The Story Behind George Romero’s Masterpiece

The zombie genre exists in the film world thanks to a director who had a dream, a few bucks, and a lot of ambition

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 17 Jul 2017 at 2:01 PM

Without George A. Romero, there would be no “Walking Dead” — never mind the zombie genre that Hollywood returns to again and again for profit.

With only a dream and a few dollars, the late director — who passed away Sunday after a battle with lung cancer — made a film that has not only survived for decades, but managed also to inspire an entire genre.

As a Bronx-born college dropout, Romano was an unlikely individual to change film history in 1968.

"It's no big thing, man. Who knew that we were ever going to even finish this movie? It was just like a bunch of people getting together, and we were going to try to make a movie, and none of us knew that it was ever going to get finished, let alone become something as well-known as it is," Romero told the filmmakers of "Birth of the Living Dead," a 2013 documentary about the making of his classic.

It was that sort of humility and wide-eyed artistic aspirations that made Romero the beloved and accomplished director he was.

Romero began his career directing beer commercials and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in Pittsburgh. When he and his friends grew ambitious for more, he turned his sights to putting together a movie.

"We started to think we could actually make movies," said Romero. "I had this really high-minded idea to do this Bergman-esque, sort of 'Virgin Spring' kind of a movie."

That movie turned out to be a script set in the Middle Ages that couldn't find financing. In an effort to get something actually made, Romero then looked at the horror genre.

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"I had read a novel called 'I Am Legend' by Richard Matheson, and it seemed to me that it was about revolution," said Romero of his inspiration for the screenplay of "Night of the Living Dead."

The themes of Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel spoke to a young Romero in 1967 as someone who opposed the Vietnam War and who held progressive social views.

Those ideas were infused into "Night of the Living Dead," a horror movie that won surprising praise from film critics.

"If you want to see what turns a B-movie into a classic ... don't miss 'Night of the Living Dead.' It is unthinkable for anyone seriously interested in horror movies not to see it," wrote critic Rex Reed for the New York Observer.

Romero found nine investors to give him just enough money to rent a farmhouse to tell his story of the dead coming back to life. Investing his own money, too, he made "Night of the Living Dead" in Pittsburgh for a mere $114,000.

Calling in favors from people as disparate as butchers, police, and local newsmen, Romero put together his film in true independent fashion, without the backing of any studio.

Once released, it became a staple for drive-in movie theaters. It not only made millions and captured the imaginations of Americans everywhere, but it inspired an entire genre — one Romero continued to play with until late in his career.

The filmmaker made five sequels, the last of which was released in 2009. In 2014, Romero also created a zombie comic book, "Empire of the Dead," which was in development at AMC as a television show at the time of his death.

"Night of the Living Dead" in 1968 was the rare film that inspired a change in the industry. A genre was built off the back of a 27-year-old independent filmmaker in Pittsburgh, who was just looking to create something worth showing to others.

In 1999, the movie was preserved by the Library of Congress. Today, it is still shown on TV and in theaters across the country. Few films have made the impact that Romero's first feature did. Author Stephen King perhaps summed up the life of Romero best on Twitter over the weekend when he said, "There will never be another like you." There certainly won't.

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