Terrible news from The Los Angeles Times: George A. Romero, the director who created the zombie movie with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, has died. His death came after what The Times, “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer”; the filmmaker passed away “while listening to the score of one his favorite films, 1952’s The Quiet Man, with his family by his side.”

It is difficult to overstate the impact Romero’s Night of the Living Dead made on popular culture. Though “zombies” existed before 1968, it was Romero’s movie that established the rules that would govern the creatures (who are never actually referred to as zombies in the film) and launched an entire sub-genre. Romero directed six Dead movies over the years: Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead in the ’70s and ’80s and then three more in the 2000s: Land of the DeadDiary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead, which was also the final directorial effort of Romero’s career.

Even if Romero had never directed the Dead movies, his contributions to filmmaking would still be substantial. He made the terrific sci-fi horror The Crazies, about a biological weapon (and the government’s response) ravaging a small town in Pennsylvania. He made the ’80s horror anthology Creepshow, written by Stephen King. He made the unique vampire movie Martin, which Romero often said was his favorite of all his movies.

Romero was born in New York City on February 4, 1940. After college, he started working in television and commercials; one of his earliest efforts was a film that aired on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A true independent, he made Night of the Living Dead as his feature debut.

Though Romero was best known as a horror director, the reason his movies resonated as widely as they did were the ideas and theme underpinning the gore. The image of a zombie, shuffling aimlessly but unstoppably toward living flesh, was terrifying, but the issues Romero’s films explored like race, class, paranoia, capitalism were what has made the subject of endless admiration and study. He didn’t just make the scariest movies about America; he made some of the smartest movies about America as well.

On a personal note, I got to meet and interview Romero several times during my career, and I have met few people who wore the role of elder statesmen better. He was funny, down-to-earth, humble, gracious, and incredibly smart. Talking to him, it was sometimes hard to believe a guy this pleasant and friendly could have directed some of the most disturbing movies ever. But he did.

Now he’s gone. His legacy, though, will endure for as long as people continue to look to movies to explore the dark side of humanity — which is to say forever.

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