Image Source: Getty / Laura Lezza
Season eight's premiere episode of The Walking Dead was dedicated to two important people who sadly passed away this year: fallen stunt actor John Bernecker and George A. Romero, the man who first gave (undead) life to the zombie genre as a whole with his seminal 1968 flick Night of the Living Dead.
As showrunner Scott M. Gimple told Entertainment Weekly, the late, great writer-director was chosen to be honored in the season opener due to his status as an inarguable icon of the genre. "The show owes a great debt to him, and popular culture owes a great debt to him," Gimple explained.
But as thoughtful, appropriate, and timely as that bit of recognition may have been, Romero wasn't exactly a fan of The Walking Dead. Here's why the horror legend took umbrage at all the undead on the small-screen series.
1. He intensely disliked the format.
When The Walking Dead was still in its infancy, Romero revealed he had been offered an opportunity to get behind the lens on at least one of the earlier episodes but declined because of his disfavor for the show's signature style. "They asked me to do a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead but I didn't want to be a part of it," he told Big Issue in 2013. "Basically it's just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally. I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism and I find that missing in what's happening now."
Additionally, Romero decided not to be a part of the series because while he was invited to lend his directorial eye to The Walking Dead early on, "the scripts were [already] written," which is just not how he preferred to operate.
He quipped that he wished they'd have called him when first putting the show together instead of trying to bring him in after the scripts had already been assembled. "I said no, 'cause it's not my thing, and in fact I thought it was a little too close for comfort. Even though a bunch of my buddies are working on it — Greg Nicotero and the boys from Sundance."
In other words, had they consulted him from the start, his opinion of the show might have been very different, but alas.
2. He didn't like the early executive producer shakeup.
It's not just his own dislike of The Walking Dead's approach to the living dead that gave Romero a case of sour grapes. He told The Telegraph that he also felt it was unfair for creator Frank Darabont to lose his position as showrunner so early on in the series, saying, "I think Frank [Darabont] did a great job. I don't know what the hell happened there, something political no doubt, when they canned him after the first season."
Indeed, Darabont himself has taken his disputes over that very same decision to court in an ongoing lawsuit against AMC.
So, even though Romero might have been willing to give the series a shot, as a member of the audience, thanks to the involvement of Darabont, the showrunner skirmish that ensued shortly after its debut really turned him off of the series as well.
Image Source: AMC
3. He didn't think gore should be the focal point of zombie stories.
While Romero did claim to have enjoyed Robert Kirkman's comic series upon which The Walking Dead is based, he has spoken out against the show — and other modern zombie movies — for the use of excessive brutality and all the overtime the makeup, props, and visual effects departments have to put in to make all those grisly death scenes happen.
As he told io9, "My zombies are purely a disaster. They are a natural disaster. God has changed the rules, and somehow this thing is happening. My stories are about the humans who deal with it stupidly, and that's what I use them for. I use them to sort of make fun of what's going on in a number of societal events. And that's it, I don't use them to just create gore. Even though I use gore, that's not what my films are about, they're much more political. That's it. This whole zombie revolution, it's unbelievable."
4. The show cost him project opportunities.
While Romero's work as the father of zombies made him a master of horrors, even he had trouble keeping up with the times when it came to what his cinematic concoction would evolve into. While Night of the Living Dead zombies were slow and mostly recognizable as former humans, leading the survivors escaping the creatures to commit their own terrible misdeeds, modern zombie movies like the ones in The Walking Dead are much more violent, and the ramifications of their infestations are much more profound.
As Romero told IndieWire, he struggled to finance further zombie-centric films later in his life as a result of The Walking Dead and similarly action-packed movie fare, like World War Z. "I can't pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical. I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can't. The moment you mention the word 'zombie,' it's got to be, 'Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.'"
According to Romero, after the success of 2007's Diary of the Dead, which juxtaposed social media and his monsters of yore and gore, he had another sequel idea all lined up for after what ended up being his final movie, 2009's Survival of the Dead, but the success of The Walking Dead got in the way of its progress.
"I decided to go back to the original premise of misunderstanding and people not being able to see each other's point of view," he explained. "I said I'll do this one as a western and the next one as a noir. So did the western, nobody liked it, and the other one fell away. Then, all of a sudden, here came The Walking Dead. So you couldn't a zombie film that had any sort of substance. It had to be a zombie film with just zombies wreaking havoc. That's not what I'm about."
Even so, the creators still love him.
Despite Romero's open disfavor and contempt for The Walking Dead, the show's creators have nothing but love and appreciation for his work. Shortly after his death in July, the cast and crew panel at San Diego Comic-Con paid special mention to Romero's lasting legacy and continued influence over the show.
Kirkman said of Night of the Living Dead, "Just to go on that ride for the first time, to see what it is a zombie story can be. The fact that it just starts as this little story about a brother and sister going to the graveyard and there's things coming after them, and there's monsters, leading all the way to in the insanely poignant ending that is just so moving. I was instantly in love with the genre and instantly in love with the man as a filmmaker. Watching those movies takes me back to that time every time, immediately, so I couldn't be more upset about that loss."
Executive producer Greg Nicotero, with whom Romero had a working relationship, added during the panel for Fear the Walking Dead, "Everyone here owes a debt to one man, George Romero. None of us would be here if not for this guy. He really broke boundaries in the '60s with stories that had social commentary. He used zombie apocalypse to say things about what was going on in the world."
Although the changing world of zombies made Romero feel like he didn't "have a horse in the race" anymore, it's clear he was still leading the charge all the while.