The loners, rebels, iconoclasts, the posers — eventually they all sell out. Eventually Brando does Superman, Depp goes Disney, Hopper embraces Waterworld, Coppola brings us Jack, Cassavettes answers the Two-Minute Warning, Scorsese visits Cape Fear, Pacino plays with Jack and Jill, and De Niro — good heavens, where to begin with poor old Robert De Niro, with Bad Grandpa.
It is hard to blame them. I don't. The money is huge, the fame addicting, the phone not ringing horrifying, the need for validation constant. All of it — booking a job, the paycheck, the Star Waggon, the on-set worship, the narcotic feel of being in a Big Hit, of being the Center of the Universe, it is, as they say, a helluva drug.
George Romero never sold out.
That is not to say the genius creator of his very own genre didn’t at times work within the dreaded studio system. He did, primarily with creative partner and horror novelist Stephen King. But even on those occasions, Romero stayed faithful to his genre, to his ideals, to his affection for the low budgets that came with creative control and independence.
Whether they are all true or not, the stories of Romero removing himself or being removed from various studio projects popped up from time to time. From what I have read, over the years, Romero had more than one opportunity to become filthy rich as a gun-for-hire on a World War Z, to cash-in on his name through some multi-national's soul-killing vision of what his creation should look like. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Just last year Romero expressed his justifiable frustration over how Hollywood's long overdue embrace of his genre had destroyed his ability to make the kind of zombie films he wanted to make:
"Because of World War Z and The Walking Dead, I can’t pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical," he told Indiewire in 2016. "I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can’t. The moment you mention the word 'zombie,' it's got to be, 'Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.'"
Until the end, though, which came Sunday at the hands of lung cancer, Romero held firm. Although he had not directed anything since 2009's micro-budgeted Survival of the Dead, although he was running out of time as a man well into his seventies, he just kept right on doing what he had always done — hustling to make the movie he wanted to make, namely Road of the Dead, which would have taken place on an island filled with humans who use the undead for sport, who teach them to drive race cars in some modern-day version of the Roman Coliseum. To which I can only say — Oh. Hell. Yes.
Romero did not create the zombie, the idea of the undead walking the earth pre-dates even Romero's own 1940 birth; he just made the zombie awesome — a human flesh-eater that could only be stopped through the destruction of the brain, a relentless cannibal attracted by noise and sound, a hunter of homo sapiens driven by insatiable hunger, a mindless predator afraid of nothing and made all the more terrifying because it moved so damned slow.
Genius is often found in simplicity and the simplicity of Romero's zombies, the Rules he invented, are so creatively brilliant that 50 years after he brought them to us, his creation is not only more popular than ever, it is respected through massive budgets, taken seriously by critics.
Romero still never took that bait. The budgets and critical acclaim, the respectability of it all, he refused to go near it. For those of us who anticipated his next zombie chapter like a kid anticipates summer vacation, this stubbornness, while appreciated, was also agonizing. It was ten years between his masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968) and his even greater masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978). Another seven years would pass before 1985's brilliant arrival of Day of the Dead. Twenty years would pass — TWENTY! — before we saw the well-worth-the-wait Land of the Dead (2005). Then in quick succession, another masterpiece, 2007's Diary of the Dead, followed by 2009's flawed but interesting Survival of the Dead (2009).
Usually when you read a quote from a filmmaker like the one above about sociopolitical messaging, you want to run the other way, and for good reason. Just the opposite was true for Romero. There was nothing simplistic about what the man had to say. Yes, Night is about racism in America, especially among good ole' boys, but 50 years on name a movie where the hero is wrong. Ben (Duane Jones) is black and righteous and decent, but he is also dead wrong about not barricading everyone in the basement, and by the time he figures this out it is way too late.
Dawn lashed out at mindless Middle American consumerism, and did so 30 years before it all caught up to us, before those of us lulled into our own zombie-coma by IKEA and shopping malls and man caves woke up to the nightmare-result of our sloth, Barack Obama.
Science and the military both take a beating in Day, but watch it again. Romero might have given us our first female action hero but along the way this "strong woman" emasculates her lover to an apocalyptic end. Land is what America will look like should the Left succeed in its primary goal of destroying the middle class, of creating a world of them, the elites, and the rest of us. Diary not only captures the coming social media zeitgeist but there is currently no difference whatsoever between the news media Romero saw just over the horizon and the fake, serial-lying, corporate news media all around us today.
Over 40 years George Romero made six zombie films, made them his way, and five of them are timeless and indispensible, not just to the horror genre but to movies overall and most certainly to our culture at large.
George Romero was 77.