When filmmaker George Romero died this past Sunday at the age of 77, John Carpenter posted a tweet praising him as no less than the “father of modern horror movies.” Coming from Carpenter, no stranger to changing the landscape of horror, that means a lot. The claim checks out, too. Romero’s been widely, and rightly, praised for the way his films wove social observation and political commentary into horror stories, but on a more basic level he helped drag horror movies into the modern world by ignoring gothic trappings, atomic giants, and familiar monsters and telling stories that unfolded in the humble, everyday, mostly working class surroundings of late 20th century America, most often his native Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas.
Take, for instance, the first scene of Romero’s breakthrough 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, which unfolds in a small Pennsylvania cemetery and opens with an argument between a brother and sister — Barbara and Johnny — about whether or not they were just wasting their time visiting their father’s grave. A lurching figure causes Johnny to tease Barbara with a Boris Karloff voice straight out of the familiar sort of horror movie Romero would soon lay to rest. (“They’re coming to get you Barbara!”) Their encounter with with what turns out to be a shambling, hungry corpse puts an end to that argument — zombies have a way of shutting down any conversation not about, you know, not getting killed by zombies, — but their exchange leading up to it speaks to a concern at the heart of a lot of Romero movies about the dissolution of tradition and the way only callousness, madness, and chaos seemed to be stepping in to take its place as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.
A midnight movie hit, Night of the Living Dead didn’t just invent the zombie genre, it changed what viewers thought horror movies could be — much like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes pushed science fiction in new directions the same year and Easy Rider changed the face of Hollywood in 1969 — not that it made life easier for Romero as a filmmaker. Romero wouldn’t have another hit until he made the Night of the Living Dead sequel Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978. Between those two he made the little-seen romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla and three smaller-scale horror films — Season of the Witch, The Crazies, and Martin — that continued his habit of drawing from the world around him for inspiration. And, with the last of these he made a film as powerful as any of his zombie movies.