The concept of zombies existed long before 1968.
The first known film related to zombies was actually released in 1932, which was “White Zombie.” However, the zombies at that time were more related to magic and voodoo and it wasn’t until the late 60s that the modern zombie movie was created.
It was all thanks to George A. Romero (Feb. 4, 1940-July 16, 2017), who came along and thrust the genre in a whole new direction with the film “Night of the Living Dead.” Romero’s indie film, which introduced the concept of a plague that turns people into flesh eating zombies, didn’t just create a new idea for filmmakers to use, though.
On top of introducing a new concept that inspired other directors, the 1968 low-budget picture is a great movie in its own right and is a reflection of the type of director Romero is.
While “Night of the Living Dead” has some creepy moments and displayed some gruesome scenes that still hold up today, what really makes it a classic was the social commentary that was associated with it. He didn’t just create a movie to horrify people, he also had a message to send about how society and civil behavior can break down.
That point is especially more significant considering the time of the film’s release, when the Vietnam War was taking place and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as John F Kennedy were still recent memories for the public. It was a time where many things that had built up in the post-war 1950s era was starting to break down, and “Night of the Living Dead’s” portrayal of society breaking down was a microcosm of that.
Plus, there was the casting decision by Romero to have an African American, Duane Jones, play the lead character Ben. While Romero did say that Jones was cast because he gave the best audition, it was still an important step at the time by Romero to have Jones play the lead protagonist in the picture.
After “Night,” Romero went on to have a fairly wide filmography including loose sequels to the “Living Dead” series. In those sequels, Romero went on to continue his social commentary.
For example, “Dawn of the Dead” was a breakdown and satire on shopping malls and consumerism. His 2005 picture “Land of the Dead,” meanwhile, was a look at financial classes and minorities. Then, his 2007 flick “Diary of the Dead” was a breakdown of the media environment.
Critics and audiences have been mixed on their reception toward his later films and even I didn’t particularly like “Diary of the Dead.” However, I can respect Romero for putting in the effort to actually have something to say with his platform and do so in a way that still provides entertainment.
In 2016, I attended the Fargo Film Festival and that year its highest honor, the Ted M. Larson Award, was given to Romero. Because of scheduling conflicts, Romero was unable to attend, but fest officials visited him at his home and filmed him receiving the award. It was a great tribute to a filmmaker who didn’t just have some great movies, but gave audiences some messages to think about, too.
After his death this summer, many creators were quick to note his significance to the world of art.
Film Critic Bob Chipman also made a great video on the director: