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George A. Romero, Father of the Zombie Film, Dies at 77

NEW YORK — George Romero, whose classic "Night of the Living Dead" and other horror films turned zombie movies into social commentaries and who saw his flesh-devouring undead spawn countless imitators, remakes and homages, has died. He was 77.

Romero died Sunday following a battle with lung cancer, said his family in a statement provided by his manager Chris Roe. Romero's family said he died while listening to the score of "The Quiet Man," one of his favorite films, with his wife, Suzanne Desrocher, and daughter, Tina Romero, by this side.

Romero is credited with reinventing the movie zombie with his directorial debut, the 1968 cult classic, "Night of the Living Dead." The movie set the rules imitators lived by: Zombies move slowly, lust for human flesh and can only be killed when shot in the head. If a zombie bites a human, the person dies and returns as a zombie.

Night of the Living Dead at MoMA's 14th To Save and Project Festival - World Premiere of Restored Print
George Romero in 2016. Lars Niki / Getty Images for Museum of Modern Art file

Romero's zombies, however, were always more than mere cannibals. They were metaphors for conformity, racism, mall culture, militarism, class differences and other social ills.

"The zombies, they could be anything," Romero told The Associated Press in 2008. "They could be an avalanche, they could be a hurricane. It's a disaster out there. The stories are about how people fail to respond in the proper way. They fail to address it. They keep trying to stick where they are, instead of recognizing maybe this is too big for us to try to maintain. That's the part of it that I've always enjoyed."

"Night of the Living Dead," made for about $100,000, featured flesh-hungry ghouls trying to feast on humans holed up in a Pennsylvania house. In 1999, the Library of Congress inducted the black-and-white masterpiece into the National Registry of Films.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, 1968
Zombies in "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968. Courtesy of Everett Collection

Romero's death was immediately felt across a wide spectrum of horror fans and filmmakers. Stephen King called him his favorite collaborator and said, "There will never be another like you." Guillermo del Toro said, "The loss is so enormous."

Romero's influence could be seen across decades of American movies, from John Carpenter to Jordan Peele, the "Get Out" filmmaker. Many considered "Night of the Living Dead" to be a critique on racism in America. The sole black character survives the zombies, but he is fatally shot by rescuers. When Edgar Wright made 2004's "Shaun of the Dead," he acknowledged, "What we now think of as zombies are Romero zombies."

Ten years after "Night of the Living Dead," Romero made "Dawn of the Dead," where human survivors take refuge from the undead in a mall and then turn on each other as the zombies stumble around the shopping complex.

The third in the Romero's zombie series, 1985's "Day of the Dead," was a critical and commercial failure. There wouldn't be another "Dead" film for two decades.

"Land of the Dead" in 2005 was the most star-packed of the bunch — the cast included Dennis Hooper, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento and Simon Baker. Two years later came "Diary of the Dead," another box-office failure.

There were other movies interspersed with the "Dead" films, including "The Crazies" (1973), "Martin" (1977), "Creepshow" (1982), "Monkey Shines" (1988) and "The Dark Half" (1993). There also was 1981's "Knightriders," Romero's take on the Arthurian legend featuring motorcycling jousters. Some were moderately successful, others box-office flops.

Image: FILE PHOTO:    Director Romero poses for photographers before the screening of the film "Survival of the Dead" at the 66th Venice Film Festival
In this Sept. 9, 2009 photo, director George A. Romero poses for photographers before the screening of the film "Survival of the Dead" at the 66th Venice Film Festival. Tony Gentile / Reuters / file

George Andrew Romero was born on Feb. 4, 1940, in New York City. He grew up in the Bronx, and he was a fan of horror comics and movies in the pre-VCR era.

Romero graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1960. He learned the movie business working on the sets of movies and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Romero struggled to get films made late in life. The last film he directed was 2009's "Survival of the Dead," though other filmmakers continued the series with several sequels, including the recently shot "Day of the Dead."

But Romero held strong to his principles. A movie with zombies just running amok, with no social consciousness, held no appeal, he often said. "That's not what I'm about."