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George Romero: The Man Who Made Zombies Cool

By: Janice Lane Palko

There were zombie movies before George Romero made the 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead, but none of them had the impact that this independent horror film had. A low-budget flick with a price tag of $114,000, Night of the Living Dead premiered to a less than stellar reception. Vince Canby, The New York Times movie reviewer, described his experience when seeing the movie in his review of December 5, 1968 as such:

Night of the Living Dead is a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.

The dialogue and background music sound hollow, as if they had been recorded in an empty swimming pool, and the wobbly camera seems to have a fetishist’s interest in hands, clutched, wrung, scratched, severed, and finally—in the ultimate assumption—eaten like pizza.

The movie, which was made by some people in Pittsburgh, opened yesterday at the New Amsterdam Theater on 42d Street and at other theaters around town.

In his January 5, 1969, review of Night of the Living Dead, renowned movie critic Roger Ebert described what it was like to be in the audience of a Saturday afternoon matinee of the film:

The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.

I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.

So how, when dismissed and derided by the critics, did Night of the Living Dead become the nascent film for the contemporary zombie genre, and how did George Romero become such an esteemed writer/director?

To understand, you must go back to 1968. The Vietnam War was raging, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, and U.S. Olympic athletes had stunned with their Black Power salute on the medals stand. In short, the world was in cataclysmic upheaval. It seemed that everything that was would no longer be. Movies were changing too. So much so that the Motion Picture Association of America felt it necessary to institute a rating system. The system went into effect on November 1, 1968, just a month after Night of the Living Dead premiered on October 1 at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh.

Prior to The Night of the Living Dead, kids flocked to see horror films, but they were more campy and creepy rather than gory and gruesome. With this little film, George Romero tapped into the culture’s mindset and broke the horror genre mold by casting a black man as a main character, filming cannibalism and explicit gore, and killing the movie’s hero.

While the film may have been too much for pre-teens used to such flicks like Hillbillys in a Haunted House or Frankenstein Created Woman to digest, audiences ate it up. The film would go on to gross $30 million worldwide, becoming a cult classic and making Romero the father of the zombie genre. It would also spawn Romero to film five more zombie flicks: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), and Diary of the Dead (2007). In 2009, he created George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead.

Although Romero’s film, which was shot throughout the area, made Pittsburgh the zombie capital of the world, Romero was not a Pittsburgh native. He was born February 4, 1940, in the Bronx in New York City to a Lithuanian-American mother and Cuban father. He came to Pittsburgh to study at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated in 1960. Strangely, for the soon-to-be coronated King of Zombie films, one of Romero’s first projects was to shoot a segment for Mister Rogers Neighborhood about having a tonsillectomy.

Romero and John A. Russo co-wrote Night of the Living Dead, which was originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters. Unfortunately, the pair saw little profit from their groundbreaking film because of a glitch with the picture’s copyright.

“We lost the copyright on the film because we put it on the title,” Romero said. “Our title was Night of the Flesh Eaters; they changed it to Night of the Living Dead. When they changed the title, the copyright bug came off, so it went into public domain [and] we no longer had a piece of the action. Everybody had a copy of Night of the Living Dead because they were able to sell it without having to worry about royalties going to us.”

Romero went on to film other movies like Creepshow and Knightriders, but none achieved the success of the “Dead” franchise. He also appeared in many of his films and had an acting part in Silence of the Lambs.

Romero died on July 16, 2017 at the age of 77, but he won’t soon be forgotten. A Zombie Fest, is held each year in Pittsburgh, and there is a Living Dead Museum in Evans City. Through his films Romero has achieved immortality, and he was prophetic when he said, “I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!”

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