George A. Romero, the notorious director of low-budget horror movies, has died at the age of 77.
Romero, who invented the modern zombie genre with his 1968 cult film, "Night of the Living Dead," died July 16 in Toronto, following "a brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer," as cited by The New York Times.
The plot of his debut film centers on seven strangers trapped in a farmhouse that is being attacked by flesh-eating zombies. In a pioneering move, Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, in the heroic lead role.
When the low-budget future-classic was released in 1968, the critic Rex Reed was one of the few to give it a good review, notes the website House of Horrors. "If you want to see what turns a B movie into a classic...don't miss 'Night of the Living Dead,'" wrote Reed. "It is unthinkable for anyone seriously interested in horror movies not to see it."
The trade newspaper Variety called it an "unrelieved orgy of sadism," observes the Museum of Modern Art, which proclaims to be "one of the first institutions to screen 'Night of the Living Dead,' honoring Romero in a Cineprobe program in 1970, years before the film achieved commercial success via its cult status -- and leading many critics to revisit the film and reverse their previously negative reviews."
In 1999, it was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
The news of Romero's death spread quickly on social media, with a wide range of celebrities offering their condolences and praise, as documented by the Hollywood Reporter.
"Sad to hear my favorite collaborator -- and good old friend -- George Romero has died," tweeted another master of horror, Stephen King. "George, there will never be another like you."
The comedian Doug Benson, at the lighter end of the Twitter spectrum, encouraged Romero to "eat God's brains."
Unlike Benson, Chef Anthony Bourdain resisted the temptation to make a zombie food reference, and instead touted Romero as "a great artist, innovator and creator" who "changed everything."
Made on a shoestring budget of $114,000, "Living Dead" quickly became a staple of the midnight movie circuit in the 1970s, alongside such cult classics as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," David Lynch's "Eraserhead," Ralph Bakshi's "Fritz The Cat," and Frank Zappa's "200 Motels."
But profits from the film's unexpected success eluded Romero due to a copyright technicality caused when the distributor changed the name of the movie.
"We lost the copyright on the film because we put it on the title," Romero explained. "Our title was 'Night of the Flesh Eaters'; they changed it to 'Night of the Living Dead.' When they changed the title, the copyright bug came off, so it went into public domain [and] we no longer had a piece of the action. Everybody had a copy of 'Night of the Living Dead' because they were able to sell it without having to worry about royalties going to us."
Undeterred, Romero stuck with the formula, and went on to make five other zombie movies, finally striking gold with the 1978 sequel 'Dawn of the Dead,' which was made for $1.5 million and grossed $55 million.
Roger Ebert declared it "one of the best horror films ever made -- and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying." His influential review added: "It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling. It is also (excuse me for a second while I find my other list) brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society. Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste."