Recently, George Romero said that he blames shows like The Walking Dead and blockbusters like World War Z for why he can’t find funding for a zombie project of his own anymore. His words caused an uproar on the Internet. I wanted to address this because I understand what he was trying to say, but also understand why many fans got upset over his comments—although I would definitely call it an overreaction—and think that there were definitely things that Romero did not take into consideration.
First, he’s absolutely right on the level that mainstream success has completely changed the zombie genre. Most horror films have always worked better on lower budgets. It’s kind of natural that the bigger something gets in scope, the less scary it becomes because horror is intimate, claustrophobic and personal by nature.
I began to notice in the late 2000s that people who hate horror began obsessing over zombies and zombie cinema. Once Walking Dead came out and gave the sub-genre that kind of exposure, which was great on one level, it didn’t really belong to horror fans anymore. That’s fine. I think horror should belong to everyone. But it does make it harder to make it successfully when it’s being catered to the widest possible audience.
World War Z cost a lot of money to make, but it made a lot of money too, and that means that studios want zombies on huge budgets. That’s not the kind of thing Romero has ever done. Even Land of the Dead, which was a studio zombie flick, didn’t cost a ton compared to what we’re seeing now.
To be honest, though, I don’t think his next great zombie epic—as much as I would like to see it succeed—is much of an actual reality, even a hypothetical one. Romero is very old and for all intents and purposes is pretty much retired. He’s taking on writing projects, like the Empire of the Dead series he did with Marvel, and I think that’s the sort of storytelling we’re going to see from him at this point.
Addressing some of the complaints, particularly his comments on Walking Dead, I understand the surprise. I’m not necessarily a fan of the show, but creator Robert Kirkman is a clear fan of the director and his work and has included multiple references to Romero’s trilogy in the show.
The zombies on the show are tried and true Romero zombies, even if they’re still aggravatingly referred to as Walkers almost exclusively. They’re even created by Greg Nicotero, who has worked with Romero several times and credits the director with launching his career.
Specifically, Romero commented that he did not like the soap opera aspect and felt that the zombies were kind of an afterthought. I definitely agree that the titular walking dead are kind of tossed by the wayside on their own show and that Walking Dead at this point doesn’t even have to be about zombies. It could be any post-apocalyptic kind of theme and would still basically be the same show. But I think it’s weird to see Romero criticize that when he’s essentially criticizing what made his own zombie films work so well.
Dawn of the Dead is a soap opera. It’s as much about the human characters and their struggles as it is about the zombies and the commentary on consumerism. That’s what makes it so endearing decades later. That’s a two-hour epic about adapting to life in a post-apocalyptic world. Both Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead also explore deeply human characters and themes.
Yes, they’re a little more balanced than the TV series, with more equal doses of character development and gore. But on some level he’s still criticizing the show for doing exactly what he did so well in those early pictures.
Romero is an incredibly smart man and a successful filmmaker and I do think people went a little crazy over what he was saying, but I don’t think it matters that much, ultimately. He keeps talking about zombies because people keep asking him about zombies. Because even after great films like Knightriders and Creepshow and Martin, people still know him as the zombie guy. If all we expect him to do is talk about the living dead, we shouldn’t get so up in arms when he does.
I do think it would be great if he had one more film in him, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we should let the man think what he wants and I don’t think he has to love The Walking Dead. I don’t. But it’s strange to see someone come down so hard on something that was so clearly influenced by him more than any other living writer/director.
That still doesn’t mean he should be condemned for not seeing it that way. Romero has more than earned his place as one of the all-time masters of horror. That doesn’t make his opinion automatically better, but it also doesn’t mean that the “new school” of horror should feel automatically threatened by someone who is much more of a figurehead now than an actively working director.