Night of the Living Dead (1968) came out of nowhere, or to be more precise, Pittsburgh, and turned into the most influential horror film since Psycho. George Romero’s remarkably assured debut, made on a shoestring, about a group of people barricaded inside a farmhouse while an army of flesh-eating zombies roams the countryside, deflates all genre clichés. It traded the expressionistic sets of the traditional fright flick for a neorealistic style—Romero’s use of natural locations and grainy black and white gave his gorefest the look and feel of a doc. And this was not Transylvania, but Pennsylvania—this was Middle America at war, and the zombie carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam. In this first-ever subversive horror movie, the resourceful black hero survives the zombies only to be killed by a redneck posse, and a young girl nibbles ravenously on her father’s severed arm—disillusionment with government and patriarchal nuclear family is total.
Almost universally panned by reviewers when released, the film gradually became a cult phenomenon, playing on the midnight movie circuit for more than a decade. Its success has spawned innumerable sequels, remakes, clones, and forgettable imitations, here and abroad, as zombies of all nations replaced vampires as the centerpiece of the world’s horror movies. Romero himself made two sequels. Dawn of the Dead (1978), as droll as it is grim, delivers the goods both as shocker and macabre social satire. Here, the consumer zombies—decidedly members of the “me generation,” though dead—rise from their graves to descend on a huge shopping mall where in scenes of sicko slapstick they tumble into fountains while Muzak drones in the background. The memorably grisly makeup effects are by Tom Savini, who had been a combat photographer in Vietnam. Day of the Dead (1985) is set in a giant bunker where a team of scientists and a military unit are pioneering the domestication of the monstrous hordes. Its first hour is a bit of a slog as the humans chatter away about their plight. Later, the zombie effects feature jaw-dropping baroque festoons of rotting flesh, and things pick up considerably once the guts start hitting the fan.
Between zombie epics, Romero turned out a vampire movie—of sorts. Martin (1978), arguably the director’s masterpiece, clearly his most deeply felt work, is a riveting, formally experimental tale about a sexually insecure alienated youth, a psychotic innocent, acting out his vampire fantasies in a dying steel town. In the underrated Monkey Shines (1988), his leanest film, Romero moves away from apocalyptic horror to an area of more domestic tensions and controlled thrills in an intelligent monster-from-the-id tale about a hunky paraplegic (Jason Beghe) and his tiny trained monkey, which picks up on his repressed anger and becomes a deadly nocturnal avenger.
Since Monkey Shines, the director’s films have been less notable. The Moving Image series is a complete retrospective and includes a rare program of his early short commercial and television works, along with the New York theatrical premiere of his most recent feature, Bruiser (2000), made in Canada with French financing. Thematically, Bruiser is timely enough—a satire on corporate greed and financial skulduggery. Its antihero Henry (Jason Flemyng), the office mouse, discovers that his wife is having an affair with his sleazy boss and his best friend is robbing him blind. Unfortunately, this story of a worm who turns is laboriously handled. However erratic, Romero remains a formidable and adventurous talent who paved the way for the visions of filmmakers as diverse as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, and Wes Craven.