The year was 2005. My taste in rock music was about to get a whole lot heavier, and my interest in horror movies was about to reach its peak. After a traumatic first viewing of Halloween (1977) at the age of eight, I returned for a second viewing many years later and realised how much of a masterpiece it was. My curiosity for horror got a whole lot deeper. During one night in my teen years I stayed up flicking around on the channels (as I so often did), and there I see it pop up on one of the channels, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Seeing as it just started it felt just about right for the late night viewing experience, and to see what all the fuss was about, as I have heard many good things about it. It must have approached either three or four in the morning before it ended and my mind was not only blown away, but my perception of horror changed vastly after that night.
I’m sure by now most people know that earlier this week, filmmaker and horror icon George A. Romero passed away from lung cancer. Tributes from the horror film community have poured in from around the world and quite rightly he deserves all of that respect. For most people who wouldn’t be familiar with Romero’s work on his Living Dead series, this is the man to thank for the modern zombie in both film and television. Which pains me to think that certain fans of The Walking Dead (2010-present) may not even know who he is. But he changed the horror landscape in a big way for many people, including me.
Up until that first viewing of Dawn of the Dead, my experience with horror was just jump scares, blood and guts, and disturbing imagery. The casual horror viewer may see this every time they see something as banal as Ouija (2014), Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), or Paranormal Non-Activity (2007). But when I was watching this, even with all the brilliant gore effects (thanks to the master work of Tom Savini), I realised that I waswatching something different here. A film that has a message that I have never really understood from horror films before. The fact it takes place in a shopping mall and mindless people are drawn to it invoking themes of materialistic and consumerist ideals in society. But he had already approached underlying themes in the preceding film Night of the Living Dead (1968), as a critique on the Vietnam War, Cold War politics, and even racism. Even more ground-breaking is the fact that its leading actor, Duane Jones, was black. Which was practically unheard of back then unless you were an established star among the likes of Sidney Poitier.
Most people may remember Romero for his influence on the zombie genre, which after Day of the Dead (1985), he took a long hiatus until he returned with Land of the Dead (2005). But let’s not forget that he has also brought us some highly underrated classics over the years. The Crazies (1973) some may associate with the zombie genre but I beg to differ. Martin (1978), possibly one of the most underrated vampire films of all times, and the first collaboration between Romero and the aforementioned legend Tom Savini. And also Creepshow (1982), one of the campiest, funniest, and just plain fun horror anthology films of all time. After all the blood I witnessed in Dawn, I began to open my mind to other films that may have seemed too extreme for me. Which lead to my first viewing experiences of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Evil Dead (1981), The Exorcist (1973), and countless more that I would have probably been too afraid to watch as my experience with gore and intense disturbing imagery was quite minimal back then. And all of these films I hold in high regard as some of my favourite films of all time, which Dawn had significantly smashed the door wide open for me.
In closing, over the last few years we have all been hit with deaths of people who have had an influence over our lives (some of mine being the likes of Wes Craven, Lemmy and Chris Cornell just to name a few). When you look back over their volume of work after they have passed, it always makes it look or sound even more special because you realise that what these people did was pure magic. I have discussed Dawn of the Dead with people in the past and they scoffed it off because all the zombies were in grey make up. And as much as they shit all over those movies, and shift their discussion over to seeing the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, I remain silent as to how arrogant that appears to me. But I know Romero has done his job when people are discussing zombies. And I know that I will forever cherish the memories he has given me from his films throughout the years. And from the bottom of my heart, I thank him.
George A. Romero: 1940-2017