Movies

Ty Burr | Appreciation

How George Romero, the original zombie hunter, helped reshape popular culture

Director George Romero in 2009.

Andrew Medichini/Associated Press/File

Director George Romero in 2009.

Here is an uncontested truth: Our 24/7 zombie entertainment culture owes George A. Romero everything. Ev. Ery. Thing. Without him — without the eruption from the cinematic id called “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, there would be no “The Walking Dead” on cable TV and no “World War Z” book or movie. There’d be no “Resident Evil” or a zillion other video games, no cross-genre mash-ups like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” on the bookshelves and zombie-human romances like “Warm Bodies” in movie theaters. No meta-undead comedies like “Zombieland,” with its riffing on the rules of zombie behavior that “Night of the Living Dead” established.

Romero died Sunday, at 77, after a battle with lung cancer, according to his manager. What he wrought with the original “Night” was not only a horror movie that blew out the gaskets of anyone who saw it in 1968, and not only a series of movies that burrowed brainily and bloodily under the skin of our cultural discontents, but an entire cosmography of zombie lore and behavior that others have been profiting from for half a century now.

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“I harbor a lot of resentment,” Romero told Indiewire earlier this month, and he was right to. When Brad Pitt and AMC moved into the zombie arena with, respectively, the film version of “World War Z” and the hit series “Walking Dead,” it showed the suits that there was blockbuster potential in the undead — and suddenly Romero’s home-brewed horror fables, almost all of them embedded with acrid little social critiques, were deemed small-time. “I was ready to do another one, a $2 [million]-$3 million one, and nobody will finance a zombie movie now,” he told Indiewire.

Which is a little like turning down a new hand-drawn Hayao Miyazaki animation because everyone’s already doing digital. Anyway, “Night of the Living Dead” isn’t just a landmark in the horror genre, It was a game-changer for American independent filmmaking, a black-and-white regional shocker that came out of Pittsburgh, Pa. — Pittsburgh — and lit the drive-in and midnight-movie circuit on fire. It cost $114,000 to make and grossed $18 million worldwide.

Undead zombies in a still from the 1968 film “Night Of The Living Dead.”

Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Undead zombies in a still from the 1968 film “Night Of The Living Dead.”

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More to the point, the movie was scary as hell. A brother and sister are visiting their parents’ grave when they’re attacked out of nowhere by a lumbering, unstoppable, flesh-craving zombie. There’s a vague explanation on the radio — something about a virus from Venus — but we’re basically dropped in media undead.

The sister (Judith O’Dea) holes up in a house with other survivors, including the movie’s unstated hero, Ben (Duane Jones). Romero says he hired the African-American Jones because he simply gave the best audition, that the film’s not about race. Perhaps. The final scene still made terrible sense in 1968, in the wake of the King assassination, and it resonates just as strongly today in the aftermath of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile.

“Night of the Living Dead” was gory for its time, but what made it shocking was not the movie’s style but its realism — that and the sense that we were crashing past taboos as we watched. For me, the film existed as an urban legend, a playground rumor, years before I actually saw it. Say what? A little girl kills her mother with a trowel and proceeds to eat her? It was as though civilization itself was being upended, which only seemed to confirm what a lot of people sensed in 1968.

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Soon enough we’d learn to call this “apocalypse,” and it was codified in any number of films and cultural artifacts that Romero influenced. At the time, of course, “Night of the Living Dead” was scorned by right-thinking moviegoers and proper media commentators — shunned as an unclean thing. But it remained a dark undertow that wouldn’t go away, and when Romero returned in 1978 with “Dawn of the Dead,” his greatness as a cultural agent provocateur was confirmed. The movie depicts a war for survival set in a shopping mall, and while that calculus — America’s consumer culture — zombification — wasn’t brand new, Romero set it down in stone and gore. It stung, it stung hard, and it still stings.

He saw America and its pop culture not from high in Hollywood but looking up from down below, and it was a whole new vantage point. The same year as “Dawn,” Romero directed “Martin,” a vampire movie for a modern world of serial killers and social misfits. The movie’s lonely teenage bloodsucker (John Amplas) lacks the necessary fangs and has to resort to razor blades instead; in Romero’s world, we’re all prisoners of our impulses rather than folklore or the supernatural. It was his own favorite of the movies he made.

“Martin” remains an under-seen classic, and the original “Dead” trilogy — “Night,” “Dawn,” and “Day of the Dead” (1985) — is essential to any understanding of where our popular culture (and arguably American culture as a whole) is right now. A second zombie trilogy (“Land of the Dead”/“Diary of the Dead”/“Survival of the Dead”), made in the first decade of the new millennium, is less necessary but, if anything, more furious in its termite assault on the technological idiocies of our age. (“Diary” is probably the final word on the absurdity of first-person “found footage” horror.)

Reading all of the above, you may come to the conclusion that George Romero was a great filmmaker in a narrow range — a genre guy, a gifted practitioner of cinematic blood-and-guts. He was not; he was a great American filmmaker, period.

He had a vision and it wasn’t a pretty one, but it carried the seeds of truth about the ways in which we devour one another and ourselves. He didn’t go to Hollywood to realize that vision but made it in his own backyard, and then he let it find its way deep into the cracks of our culture’s foundations. So much of what entertains us now, and not just the zombie stuff, is built upon those foundations. But it’s the movies and series and books that trouble us, the ones that don’t let us slip into complacency and cultural sleep, that are George Romero’s truest children.

A final thought: Romero, who moved to Canada in 2004, was on record as despising the man currently sitting in the White House. He also made a point of resisting specific political readings of his work. Yet there’s a sense that the forces he dramatized being set against each other may have erupted into something more than metaphor. The message of Romero’s movies is that the zombies inevitably win, no matter what we do to stem the tide. Perhaps that’s why he chose to leave us when he did.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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