R.I.P. George A. Romero, director & co-writer of the cult classic “Night of the Living Dead”

By on July 21, 2017

In honor of the passing of the great director George A. Romero, we’ve just added the original 1968 film Night of the Living Dead — which aired frequently in the late nights and wee hours of the morning on “Night Flight” back in the 1980s — to our Horror collection over on Night Flight Plus.

We were saddened to learn of the death of the great George Romero — director and co-writer of the seminal cult classic Night of the Living Dead — on July 16, 2017, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 77.

In the 2005 documentary film Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, written and directed by former Night Flight writer/producer, Stuart Samuels, Stuart talked to Romero about his career.

Thanks to Stuart, we’ve got an extended exclusive twenty-minute interview — previously available as a bonus track on the European DVD release of Midnight Movies — to share with you.

Have a look.

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George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was one of a handful of films — including John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the theatrical version of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show — which gave rise to the cult popularity of the so-called “midnight movie,” which in the 1970s were distributed to small independent theaters by many independent film distributors, including our very own Night Flight founder and creator, Stuart Shapiro.

In this excerpt from the 20-minute long interview we’re exclusively sharing with you over on Night Flight Plus, Romero talks about the origins of Night of the Living Dead:

“Most horror at that time, and previously, through the Fifties, if there was any message in it, it was ‘be afraid of science,’ ‘nukes are going to get us!,’ and ‘women are going to become fifty feet tall and, boy, will we be in trouble then!’ It was all, like, you know, either it was a very transparent comment on society, or it was just stupid. It was just blehhh, things jumping out at night. There were a few… Dementia 13 … and there were a few that I remember that were…, but I wasn’t thinking so much about the films.”

“I’d been educated on E.C. comic books, which gave me this idea that, well, you tell a moral tale, it can have a bad guy… they were a little too moral… anybody that even told a lie, got his balls cut off in those days, so I didn’t want to go exactly that way, but I wanted to take this idea, which I had seen in these 50s things, of science messing you up, of nukes messing you up, the army being stupid, and I said ‘lets take that a drop further and let’s really try to do a metaphor about revolution,’ and that’s I think what it was. Way underlying it, that’s what we talked about initially, was to make a movie about revolution, about a new society basically swallowing up the old, the old doesn’t see it coming because they’re too trapped in their own circumstances.”

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“So that’s what we really only talked about. We started to write the script. We had the equipment… the lights, that 35mm camera, all that shit. We had friends who had an audio production company, who had audio equipment, and a music library, so we were saying ‘Hey man, let’s’… it was like ‘hey, we can have the dance right here’, like an old Mickey Rooney movie, man

“There were ten of us, we kicked in six hundred bucks apiece… we talked about ‘hey, we might have to kick in seven, eight’, but that’s what it was, man, on six grand… we went up, that enabled us to rent the farmhouse, buy film stock, make a deal with the local lab that gave us a tremendous break. I mean, in the end, we actually won, we won — Russ Streiner, one of the producers — won the sound mix for this movie in a chess game with the guy who owned one of those labs. God’s truth. So we didn’t have to pay for the sound mix. I mean, that’s the way it was.”

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Read more about George Romero and Night of the Living Dead below.

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Romero directed many other films, of course, not all of them horror films — including There’s Always Vanilla (1972), Hungry Wives (1973), and The Crazies (1973), Knightriders (1981) and Monkey Shines (1988), and his 1978 film Martin (1978) — the story of a young man who believes he’s a vampire and murders mostly women, with a razor, in his search for blood — is considered by many to have been his best film.

It was the 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, though, which made his reputation for its potent combination of horror, social commentary and satire.

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George Romero and actors on the set of Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead — shot on a shoestring budget in black & white — was mainly about a group of seven people trapped inside an old farmhouse, boarding up windows while trying to escape the clutches of flesh-eating zombies.

Authority has collapsed, and the nuclear family is imploding, while rifle-toting rednecks roam the countryside, searching for ghouls who won’t stay dead.

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Duane Jones, a black actor, played the lead role — unprecedented at the time in a horror movie — at a time when audiences were more than ever before becoming aware of how movies, even horror movies, could reflect racial tensions in society.

Night of the Living Dead was also Romero’s directorial debut, from a screenplay written by Romero and co-writer John Russo (we told you about Russo in this previous Night Flight blog post).

We learned in Stuart Samuels’ Midnight Movies documentary film — based on Stuart’s own book, Midnight Movies: A Revealing Look at America’s Most Popular Cult Movies (Collier, April 1983) — that Romero’s film was going to be distributed initially by American International Pictures, if Romero agreed to make edits and changes to the film’s ending, giving it a more upbeat finale.

Romero wisely refused to make those edits, and eventually New York distributor Walter Reade released the movie instead, which of course went on to be a midnight movie blockbuster.

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In his Midnight Movies interview, Romero talks a little bit about his intentions with inserting political content into his first horror film, saying:

“I’d been educated on E.C. comic books, which gave me this idea, that horror movies should have a little moral, you know, you could get your political opinions, and you can use it as a platform to maybe express some anger or something.”

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George Romero and Stephen from Esquire magazine circa 1982 (photo by Curtis Knapp)

A recent IndieWire blog post lays out very clearly why Romero’s first film was so important to the horror genre and to the world of independent American filmmaking:

Night of the Living Dead didn’t just popularize stories about walking zombies; it delivered a scathing commentary of America’s racial divisions and wartime obsessions under the guide of cheap entertainment.

It was brilliant Trojan Horse: He merged the eerie atmosphere of E.C. Comics with the micro-budget approach of exploitation movies, while injecting the otherworldly terror with something far more realistic.

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Romero’s subversive attitude toward American culture at the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement was epitomized by the news reports percolating throughout the movie and the plight of Ben (Duane Jones), the sole African American holed up in the house for the duration of the movie.

The gut-punch of the finale, when Romero turns the notion that someone can survive the night on its ear, epitomized his genius, and he would later find new targets in the vapidity of the super mall with Dawn of the Dead and religious extremism in his underrated Martin.

Decades later, he was still savaging modern media culture with Diary of the Dead, taking aim at amateur video with more precision than anything else out there.

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Romero made five more films in the zombie series, ending with 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

George A. Romero also worked with Stephen King on Creepshow, an anthology of original twisted tales, inspired by the E.C. horror comics of the 50’s and 60’s (themselves a more direct basis for the popular “Tales from the Crypt” TV series).

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Stephen King, George Romero, and Richard P. Rubinstein shooting Creepshow in 1982

Originally, Romero — born on February 4, 1940, in the Bronx, New York City — had studied art and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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His interests included art, theater and design, as well as film, but it was the latter interest that drew him into a full-fledged career.

At the beginning of his career, Romero made short films and commercials, and one of his early breaks was making educational shorts for for the PBS children’s series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and he has said that one of his earliest films — he has said it’s still one of his scariest — was “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.”

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Judith O’Dea as “Barbara” in Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead — Romero directs next to S. William Hinzman, who was 2nd Cameraman when Romero was not operating

He began hanging out at film laboratories and talking with others who were interested in making films, and his boss, Fred Rogers, was very supportive of his projects, although Romero wasn’t allowed to cast a local actress named Betty Aberlin for the role of Barbara on Night of the Living Dead because she’d appeared often on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and apparently Rogers put his foot down about that and said “No.”

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Night of the Living Dead aired frequently in the wee hours of the morning and late nights on the USA Network, and we aired the film on “Night Flight” occasionally, as you can see in this Youtube clip we found, we features Pat Prescott’s introduction to the movie.

Romero turned the experience of reviving zombie movies for the modern age into something of a cottage industry which then, of course, produced countless imitators, remakes and homages, but there was really no one else like Romero, he was truly one of a kind.

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In a statement provided by his manager Chris Roe, it was revealed that Romero died on Sunday, July 16, following a battle with lung cancer.

Horror icon Stephen King, who worked with Romero on cult-classic Creepshow (1982) posted the following heartfelt message about his friend on Twitter:

“Sad to hear my favorite collaborator–and good old friend — George Romero has died. George, there will never be another like you.”

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George Romero and Stephen King, 1982

Romero’s family — including a son G. Cameron and daughter Tina, who both followed him into the film industry — said he died while listening to the score of The Quiet Man, one of his favorite films, with his wife, Suzanne Desrocher, and daughter Tina by his side.

R.I.P. George A. Romero.

Watch Night of the Living Dead on Horror collection over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.