My first encounter with George Romero’s work came from a theatrical screening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) in the very early 1980s at the Tivoli Theater, an independent venue located in, what was then, a somewhat run-down area towards the western boundary of the city of St. Louis. I was in high school and couldn’t get a date that night, so I settled into an uncomfortable seat in a run-down theater to watch an older black & white horror movie that had, at the time, been kicked to the curb with shoddy public domain VHS releases and tepid enthusiasm in favor of currently trending colorful Stephen King adaptations.
From the outset of the film, you knew NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was different. Romero’s arresting images start from the opening moments in a cemetery and build momentum throughout. I was annoyed by Judith O’Dea’s character’s inability to pull herself together or Karl Hardman’s portrayal of a self-centered and cowardly family man. Anchoring the narrative was Duane Jones’ performance as Ben, an African American lead who was resourceful, level headed, and decisive in action. Nothing on the screen fit the standards of film or television at that time, and this was over a decade after the film was first released.
That still wasn’t enough. Romero brought NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to a level of horror rarely achieved in film – he was able to illustrate and convey terrifying moments effectively. The depictions of intestine munching and relentless, slow-moving rotting undead seared into your ocular nerves while your aural cavities were shredded by O’Dea’s constant screeching. A young child zombifies and turns on her grieving mother. Humans in dire circumstances betray each other, proving untrustworthy just when their unification for survival is needed most. Then there’s the ending . . .
When the horror of the evening’s struggle allows Duane Jones’ hero to emerge from his refuge into a sunlit morning where a group of knuckleheaded gun-toting rescuers are cleaning up the undead infested countryside, he’s shot dead by those same rescuers – a complete “what the fuck” moment.
I was hooked. There was very interesting stuff going on in this smartly crafted film. I had to see more by this director.
Romero always challenged his audiences. He provided unsettling images, explored compelling themes, and knew how to tap into relevant social commentary. He skillfully wove these elements into slick looking packages that had enough depth to command a viewer’s attention and stick thoughtfully in your brain as you left the theater.
I believe Romero’s best work came when he both directed and edited his work, so I’ll make a few recommendations from his films fitting that criteria. In addition to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, some of my favorites are THE CRAZIES (1972), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), and the more mainstream CREEPSHOW (1982). All of Romero’s efforts are worth a watch and I’m sure he’ll be long remembered for more than just his pioneering vision of zombies. Rest in peace, Mr. Romero.
Contributed by: Drew Beckmann, Managing Editor