WASHINGTON — US filmmaker George A. Romero, whose 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead spawned the zombie movie genre, died on Sunday aged 77.
Tributes poured in from Hollywood and beyond for the legendary director who according to his manager Chris Roe passed away “listening to the score of The Quiet Man, one of his all-time favorite films.”
“He died peacefully in his sleep, following a brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer, and leaves behind a loving family, many friends, and a filmmaking legacy that has endured, and will continue to endure, the test of time,” Mr. Roe added in a brief statement.
Shot in black-and-white on a budget of just over $100,000, Night of the Living Dead daringly featured black actor Duane Jones as its lead in a script about a group of people attempting to survive an attack by reanimated corpses.
Some film scholars later suggested it was a subversive critique of US society during the 1960s, while its gory realism was reminiscent of footage from the Vietnam war that was airing on American TV at the time.
Besides the horror of flesh-eating zombies, the Dead films featured the theme of people who panic while under siege, turning on each other instead of uniting against their common enemy.
Romero, who was born in the Bronx borough of New York, was drawn to telling stories about monsters that are familiar to the people they terrorize, said his business partner, Peter Grunwald.
“They’re not crazy, fantastical monsters. They’re our neighbors, our relatives, our friends. They’re kind of scarier for that, scarier than big, special effects, sci-fi monsters,” Grunwald said.
The film went on to gross over $30 million worldwide, and led to five sequels including Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead — inspiring an entire genre that remains a Hollywood staple to this day, though the director admitted he was himself influenced by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend.
Night of the Living Dead was added by the Library of Congress in 1999 to its National Film Registry for works considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Originally called Night of the Flesh Eaters, the title was changed by the film’s distributor, Walter Reade. Somehow, no copyright protection was filed after the name change, putting Night of the Living Dead into the public domain and allowing anyone to distribute it for free.
Romero told The New York Times in 2016 that many more people saw the movie as result, “keeping the film alive.”
His other notable works include 1981’s Knightriders, about a traveling medieval reenactment troupe that jousts on motorcycles, and 1982’s horror anthology Creepshow written by author Stephen King.
Leading tributes to the director, Mr. King tweeted: “Sad to hear my favorite collaborator — and good old friend — George Romero has died. George, there will never be another like you.”
Director Eli Roth meanwhile hailed Romero for “confront(ing) racism 50 years ago” with his casting of Jones in Night of the Living Dead while also inventing the genre’s tropes that remain to this day: “The infectious bite. Shoot the head. Everything.”
“George Romero deserved to get 5% of every zombie movie made after 1968. But he didn’t. And he was always classy about it,” added film critic Scott Weinberg.
Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed creepy 2006 fantasy classic Pan’s Labyrinth and produced 2013’s supernatural horror Mama wrote: “Romero has passed away. Hard to find words right now. The loss is so enormous.”
Much of Romero’s work was shot in or around Pittsburgh, where Romero had attended Carnegie-Mellon University after moving away from his hometown New York where he was born in 1940 to a Cuban father and a Lithuanian-American mother.
He is survived by his wife and daughter, who were by his side when he passed, according to Mr. Roe. — AFP/Reuters