romero cemented the zombie as a cultural figure with great depth and meaning. More than just the walking dead, Romero’s zombie and his broader film narratives embodied the essence of cultural horror. From the depiction of zombies as Nixon’s silent majority during the Vietnam War in Night of the Living Dead, to his commentary on consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead and equally, the fear and consequence of hyper militarism in Day of the Dead, Romero understood the great power horror held to shape rich ideas with provocative and visceral storytelling.
Even after his move into studio productions, including Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993), Romero’s horror was never fixated on monsters but on the idea of being Human. The horror spoke directly to us, showcasing our potential and failures. In speaking with Time Magazine, when asked about his zombies having a cultural expiration date, Romero shared: “I hope that my guys don’t have an expiration date. My ,zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they’re where the trouble really lies. The zombies are just [swats at the air] mosquitoes”.
As horror fans celebrate Romero’s 79th birthday, solace can be found in his continued legacy. From all things Walking Dead to the social horror of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Romero is present. Who would have thought that a young man from Pittsburgh who worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood would take his low budget television roots and transform into a horror legend. Who would have known that a scrappy young cinephile would go on to create a sub-genre so deeply resonant (and profitable)? Zombies are everywhere from movies, television, video games and comic books and undoubtedly we all have Romero to thank. Happy Birthday Mr. George A. Romero. We miss you.
Are you celebrating the memory of George A. Romero today with a zombie movie or two? What is your favourite of Romero’s films? Let us know on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook over in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!