The visionary horror film director George Romero, who died on Sunday at the age of 77, got the last laugh on critics who sought to bury his black-and-white classic âNight of the Living Deadâ when it first stoked Americaâs nightmares in 1968. Filmed partly by amateurs on a budget that would not suffice as lunch money in todayâs Hollywood, the movie founded a genre, introducing the zombies who are now synonymous with the apocalypse and ubiquitous in video games, novels, movies and television shows.
Some critics dismissed the picture as gratuitously ghoulish â and even silly â but it found its audience on the late-night drive-in and grindhouse circuit. Respectability came calling in 1999, when âNight of the Living Deadâ was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, a list that includes revered movies like Alfred Hitchcockâs âNorth by Northwest,â Robert Altmanâs âMcCabe and Mrs. Millerâ and Elia Kazanâs âEast of Eden.â
Mr. Romero must have appreciated this kind of acceptance, belated though it was. One gets the sense from his interviews that he felt himself and his film undervalued and misunderstood. He once noted, for example, that critics had overlooked the camera angles and lighting he had modeled on the work of Orson Welles. He seemed distressed that people did not immediately grasp the social and political subtext he had threaded through the film.
The movie depicts a quarrelsome band of people who barricade themselves inside a rural farmhouse as the dead close in for a meal and a finale that broke Hollywood tradition by leaving none of the protagonists alive. The film is often credited…