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Remembering George Romero, 77, filmmaker who brought the undead to life

July 17, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Filmmaker George Romero has died at the age of 77. His cult classic "Night of the Living Dead," made for $100,000 in 1968, launched the modern zombie industry and countless imitators. But Romero's zombie flicks also offered him a platform for social commentary about American culture, racism, paranoia and consumerism. Jeffrey Brown discusses his life with Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, remembering filmmaker George Romero, the master of the zombie movie and a man whose influence in the business went further than many moviegoers realize.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

ACTOR: Medical examination of victims bodies show conclusively that the killers are eating the flesh of the people they kill.

JEFFREY BROWN: With a $100,000 in 1968, George Romero brought the undead back to life in American culture. His “Night of the Living Dead” became a cult classic, and launched a modern zombie industry of soulless ghouls with a taste for human flesh popping up everywhere today.

For Romero, his films were about more than just blood and graphic violence.

GEORGE ROMERO, Director: This series of films have been sort of my platform. It’s ripe for metaphor. And the zombies, to me, have always represented the people that are just unwilling to stand up. And, you know, there are a lot of living dead in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Night of the Living Dead,” starring an African-American actor, was seen as a kind of social commentary on racism and the paranoid mood of its time.

A decade later, Romero’s first sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” played on the excesses of American consumerism. Roger Ebert dubbed it one of the best horror films ever made, savagely merciless in its satiric view.

Romero followed up with many other films, including four more in the “Dead” series, with varying degrees of box office success.

But the zombie world he unleashed took on a massive multibillion-dollar life of its own in blockbuster films like “World War Z,” video games, and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

That, in turn, led Romero to sour a bit on the genre he helped popularize.

He spoke on NPR in 2014.

GEORGE ROMERO: It’s, all of a sudden, you can’t make a little zombie film anymore. Has to be special effects and big budget. And I’m not — I’m just not interested in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later in life, he shifted to different media, including teaming up with Marvel to publish a comic book series.

George Romero died Sunday in Toronto from lung cancer. He was 77 years old.

And for more on George Romero and his impact, I’m joined by Justin Chang, film critic for The Los Angeles Times.

Welcome to you, Justin.

Zombies, who would have thought? What explains the impact of those early films?

JUSTIN CHANG, The Los Angeles Times: Well, I think when you have a film like “Night of the Living Dead,” which is, I think, one of the great debut films that any director in or outside the horror genre has ever given us, you have to look at the context, you know, Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the recent assassinations of the Kennedy brothers.

It was a time of, obviously, great social unrest. And George Romero found, unwittingly or not, a perfect metaphor for that unrest. And I think it was about the primitiveness of the filmmaking, the very raw technique. It was shot on a $114,000 budget, which is about $800,000 today, still a very small budget.

And he achieved this kind of — a film that was almost like a documentary nightmare. And it really captured, I think, a sense of rage and of pointlessness, a kind of senseless, arbitrary killing that was really unsettling for audiences at the time, and is still enormously unsettling today.

JEFFREY BROWN: His films, of course, largely done on the cheap, but somehow a cult thing grew into a very large cultural phenomenon.

He wasn’t so crazy — as we heard, he wasn’t so crazy about what followed?

JUSTIN CHANG: Absolutely.

I mean, we live in a culture where zombies are proliferating on screens, whether it’s “World War Z” or “The Walking Dead,” which is still hugely popular, or the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” about 13 years ago, and terrific spoofs like “Shaun of the Dead,” which I think is one of the few that George Romero has professed to actually liking.

So, in a way, he was, I think, understandably disenchanted with the way that Hollywood really mainstreamed the zombie film and the zombie TV show, and in some ways took out that edginess, that political subtext that he was so good at putting in there.

And I think he especially resented things like “The Walking Dead,” because it made it very difficult for him to get his own zombie movies financed on an independent level. And he was a consummate independent filmmaker, and something of a Hollywood outsider and skeptic, I think, all his career, which makes his success all the more remarkable.

JEFFREY BROWN: For a lot of people, this stuff goes way too far, right, the graphic violence that’s part of our society and that’s really part of our entertainment culture.

Did he help create that, for better or for worse?

JUSTIN CHANG: I don’t think it’s entirely fair to lay that as George Romero’s doorstep. And I say that as someone who’s on the more squeamish side of the spectrum as far as horror movie viewers goes.

But I think you have to look at his films, a film like “Dawn of the Dead,” which is, I think, as great a masterpiece as “Night of the Living Dead” is. There is always something more going on beneath the violence.

If you’re just there for the splatter and the viscera, you will get that. But he gives you — he’s always asking you to look a little closer, see what’s going on, see who these zombies represent, see who the real monsters are in a way.

And so I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that he’s responsible for the fetishization and exploitation of violence in our culture. He’s using it — I mean, he’s exploiting violence in his own way, to very brilliant and very provocative ends.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just briefly, I do want to mention the passing of another movie figure, the actor Martin Landau. He was known early on, on television, in “Mission: Impossible,” later in films, including “Ed Wood,” for which he won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Let’s take a look at a short scene from Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

MARTIN LANDAU, Actor: This is what you plan on doing. You’re going to hold on to me with threats, right, stupid threats and slander? This is your idea of love, right?

ACTRESS: I will not be tossed out. I want to speak to Miriam.

MARTIN LANDAU: Think. For Christ’s sake, think what the hell you are doing to me, will you? Please.

JEFFREY BROWN: Justin Chang, a brief thought on Martin Landau?

JUSTIN CHANG: Martin Landau was such a wonderful actor.

And that scene you play sort of, I think, captures his elegance and gravitas, his ability to play a silken villain that we feel for. In that film, he’s an adulterous husband who contemplates the murder of his lover.

And it’s — you know, I’m reminded, too, of his great performance many decades earlier in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest,” where he took the role of a villain’s number two and made it something really memorable and really incisive out of that.

And so it’s not that he could only play villains, certainly not, but he had, I think, a real talent for playing morally ambiguous characters, and doing it superbly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, thank you very much.

JUSTIN CHANG: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we thank you, Jeff.

And I was covering my eyes until we got to Martin Landau.

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