10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Horror Icon George A. Romero

Before The Walking Dead, zombies were pretty cool. With the recent passing of George A. Romero, we thought we should fill you in on the guy that made them look the coolest.

Romero was a true horror pioneer. His career wasn’t short of fascinating occurrences and quite a lot of misconceptions have burrowed into his legend.

#10. George A. Romero Is Responsible For 25,000 Cockroach Deaths While Filming Creepshow

For Romero’s anthology film Creepshow, the segment entitled They’re Creeping Up On You required the on-screen performances of thousands of cockroaches. Naturally, Romero first attempted to source the roaches locally, receiving word that it would cost 50 cents per insect.

Considering the sheer numbers of cockroaches that Romero needed to shoot with, the price tag was unjustifiable. A much cheaper solution was found, sending two men over to Trinidad to stand in a bat crap-laden cave and to simply scoop up the feasting cockroaches. Upon their return, the roaches were housed in a special trailer that Romero and his crew referred to as the “Roach Motel”. By themselves, they were deemed to still be too small in number and thus were ultimately mixed with bought local roaches as well—making the final scene of the segment pretty expensive.

Cockroaches crawling out of model of E.G. Marshall’s face. / Courtesy Warner Bros.

Aesthetically, they work well. They are seen pulsating inside the lead actor’s (E.G. Marshall) face and chest cavity, before bursting through and running rampant across his apartment. That’s not to say the film crew were not under considerable stress while shooting. Tactics such as smearing Vaseline on the tops of walls, in order to keep the cockroaches from escaping had little effect, meaning that for every shot in which the cockroaches were let loose, it was accepted that a good chunk wouldn’t be recaptured.

One-shot cockroaches. / Courtesy Warner Bros.

Once all the necessary shots were gotten the entire set was bug bombed, killing around 25,000 Trinidadian and American cockroaches.

#9. Zombies Seeking Brains Are Wrongly Attributed To Him

Most people believe that it was Romero and his Dead trilogy that directly started the link between zombies and brains. However, the truth is that Romero’s living dead never showed a particular desire for brains over any other type of human flesh.

The actual origins can be linked back to Romero’s writing partner on Night of the Living Dead, John A. Russo. Both he and Romero had rightful claims to make a sequel to Night. Romero, of course, followed up with Dawn and Day of the Dead. Russo (with significant creative input from Dan O’Bannon) launched his own film franchise—Return of the Living Dead. It was here that, for the first time, zombies in pursuit of their victims painfully bellowed, “BRAAAINS!”

Return Of The Living Dead’s Tar Man, Screaming “Brains!” / Courtesy MGM

Romero commented on the confusion, stating, “I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain. […] Whenever I sign autographs, they always ask me, “Write ‘Eat Brains’!” I don’t understand what that means. I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain. But it’s become this landmark thing.”

Another Return Of The Living Dead brain enthusiast. / Courtesy MGM

#8. Romero Started Out Directing Segments For Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood

After college, Romero began finding work directing commercials, as well as segments for the children’s television programme Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s arguably the most wholesome show ever commissioned. Mr Rogers simply goes about his daily business, finding interest in the most mundane of things and always looking on the bright side of life. Romero’s credits on the show include a segment on how light bulbs are made, as well as Mr Rogers making a visit to the hospital to get a tonsillectomy.

Mr Rogers – maybe the loveliest man ever. / Courtesy PBS

Night of the Living Dead was Romero’s first feature-length film; quite a jump from his previous work. Originally, Romero wanted Betty Aberlin, who had a supporting role on Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, to play Judy in Night Of The Living Dead. Mr Rogers, presumably concerned that it would damage the show’s image, did not give permission to the actress to be involved with the film. Nevertheless, Romero has stated how supportive his old boss has been to him throughout his career.

Mr Rogers, being lovely. / Courtesy PBS

#7. Romero Never Intended Night Of The Living Dead’s Racial Subtext

Critics often gush over the social commentary finely woven into Night of the Living Dead. It has been labelled as a bold move by Romero to cast a black actor, Duane Jones, as the male lead. The ending in particular, where Jones’ character is shot by a member of the traveling posse, is incredibly striking. It seems ambiguous whether the shooter believed Jones was a so-called “ghoul” or not. As the entirely white mob drag Jones’ lifeless body out of the house to be burnt, it almost looks like a lynching has taken place.

Yet, Romero claims that all the racial subtext was unintentional. White actors had auditioned for the role but Jones was the best man for the job. Race wasn’t factored in.

Duane Jones, acting the shit out of a scene.

Duane Jones himself was often acutely aware of how certain things would come across while filming. In particular, he expressed concern about a scene in which he hits Barbra. Romero later said, “Duane would ask us every day, ‘You’re going to ask me to slug this white woman?’ […] And we would say, ‘It’s the ’60s. We’re past that.’”

Jones fighting off the undead.

Between finishing the film and making a distribution deal, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. It may have been unconscious but the world that surrounded Romero’s film-set dictated that Night of the Living Dead had, at times, a pretty resonant subtext.

#6. Romero’s Original Ending For Dawn of the Dead Was Much Darker

If you think the ending of Dawn of the Dead seems a little disjointed, you’re not alone. It appears out of character for Peter (Ken Foree) to delay Francine’s (Gaylen Ross) departure, only to change his mind at the last minute and flee with her in the helicopter. He had been such a logical, measured man in the film up to that point and appears to see the futility in their struggling to stay alive any longer. What would make much more sense is if he held the swarm of flesh-eaters off a bit, allowed Francine extra time to escape, and then turned his gun on himself.

Well, it turns out that’s pretty much the ending that was written into the script. That, and Francine sticks her head into the helicopter blades when she realizes there’s no point in trying to survive. The closing shot of the film was intended to be the bloody blades coming to a stop, indicating that the fuel had run out and that Francine and Peter couldn’t have gone very far even if they had tried. It is a bleak ending, no doubt, but pretty damn stylish and makes a ton of sense.

Escaping in the helicopter. Happy times. / Courtesy Laurel Group

Gaylen Ross agrees, stating on the Making Of documentary, “There’s really no place to go. […] There’s no reason to fly off anymore in the helicopter. […] That was, I thought, a particularly strong ending. At the same time I can understand why they thought that would be too difficult.”

The Dawn Of The Dead cast chilling out. / Courtesy Laurel Group

#5. Romero Didn’t Work With Tom Savini Until Dawn of the Dead

Make-up effects artist Tom Savini and George A. Romero had a working relationship that spanned across many decades and projects. You’d be forgiven for thinking that every instance of gore in a Romero film had Savini’s fingerprints on it.

However, the make-up effects in the original Night of the Living Dead had nothing to do with Savini. It is true that Romero and Savini had intended to work together on the film. However, when the “Godfather of Gore” was called to serve in Vietnam, the job position was regrettably relinquished.

Savini as Sex Machine in From Dusk Till Dawn. / Courtesy Dimension Films

Savini would finally link up with Romero for his vampire film Martin, released in 1978. Dawn of the Dead came soon after, in which Savini also had an acting role as one of the bikers. Savini has stated that his time in the army helped inform his career as a make-up effects artist—creating gore that resembles and behaves like the injuries he witnessed in the war.

Savini showing off a prop. / Courtesy tvtropes.org

#4. The Dark Half Was Romero’s Most Expensive Film And A Big Failure

Land Of The Dead was the most expensive zombie film that Romero ever made. However, in terms of budget (adjusted for inflation), Romero is quoted as saying, “The Dark Half was the biggest overall. I had such a bad experience with that. […] Orion were really terrible to work for. It was really tough.”

Movie poster for The Dark Half. / Courtesy MGM

During the shooting of the film, Orion Pictures were experiencing what would prove to be fatal financial problems. The Dark Half finished shooting in March of 1991. Orion were unable to release the film before they declared bankruptcy in December of that year. This delayed the release of The Dark Half for a further two years, at which point it was met with a lukewarm audience response—recouping only $10.6 million of its $15 million budget at the box office.

Romero smoking a stress-reliever. / Courtesy Criterion

Orion’s bankruptcy also notably postponed the release of Robocop 3 and Blue Sky, which Jessica Lange won a Best Actress Oscar for in 1995.

#3. Name Change Led To Night Of The Living Dead Entering Public Domain

Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968. At that time, the laws around copyright dictated that in order for a film to be protected, a copyright notice needed to be displayed. For most films, it showed up on the title frame. This was no different. The copyright notice was displayed directly under the graphic of the film’s title—which at that time was Night of the Flesh Eaters. When the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead, human error resulted in the copyright notice being omitted, meaning the film entered into the public domain.

Night Of The Living Dead title card, without copyright notice.

Although it’s indisputably Romero’s most defining and enduring film, very little can be directly commercially capitalized on. Romero and the original distribution company have as much legal right to distribute a DVD or Blu-Ray of the film as any one of us. Many people have exploited that fact. Amazon is flooded with versions of the film and a completely unaffiliated 3D remake was made in 2006.

Poster for Night Of The Living Dead 3D. / Courtesy Lux Digital Pictures

Night of the Living Dead is also one of the most downloaded free films of all time, acquired through legal means. On the Internet Archive website alone it has amounted around 3 million downloads. YouTube has too many versions up to count.

#2. Three Consecutive Flops Left Romero On The Brink of Bankruptcy

After Night Of The Living Dead, Romero made There’s Always Vanilla, Hungry Wives, and The Crazies. All three films were commercial flops, leaving Romero deeply short on cash.

Richard Rubinstein, who Romero was financially partnered with, suggested that he declare bankruptcy. Romero rejected the idea, feeling that it would be unfair on the people who he still owed money to. The duo then made what Romero considers his best film, Martin. Shot on a budget of $80,000, the film was a moderate success—allowing Romero’s next project, Dawn Of The Dead to enter into production.

Poster for Martin. / Courtesy Libra Films International

At the time, it was believed that the budget for the film was somewhere around $1.5 million. Rubinstein has since stated that the actual budget was closer to half a million and that the number was inflated, in order to attract foreign buyers. Not only did the film earn $5 million domestically in its first month of release, the worldwide gross for Dawn Of The Dead totals over $55 million. With this success, Romero was able to finally clear his debts.

A brief Romero cameo at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead. / Courtesy Laurel Group

#1. Night of the Living Dead Wasn’t Shot As A Zombie Film

Night of the Living Dead has become a zombie film retroactively. People just started referring to the monsters in the film as zombies and after a while Romero and Russo went along with it. The monsters themselves are only ever referred to as “ghouls” in the film. This term also seems a bit of stretch. Ghouls had long-featured in literature, commonly feasting on human flesh and appearing somewhat humanoid, but are rarely actually the reanimated dead.

Early depiction of a ghoul. / Courtesy Wikimedia

The word “zombie”, or more closely “zombi”, is Haitian. The original zombies appear in stories from that country and the surrounding area. However, the Haitian zombie is not driven by a desire to eat human flesh but is instead bound to the will of the sorcerer, or bokor that has reanimated it. Therefore, the Haitian zombie would have no desire to feast on human flesh, unless instructed to do so by its master.

Depiction of a Haitian zombie. / Courtesy Wikimedia

With this in mind, Romero and Russo seem to have combined folkloric monsters into something new. The lack of an established term for their antagonists becomes even clearer when you consider the movie title used in Night of the Living Dead’s original script was simply, “Monster Flick”.