The late George A. Romero has a legacy that will, of course, live on far beyond his 77 years—but what I’ll remember most about him is the lasting imprint on the state of the world itself. The lessons taught in his movies live far beyond the theatres and television sets we watched his films on, he changed the way I viewed horror and the way that I looked at society. A rebel on and off the silver screen, Romero redefined horror with his opus Night of The Living Dead in 1968, a movie that introduced most of the world to the zombie craze, and that modern pop culture has taken cues from stylistically since its release. But beyond that, he’s always sought to create films that were about more than just blood and guts. He made movies that went beyond graphic violence—depicting his cast of heroes and villains as cautionary tales of a world gone awry. Romero knew that we were all crazy, and he was the only one with balls to put it on the screen.
Romero’s cult-classic turned historical Horror movie landmark Night of The Living Dead is an example of one such movie that challenged the societal norms of the time. Lambasted for its grisly scenes of violence, which are admittedly tame by all standards today, Night was more than just a run-of-the-mill “survive the night” spookfest. Depicting a cast of characters who are stuck in a house against a horde of “ghouls,” the movie was an allegory for the horrors of the Vietnam and Cold War, and the bleak outlook of middle America. With radio broadcasts that mirrored the sensationalist reporting of the time, Romero used Night to criticize the media and cleverly provide untrustworthy (or trustworthy?) exposition to the characters in the movie.
Though he denied it himself, Romero’s casting of African-American actor Duane Jones as Ben and his demise at the very end of the movie was a grim reminder of the presence of racism within America at the time. With all of the survivors wiped out by an ambush of ghouls, Ben is the only one left alive—and is killed by an all-White posse who mistake him for one of the creatures. He’s burned next to a pile of zombies before the credits roll in a visceral reminder of the value of Black life even in the face of a potential apocalypse.
These types of lessons are prevalent all throughout his filmography as well—1973’s The Crazies was a commentary on environmental care and totalitarian governments, while Dawn of The Dead took the themes of Night and aimed at modern consumerism. His casting choices were always inspired, casting people of color in important roles (as he did with the aforementioned Jones) when they were mostly redshirts, and giving women more to do than just run around and trip over things. His stories were nihilistic yet real, spitting in the face of the thought that the Horror genre was “an escape.” Jason and Freddy Krueger were relentless, yet defeatable. In Romero’s world, however, the real horror was us—and the human condition is inescapable. These movies dragged you deeper into the abyss, killing off characters that you loved and ending with somber recollection rather than triumphant victories. Romero dared to make the Horror genre about more than just a quick thrill, he wanted us to be critical of the world we were living in outside of the movie theatre, too.
Perhaps the most promising thing that has come from the loss of George Romero is the fact that his lessons are still being applied to Horror movies today. This year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out proved that this genre can still be thoughtful and frightening—backing its scares with the inherent threat of liberal racism (the most horrific kind). Julia Ducournau’s Raw also uses graphic cannibalism to serve as an indictment on the reality of young people who are pressured to fit into society. George Romero gave us more than just zombies, he gifted the world with his blueprint on how to make what was thought to be “trashy” entertainment enjoyable and transcendent. He was a rare talent that did more than just give his movies a voice, he gave them a soul, and though his passing is as sad as the end of one of his movies—I’m glad that I got a chance to experience it firsthand.