Horror has seen a renaissance in the last century that has pushed it from an obscure, almost taboo lust shared by a small group of fringe fetishists to a truly vibrant and thriving subculture around the globe. No one has done more to shape this terrifying landscape than legendary filmmaker George A. Romero. I was eight when I saw his seminal classic, Night of the Living Dead for the first time. I'm hard pressed to think of any intangible thing that ever frightened me more. And yet, for the horror I felt there was this giddy curiosity as well. By my early 20s I'd become a devotee of monster movies and those shambling, inarticulate, instinctually homicidal ghouls became the inspiration for my very first published short story.
Romero himself had been inspired by Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend in which a disease turns the entire human population into bloodsick vampires. It would become the Vincent Price classic The Last Man on Earth and would inspire a young Romero to make an independent film on the outskirts of Philadelphia that would change history. The nation was embroiled in turmoil. The Civil Rights movement was battling against long held racist principles while Cold War hysteria had left Americans fighting and dying in a seemingly unwinnable war in Vietnam. The psychedelic movement was calling into question old social norms and the world itself seemed to be spinning out of control.
Night of the Living Dead called out the injustice prejudice, hysteria and mistrust using the tropes of a disaster movie as a means to convey his message. A diverse group of strangers are thrown together against an unstoppable force and must come together, putting aside their differences if they want to survive. But unlike any flood or fire or epidemic disease, he forced audiences to look at one another and within themselves as he made the most horrifying and culturally vile notions within the human self as the crisis driving the story. There were no invaders from Mars. There was no act of god or foreign power threatening our way of life. It was our friends, our neighbors, the guy in the seat beside you that could easily be the monster we feared.
George Romero showed audiences that the only thing that we had to fear were the monsters living inside of us.
This weekend, Romero passed away. With a legacy spanning more than fifty years, the horror community is truly reeling from this loss. It hurts. It's personal. I wouldn't be writing this post right now if it weren't for George A. Romero and his Night of the Living Dead. You likely wouldn’t be reading this web page at all. Like Shelley, Poe, Lovecraft and Hitchcock, Romero changed the face of horror, of society itself in the art he created and has inspired an entire generation of filmmakers, writers, and artists to turn to their mediums in the hope of waking us up from the nightmares we create.
I know I speak for everyone here at 52 Weeks of Horror when I say “Thank you, Mister Romero.”
We'll keep making that scary, just like you taught us.
Dan Lee is a horror fiend and freelance writer with a special place in his heart for monster movies and demonic possession stories.