George Romero, the visionary independent filmmaker who died Sunday at age 77, understood that horror digs deepest when it feels real. That's why his 1968 breakthrough movie Night of the Living Dead remains chilling. It's the first zombie movie that seems ripped from the headlines, a mélange of documentary technique, TV news re-enactment and stark expressionism.
Romero was at the vanguard of a group of horror filmmakers who came up in the '60s and '70s, when the world felt like it was tipping off its axis. There was Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left), David Cronenberg (Shivers) and John Carpenter (Halloween). Their movies didn't need monsters. We were the monsters.
And there was Romero. Night of the Living Dead gave us a black hero (Duane Jones) during the civil rights movement, had him do all the right things throughout the film ... then had him hunted by dogs and shot dead by zombie-hunting yokels, who proceed to pick him up with hooks and toss him on a fire. The flat black-and-white aesthetic makes it all feel like a particularly gruesome installment of the evening news.
Riots, assassinations, Vietnam, Kent State: This was the world from which Romero was working. "I guess we didn't realize how much we were turning things on their head," Romero said of the superb 2000 documentary The American Nightmare. "Maybe it was by shuffling it all together into one big nightmare.... What's happening in the word creeps into any work. It fits right in. That's where you get the idea in the first place."
In subsequent films Romero went on to create a whole zombie universe, commenting on everything from conspicuous consumption (Dawn of the Dead) to home video narcissism (Diary of the Dead).
But Night of the Living Dead started it all with a blast of reality that still smarts.