Any horror movie fan, and indeed many cinephiles, can rank George Romero among the pantheon of the greats. He wasn't always the subtlest with his message, and he wasn't always perfect with the presentation, but he had a genuine passion and dedication to his work. Even a bad Romero film had something good to it, an almost innocent sense of enthusiasm that was hard to hate.
I'll admit I'm not a fan of his later zombie movies, but if I'm presented with the option to watch them or something else, chances are I will still be drawn to them. His love of what he did always made them worthwhile, because you knew and you could feel you weren't just watching a product, you were watching a film. A true film, his enthusiasm smoothing over the bumps in the road to present you an amazing road trip that you wanted to go back to again and again.
The father of the modern zombie genre as we know it today, we wouldn't have the liked of The Walking Dead or World War Z without his original film Night of the Living Dead, and the accidental copyright snafu that released it into the public domain. That simple mistake gave rise (pun) to one of the most endearing and long lived (also pun) horror subgenres.
He remained an indie director at heart, bucking the studio system and making what HE wanted to make, to the very end. When the Italian filmmakers of the 1980s like Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci took the zombie genre as their own they gave it an entirely new life, putting their unique spin on it. And in North America, the rise of home video and digital distribution has seen regular waves of new filmmakers dipping their toes into the creative field with the help of shambling corpses. In the modern age, zombies are big money, with the likes of The Walking Dead and every second video game made by a major studio featuring the reanimated corpses.
And through it all, they owed their debts to Romero. Few horror directors can truly lay such a weighty claim: to have created an entire subgenre of film. There are directors that gave birth to the slasher subgenre, to the exploitation subgenres, and the creature features of old. But they were always part of a larger group or movement. You can trace slashers back to Halloween, but would the genre be the same without Freddy and Jason jumping in? But zombies? Those are Romero. One man, with a single film, gave birth to one of the largest pop culture icons in human history. And throughout the course of his career he returned to it as time marched on, using it as a vessel to speak to the issues of the day, all with a healthy dose of blood and guts.
For me, it started back when I was barely a teenager. The "Anniversary Edition" of the director's cut on VHS in a funky black clam-shell case, with trippy cover art Actually an 'extended cut' from, I believe, Germany or somewhere similar, featuring a bunch of footage and scenes edited together not as a directors cut so much as a "this is everything we have, throw it in' cut. It wasn't the 'official' version but it was MY version, the one that I always went back to. Any other version, whether it be the theatrical or Zombi, didn't feel right.
Then I popped in Day of the Dead, and my life was changed. That was it, that was my genre. Dawn of the Dead may have been his masterpiece, but his black sheep was one of my fondest cinematic memories, a film that still ranks among the greatest I have ever seen, and I suspect always will.
Romero's mark on cinema, and on those of us who devour it, will simply never be forgotten or erased or diminished. For a filmmaker to leave such a lasting impression is truly remarkable, but it stands as a testament to how important he was to the genre he was a part of.