I return to George Romero's seismic 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead on an annual basis—not only because I love it but because I teach it, to students who can't believe something so modern was made nearly 50 years ago. It's a movie that will never die (much like its risen-from-the-grave antagonists), as long as there are 28-year-old directors who dream of independently raising the money to make art on their own terms, with their own friends. That's exactly what Romero did in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, long before people started using terms like indie. The impact of his film is as much about economics as it is about zombies.
About those zombies: The word itself is never used in Night of the Living Dead—"misshapen monsters" is as close as we get—and during his life, Romero was too humble to claim them as his own invention. But that classic slow-moving horde, bent on human flesh, is his legacy, as is the notion of releasing a horror film that seethed with unspoken racial tensions. (Night's hero, played by Duane Jones, is strong and capable, and ultimately suffers for it.) When I last saw Romero in person after a MoMA screening, he made a dark crack about the so-called "deplorables"—this was only days before the 2016 election. He saw real horror all around us, and endeavored to pour that anxiety into his work. In doing so, he supplied stealth smarts to a genre that's still thought of as disreputable, crazy as that is.
Romero's post–Night output was up and down, but you won't find anything in it that's fully divorced from reality—even if that meant barricading yourself in a mall to live out the end of the world (Dawn of the Dead), setting a vicious Antarctic beast on your horrible nag of a wife (Creepshow) or living out a lonely existence as a modern-day teenage vampire (Martin). The director made movies that took place right now, peopled with monsters that we could all recognize: unchecked militia men, greedy post-apocalyptic survivors, abused monkeys, psychotic novelists. Until today's horror directors put down the special effects and open their eyes to what's going on in the world, there will be no more Romeros. And that would be a shame.
Here are Romero's five best movies, if you're curious. See all of them.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Flesh-eating “ghouls” (“Yeah, they’re dead—they’re all messed up”) terrorize a farmhouse in a movie that invented an entire subgenre. Today we know these creatures as zombies. Romero’s budgetary limitations, far from being a hindrance, actually contribute to his film’s nightmarish atmosphere. There’s a racial allegory here, too, for those who want it.
2. Creepshow (1982)
Potentially traumatizing if seen at the right age, George Romero’s lurid homage to the histrionic horror of EC Comics is also his most enjoyable film. Filled with broadly funny appearances from up-and-comers like Ted Danson and Ed Harris, the movie also wrangles thousands of cockroaches for its final, notorious segment. Stephen King, writing in his peak period, penned the original script.
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero’s belated sequel to his first masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead, gives the zombie material a satirical spin, frequently undercutting the tension in order to poke fun at consumer culture: The heroes have barricaded themselves in a banal shopping mall where they live out their lives like birds in a gilded cage. Show this one to anyone who thinks horror is dumb.
4. Martin (1978)
It's bad enough living in rural Bumfuck, PA, with a cousin who hates you, no friends and zero prospects to enliven your lonely teenage existence. Add on top of this: You're a vampire who's constantly thirsting for blood. (Small solace—there's always the radio.) This was Romero's personal favorite of his movies.
5. Land of the Dead (2005)
Romero returned to his signature series with surprising potency. The real attraction here is Dennis Hopper playing the petty tyrant of a walled-off apartment complex. At the time, Hopper's villain seemed Dubya-esque, but these days, he'll remind you of Donald Trump. Prophetic? It wouldn't be the first time Romero saw into the future.