George Romero zombies

George Romero Undying Legacy – The Great Saga of a Horror Master

In the vast no man’s land of horror, one hand emerges mightily from the grave as a die-hard zombie who carved into the collective imagination like few others, the late George Romero.

Known as the father of the modern living dead, Romero revolutionized the genre (also mentioning other fantastic movies such as The Crazies, Monkey Shines or Bruiser) by redefining what a horror film could and should be, and in this article, I would like to celebrate the vast and frightening zombie legion this cinematic genius unleashed on the silver screen.

Born in New York in a family of Cuban and Lithuanian descent, Romero grew up in Latin culture under the influence of his ancestors’ rich tradition, developing a taste for the macabre and the unknown from a very young age.

His career began in the world of advertising, with which he brought home the bacon as he refined the (seemingly) simple and effective storytelling technique with which he would impose his particular vision around the world.

Revered by peers such as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, John Carpenter, and many others, all point to how this likable little man blended style and substance by combining the entertainment of cinema with social criticism, a unique mix that would always set him above most other horror artisans.

Despite his fame and influence, major studios remained reluctant to invest in Romero’s projects, often relegating him to working with limited budgets.

However, it was under these conditions that Romero performed at his best, shaping nothing unforgettable and groundbreaking movies that reflected our time’s social and cultural concerns, a biting mockery on the thousand faces of society and its dysfunctions.

If you are a fan of horror sagas such as The Walking Dead or The Last of Us, always thank dear old George, from whom it all began back in turbulent 1968.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead 1968 movie
Amazon Prime Video

However, why waste any more time analyzing every facet of these movies when we can talk directly about the movies?

It all begins in the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, where young Barbra and Johnny visit the grave of a dear relative.

Johnny recalls an old horror movie, joking with her, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”

Unfortunately, his words are incredibly prophetic because a man walking strangely attacks them, killing them as Barbra flees in terror.

Taking refuge in an abandoned house nearby, the girl meets Ben, a tough-minded black big boy determined to resist the approaching threat.

Indeed, from the cemetery, the buried corpses are coming back to life, hungry for human flesh and ready to devour both them and the other survivors: the young couple Tom and Judy, along with the Cooper family, consisting of Harry, Helen, and their seriously ill daughter Karen.

Romero makes the most effective use of the four walls of this decrepit house, with stunning black-and-white photography out of time that helps amplify the feeling of alienation from reality.

He boldly places a black man at center stage without turning him into a two-dimensional hero, but he is often reckless and impulsive, especially in his relationship with Mr. Cooper.

While trying to be rational in the midst of chaos, Cooper is so arrogant and obnoxious that no one listens to him, in the disintegration of the group that closely mirrors the social breakdown of America in 1968.

Not even young Barbra, seemingly useless and paralyzed by horror, escapes the mirror of a fragmented society.

Barbra is nothing but the catatonic apathy of that part of America that stupidly rejected the noticeable change exploding around them, hiding behind the stars and stripes flag and easy political rhetoric without understanding.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead 1978 movie
Amazon Prime Video

Mindful of his television past, Romero departs from a network studio where young reporter Jane Parker and her partner Stephen Andrews, a helicopter pilot, are planning an escape from the city ravaged by zombies.

Indeed, total chaos reigns in Philadelphia as SWAT raids an occupied building downtown, slaughtering zombies, criminals, and innocents alike.

Disgusted by the bloodbath, two officers (Peter and Roger) decide they’ve had enough and climb into the helicopter along with Jane and Stephen, flying as far as their fuel supply allows.

Before running dry, the group notices an uninhabited shopping center, so they decide to occupy and make it their temporary residence while waiting for more news from outside.

Unfortunately, the place is plagued by ravenous resurrected cannibals, as well as a violent biker gang intent on raiding everything nearby, who will soon pay them a visit to claim a slice of that quiet paradise.

As you can see, Romero follows the same basics as in the previous zombie movie: gather the group, make resistance in the fort, and later we have the unity disintegrates due to stupid individualistic choices, and violent death arrives for almost everyone.

Instead of a house near the cemetery, in this case, the battlefield is a vast and rich supermarket; obviously, a metaphor for the ultimate death of the psychedelic and revolutionary 60s and 70s for an America now lost in dollars of unrestrained consumerism.

A metaphor, though, that is not thrown in our faces with useless rhetorical and philosophical speeches, but rather through lots of fun high-tension action/horror where the heroes conquer their little kingdom and then lose it dramatically, ending in flight towards almost certain death.

Perhaps it’s also the fate of American imperialism exported at gunpoint around the world?

Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead 1985 movie
Amazon Prime Video

Nearly 10 years later, Romero continues his journey into a world now under total zombie control, further reiterating, if it was not clear before, his great fondness for any oppressive authority figure in the police and the military.

In continuity from the conclusion of the previous story, this time, we have a helicopter flying over the Florida skies in the futile search for other survivors listening to their radio messages.

Leading the group is brave Sarah, a member of a scientific community working in an underground base under the protection of the military.

Indeed, her leader, Dr. Logan, believes he can make the zombies less dangerous, if not actually tame them into human service.

Unfortunately, the base commander recently died, so in charge of the soldiers is now the rough and ignorant Captain Rhodes, who is openly hostile and impatient with the scientists.

Of course, with this premise, total disaster does not take long to ensue, as coexistence between the two groups soon degenerates into a war without prisoners.

Romero opts for the tension of flawed interpersonal relationships, wherein the base, the zombies, seem to be the least of the problems of this small community unable to live together.

Captain Rhodes and his hideous sidekicks are the perfect impersonation of the obtuse mentality of the military world, deaf and blind to reason and any criticism to impose their will on others, even at the cost of getting everyone killed.

Equally arrogant and stupid is Dr. Lagon, lost in his useless experiments that aim to help no one. At the same time, finally, the woman is the only solid and rational character in the group, although her voice remains sadly unheard.

Just as sadly, Romero and his zombies will go forgotten by movie studios producers for too long.

Land of the Dead (2005)

Land of the Dead 2005 movie
Amazon Prime Video

A full 20 years pass before Romero returns to his beloved zombies with a movie that went unnoticed like it was the last of the Netflix series no one wants to watch.

In all this time, humanity now lives in fortress cities like Pittsburgh, where the survivor Riley Dembo lives.

Together with his friend Charlie and the unscrupulous mercenary Cholo, they run one of the best teams for the defense and supply of Fiddler’s Green, a giant skyscraper reserved for the elite under the command of the ruthless Paul Kaufman.

However, Cholo is fed up with scavenging and wants to move up to the top floors, believing he can earn some apartments from the wealthiest people.

Meanwhile, Riley ends up in jail after saving the sexy Slack from a clandestine fight when Kaufman releases and gives him a special mission.

Indeed, after being betrayed, Cholo plans to bomb the defensive walls, leaving the city at the mercy of the zombies, who are getting smarter and more dangerous.

Romero picks up where he left off with the previous movie, as if time had not passed for him.

Here the classism metaphor is automatic, with the rich living in luxury and security while the poor struggle like dogs trying to survive on the streets.

To equalize the injustice comes the unstoppable flood of zombies, who, from the last episode in 1985, evolve further, progressing from using simple tools as rhetorical gestures to learning again how to wield human weapons, preparing the dawn of a new war to wipe out the few survivors for good.

A story of darkness and blood, scant light, and a solid team of anti-heroes ready for all-out combat against an impeccable villain like Dennis Hopper into the best character of this long saga.

Diary of the Dead (2007)

Diary of the Dead 2007 movie
Amazon Prime Video

With the next movie, Romero further proves he is not just an older man living on a paycheck for creating the zombie genre; instead, he can keep up with technological and cinematic evolution.

So he spins this story as if it were a documentary uploaded to youtube, pointing out the irony of how in the apocalypse, social networks survived while humanity was almost entirely wiped out.

Watching this video, edited and then uploaded by the main characters, we go back to Pittsburgh again and retrace the early stages of the epidemic that broke out just as this young group of friends, again ironically, were in the woods shooting an amateur horror movie.

Having to flee after the zombies arrive, they begin a journey first to their college campus and then, in a hurry, out of town once they realize there is nowhere safe.

In the confusion of a crumbling country with no idea what to do, where cops and the military take advantage of the people they supposedly are defending, citizens are left with nothing but to reorganize a new society from scratch.

Compared to the previous story, filled with recognizable and over-the-top characters, in this one, the personalities are anonymous and almost interchangeable, lending even more realism to what really feels like a documentary found by chance on the net.

Also, due to Romero’s craftsmanship, the camera never jumps around like under a bomb blast and the focus is always on point, as a criticism of so many of his colleagues who can’t make a decent movie using the perspective view.

Compared to the rest of the saga, the protagonists are much younger, confronting the harsh reality of adults, staying determined to make a video not to get likes but to actually help others for once.

Survival of the Dead (2009)

Survival of the Dead 2009 movie
Amazon Prime Video

We pick up more or less where we left off by following the adventures of Sarge Crocket, a National Guard soldier who had robbed the protagonists of the previous movie.

Crocket is sick of the dull and stupid military mentality, so he welcomes another Youtube video where the mysterious Patrick O’Flynn invites the survivors to a small Delaware island, apparently a zombie-free happy oasis.

The reality is sadly quite different, as O’Flynn intends only to lure the unwary into a trap to return and take revenge on his arch-enemy, Seamus Muldoon, leader of a violent gang that exiled him long ago.

However, Crocket and his friends are not stupid and will not be fooled, stealing a ferry and arriving on the island only to discover that Muldoon is holding the zombies captive, avoiding killing them and believing that sooner or later there will be a cure to make them normal people again.

Stuck in the middle of this feud, the soldiers will do what they do best and make their weapons shout for a duel that will leave very few survivors on this supposed island of survivors.

Romero almost wholly sets aside the zombies to focus only on human conflicts in this wacky horror version of For a Fistful of Dollars, where two gangs wage a no-holds-barred war to reign over a useless no man’s land.

However, the living dead still evolve, and now they no longer eat only human flesh, finally expanding the horizons of their diet. Perhaps, one day, peaceful coexistence between us and them will be finally possible.

There are no good or bad characters; instead, they all almost seem to compete between who is more stupid and obnoxious for a movie that’s as non-commercial as possible and a perfect cinematic testament to the great master.

The abandoned tombstone of a genius

George Romero zombies

Although his last movie was in 2009, Romero died in 2017 without ever returning to theaters, although his creation lives on more potent than ever in any kind of media.

TV series, video games, comic books: there is no entertainment where zombies do not arrive, sooner or later, unstoppable and hungry as we have known them since the distant days of Night of the Living Dead.

28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Train to Busan; just to name a few of the most famous ones; however, the movies about them are uncountable as the influences on other filmmakers, among which I would put Rob Zombie, who chose this alias not by chance.

Starting as the leader of the band White Zombie, this singer was not the only one growing up on bread and undead, but we could cite the historical song “Zombie” by The Cranberries, just to name one of the bands I play all days in my youth.

Finally, as mentioned at the beginning, I was citing The Last of Us, although there are many other games with a living dead theme, such as the famous Resident Evil saga, Left 4 Dead, or the lovely and funny Plants vs. Zombies.

However, as a man and especially as an artist, Mr. George A. Romero was often lonely, isolated, and ostracized by the cinematic industry; nevertheless, his spirit is now as immortal as his ravenous creatures, and so he will live forever in all horror enthusiasts, ‘ hearts, although even he couldn’t dodge that last bullet to the head that, sooner or later, awaits all of us as well.

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