Directors’ trademarks is a series of articles that examines the “signatures” that filmmakers leave behind in their work. In this installment, since it’s Halloween, we’re looking at the trademark style and calling signs of horror movie icon George A. Romero as director.
From a young age, George A. Romero was interested in film. He was born in the Bronx in 1940 and would frequently ride the subways as a child to go rent films. His father was a commercial artist, and this may have influenced Romero’s interests. He began making films at the age of 14 with an 8mm camera he borrowed from his wealthy uncle. He even was arrested during production of one of his first movies when he lit a dummy and then threw it off of the roof of a building. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in theater in 1960, and continued to make short films which showed the violence and social commentary he would later become known for. He worked in the industry for a time, making commercials and television shows before forming his own production company, Latent Image, in 1963. Working for his own company, he was able to earn enough money to fund his feature film debut, Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Night of the Living Dead was not a success initially, but critical reviews calling out the director for excessive violence attracted people to the film. Over time it grew to have a cult following, established the zombie movie sub-genre, and established Romero as an innovator in horror film. Romero took on the job as director of There’s Always Vanilla in 1971 to try and raise money. This movie was a romantic comedy, and would be in stark contrast to Romero’s future filmography. Next he performed several duties, including director, on the film that would later be known as Season of the Witch (1972). This film, detailing a suburban mother’s encounter with witchcraft, would be re-edited by the production company to be a softcore porn film, and released under another title. It did not find any success. His follow-up, 1973’s The Crazies was a horror film more as we would come to expect from Romero. However, it did not find success in theaters and received mixed reviews. Without finding success in feature film, Romero went back to working on television and television movies for the next few years.
In 1978, Romero released the arthouse vampire psychological horror film, Martin. Upon release the film was derided for its violence, including being confiscated in the UK for censorship, which hurt its commercial performance. However, over time the film has earned much praise from critics and is appreciated as one of Romero’s best films. In 1978, Romero returned to the zombie genre that first made him famous with the release of Dawn of the Dead, which expanded upon his feature debut, to much acclaim. The film was a hit with audiences and has since become a cult classic. In 1981, he released Knightriders, an atypical drama for Romero, and in 1982 he released Creepshow, an analogy of short horror stories which was the screenwriting debut of Stephen King. Success of both films allowed Romero more freedom, and in 1985 he delivered his third zombie film, Day of the Dead. This film was not as well received by audiences and critics as Romero’s first two zombie films, but opinion has since turned around and it was able to make a lot of money when released to home video.
Next, Romero directed two horror films. First 1988’s Monkey Shines, and one of the two stories featured in Two Evil Eyes (1990). Neither film found much success. In 1993 he adapted the Stephen King novel The Dark Half for the big screen, but this film received mixed reviews and didn’t turn a profit in theaters. Romero took a 7 year hiatus from directing before returning to theaters with 2000’s Bruiser, which was his first international film and received mostly positive reviews from critics. Romero ended his career as director by returning to his zombie movie roots. He released three sequels to his original zombie films, 2005’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and 2009’s Survival of the Dead. Romero passed away in 2017.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a George A. Romero film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Mr. Romero’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Warning - This article contains spoilers!
Romero’s most iconic attribute as a filmmaker is also his biggest contribution to film. Romero did not invent the zombie (simply referred to as undead ghouls at the time) or the zombie movie, but instead he found a way to elevate his films above the limited scope these type of genre films have traditionally been known for. Romero found a way to make zombie movies meaningful. His films shine a light on greater socio-economic problems associated with modern life, reflected through a society on the brink. It’s not only blood, violence, and shock for the sake of entertainment. Horror, in particular zombie horror, is simply what allows Romero to put his characters in terrible situations so that their real feelings, instincts, and true beliefs come out. Romero essentially tears his characters down to the bone to reveal their human flaws, and in doing so he demonstrates how we are all so vulnerable to those influences.
In Night of the Living Dead, Romero explores our personal reaction to fear. Only the main protagonist Ben seems to be able to get a grip of his situation and act rationally. Every other human, whom contemporary audiences might otherwise have considered normal sane people, become almost as unintelligible as the undead they are attempting to combat. Dawn of the Dead takes place inside a shopping mall, which allows for a comparison between the undead hordes and our own insatiable consumerism. It is also fitting that the characters come from all walks of life and may not have otherwise had a reason to work together. The finale of Romero’s original zombie trilogy, Day of the Dead, has a blunt message about military elitism. The Crazies is another movie that has a plot similar to a zombie movie. In this film, Romero notes the inadequacies of a government with bureaucratic organization in dealing with a deadly crisis.
Romero’s films succeed when they can create a feeling of panic in the viewer. He wants his audiences to feel the way his characters do so that the full effect of their situation can be better understood. Violence and gore only go so far to illicit a response, and so Romero partakes in more dynamic filmmaking methods to make his point clear. Once the action picks up, Romero uses handheld cameras, tilted cameras, quick clips, interspaced perspectives, and sound overlays to help his audiences experience pandamonium first hand.
This attraction to disorder can be seen in the very first zombie encounter in Night of the Living Dead. Romero uses unstable camera work, angled perspectives, quick editing, and a heightened crescendo in the soundtrack to provide an initial shock and discomfort to his audience. One the outbreak occurs in The Crazies, Romero uses many short back-and-forth dialogue clips to demonstrate a panic and uncertainty about what is happening. The mall scenes in Dawn of the Dead elevate the chaos to another level. Here, Romero often follows several different characters at once, jumping between their individual perspectives as the zombie swarm attacks. Monkey Shines is a great film for demonstrating Romero’s ability to hijack his audience’s sense of control. Since the main character in this film is a quadriplegic, he is more powerless than most. Romero uses cuts and changes in perspective to demonstrate the monkey’s ease of motion and agility in comparison to the humans he torments.
Night of the Living Dead was an important horror film not just because it established the zombie, but also because it was one of the first popular pictures to feature a black actor in the lead role not specifically written for someone of color. Romero didn’t have a black actor in mind for the part of Ben, but when Duane Jones auditioned, he was impressed by his performance and decided to cast him based on that alone. Romero’s production company made many commercials during the 60’s and they were used to giving jobs to people who needed them, not necessarily people you would expect. This was important because at the time black actors in major motion pictures either had non-speaking roles, or the films usually had a racial theme. Night of the Living Dead simply treated the character Ben just like everyone else trying to survive the zombie invasion.
Romero’s later films would follow suit and feature diverse casts of men and women of all ages, and include people of color in prominent positions. In The Crazies, Lloyd Hollar plays an Army colonel and is in charge of the initial operation to contain the outbreak. In Dawn of the Dead, Ken Foree plays a SWAT team operative and is best equipped to handle the situation, while in Day of the Dead Terry Alexander plays the helicopter pilot who is the one the others need to protect the most in order for them to survive. Romero creates these characters as simply people trying to survive, they are not defined solely by their race. He also likes to blend his casts with experienced and inexperienced actors. More than just a cost-saving decision, it helps audiences detach from expectations they have for certain actors after seeing them in other roles.
Night of the Living Dead was released in a time before MPAA ratings warned parents and children of a film’s content. Never before had a matinee film been so unrelentingly violent and frightening. It simply shocked audiences by the way it pushed against perceived boundaries. While many people were disgusted or offended, it also got a lot of people talking. Romero’s future horror films would be no less shocking in their exhibition of violence and gore, which became one of his most lasting trademarks. Starting with 1978’s Martin, Romero began a working relationship with Tom Savini, who began his career in film as a makeup and prosthetic artist (Savini was scheduled to work with Romero on Night of the Living Dead, but he was called into service by the US Army in Vietnam. Savini would go on to become an actor and director as well, but he will always be best known for contributing his character makeup effects to the films of George A Romero as well as Dario Argento, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino.
Savini’s breakthrough was creating the blood effects in the opening sequence of Martin where the vampire lead character attacks a victim on a train in order to feast on her blood (he is also featured as an actor in this film). The same year, he created the makeup effects for the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, for which he would receive a nomination for a Saturn award for best makeup effects. He would later win the award for his effects Day of the Dead. He co-starred in Knightriders, also providing his own stunts. In Creepshow, George A. Romero was looking to try and recreate the look of a comic book for his short-story anthology, and so Savini made effects more stylized than he had previously. Savini’s also contributed special effects in Two Evil Eyes and Monkey Shines. His final contribution to Romero’s films is a fitting one, when he was featured as a machete-wielding zombie in Land of the Dead. Mr. Savini also went on to direct a remake of Night of the Living Dead in 1990.
Connections to Other Horror Icons
While Romero is renowned for his original contributions to the horror genre, he often plays homage to both his peers and those filmmakers that have come before him and served as his inspiration. One of Romero’s first jobs in the film industry was as a grip for Alfred Hitchcock. Romero would later utilize ideas and images from Hitchcock’s films in his own, most notably the flock of sparrows in The Dark Half. The way the zombies shuffle in The Night of the Living Dead may be taken for granted today, but that movement was based on the performance of Boris Karloff in the 1936 film The Walking Dead. Similarly, that film was heavily influenced by the 1962 film Carnival of Souls. Romero’s 1990 film Two Evil Eyes is a 2-part collaboration which horror icon Dario Argento, and is based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Dawn of the Dead was co-written by Argento and the Italian filmmaker also provided some music for the film’s soundtrack.
Romero’s most significant connection to another horror icon is his collaborations with Stephen King. Romero and King became good friends, and Romero directed King’s first screenplay, for the 1982 film Creepshow. Romero would also give Stephen King his first credit as an actor, in the 1981 film Knightriders, where King is featured as a heckler in the crowd. King would also lend his voice as a newsreader in Diary of the Dead. Romero has directed one film based on a Stephen King novel, The Dark Half, which is considered to be one of the most accurate big-screen interpretations of a King novel. The film is somewhat biographical towards King's career as a writer, and even had the main character write his first story with a title that matched King's first story.
Want more Directors' Trademarks? Check out the last installment here: