The recent news that George A. Romero had passed away after a short battle with lung cancer left both friends and fans devastated. Best known for his iconic Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, Romero also directed Creepshow, Monkey Shines, The Dark Half and a few other films as well. On top of his directing credits, he also served as a writer on additional projects and even appeared as an actor in a few roles. It was the Living Dead films, however, where Romero left his greatest legacy.
Night of the Living Dead and Romero's other works are more than just scary movies. Not only did they contain a significant amount of social commentary, they effectively invented the modern zombie - creating a set of rules that would come to be staples of zombie movies for decades to come. His work was like nothing that the public had seen before, and many horror directors still cite him as a chief inspiration. To honor the memory of George Romero, let's look back on his films and see how he became the father of the modern zombie horror.
What Came Before
Night of the Living Dead is sometimes erroneously referred to as the first zombie movie, but there were other zombie movies that predated it. Depending on how strongly one wanted to argue it, The Mummy (the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff, which inspired multiple sequels and remakes) could be counted as a form of zombie film, since the titular mummy is a member of the walking dead.
Even if you don't count The Mummy (and other raising-the-dead classics like James Whale's Frankenstein), the general consensus is that 1932's White Zombie, based on the book The Magic Island by William Seabrook, was the first zombie movie. Unlike Romero's films, White Zombie (and other early zombie films such as White Zombie's 1936 semi-sequel Revolt of the Zombies, 1941's King of the Zombies, 1944's Voodoo Man and 1957's Voodoo Island), White Zombie used voodoo to turn living people into zombies instead of having the dead come back to life. Even 1964's The Incredible Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, despite its titular promise of the creatures "stopping living" before becoming zombies, saw the affected individuals become zombies through hypnosis instead of an actual return from beyond the grave.
That's not to say that there weren't a few films that featured a more modern take on zombies before the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Zombies of Mora Tau was released in 1957 and featured dead sailors brought back to life by a curse on the diamonds that were in their ship at the time of its shipwreck. Both The Earth Dies Screaming and the notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space featured resurrected zombies in their plots as well, though in both cases it was aliens who brought the dead back to life. Other films made use of mad scientists to resurrect the dead, making individual "zombies" that had transplanted brains or similarities in construction to Frankenstein's monster.
The Dead Shall Rise
While there were obviously some zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, Romero's masterpiece didn't borrow heavily from them. According to Romero himself, one of the biggest inspirations for Night of the Living Dead was Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend (which has received three film adaptations of its own). Romero claimed in a DVD commentary that he had written a short story as the basis for the film, which he has admitted at various points (including a 2008 CinemaBlend interview) "ripped off" I Am Legend:
"When I did the first film, I didn’t call them zombies. When I did Night of the Living Dead I called them ghouls, flesh eaters. To me back then, zombies were just those boys in Caribbean doing the wet-work for Bela Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior."
Romero went on to explain how I Am Legend specifically influenced the return of the dead in Night of the Living Dead:
"I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead?"
Of course, Night of the Living Dead wasn't the first incarnation of the film that would eventually reshape the zombie horror genre. Romero's first attempt at making the movie came in the form of a script for a horror-comedy called Monster Flick. Romero wrote Monster Flick with Night of the Living Dead collaborator John Russo, and the script focused on aliens who were raising the dead and using them as a form of food. As Romero and Russo updated the script and fleshed it out into a three-part short story, it eventually morphed from an alien-centric comedy into the film we now know as Night of the Living Dead.