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Filmmaker George A. Romero was the father of the zombie movie

Filmmaker George Romero, seen in 2008, said making movies in the horror genre allowed him to express himself and say exactly what he thought. He maintained he wouldn’t make horror films if he couldn’t fill them with political statements.

Amy Sancetta/The Associated Press

George Romero, whose classic Night of the Living Dead and other horror films turned zombie movies into social commentaries and who saw his flesh-devouring undead spawn countless imitators, remakes and homages, has died. He was 77.

Mr. Romero died Sunday following a battle with lung cancer, his family said in a statement provided by his manager Chris Roe. Mr. Romero's family said he died while listening to the score of The Quiet Man, one of his favourite films, with his wife, Suzanne Desrocher, and daughter, Tina Romero, by his side.

Mr. Roe told The Canadian Press in an interview from Los Angeles that Mr. Romero died in Toronto, where he had lived since 2004.

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Mr. Romero "was a gentle giant and one of the kindest, most giving human beings I've ever had the pleasure of knowing," Mr. Roe said Sunday, noting he and the director had been friends for 15 years.

Mr. Romero is credited with reinventing the zombie movie with his directorial debut, the 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. His zombies were always more than mere cannibals. They were metaphors for conformity, racism, mall culture, militarism, class differences and other social ills.

"The zombies, they could be anything," Mr. Romero told The Associated Press in 2008. "They could be an avalanche, they could be a hurricane. It's a disaster out there. The stories are about how people fail to respond in the proper way. They fail to address it. They keep trying to stick where they are, instead of recognizing maybe this is too big for us to try to maintain. That's the part of it that I've always enjoyed."

Night of the Living Dead, made for about $100,000 (U.S.), featured flesh-hungry ghouls trying to feast on humans holed up in a Pennsylvania house. In 1999, the Library of Congress inducted the black-and-white masterpiece into the National Registry of Films.

Mr. Romero's death was immediately felt across a wide spectrum of horror fans and filmmakers. Stephen King, whose The Dark Half was adapted by Mr. Romero, called him his favourite collaborator and said, "There will never be another like you." Guillermo del Toro called the loss "enormous."

Night of the Living Dead "was so incredibly DIY I realized movies were not something that belonged solely to the elites with multiple millions of dollars but could also be created by US, the people who simply loved them, who lived in Missouri, as I did," wrote James Gunn, the Guardians of the Galaxy director, who penned the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.

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Mr. Romero's influence could be seen across decades of American movies, from John Carpenter to Edgar Wright to Jordan Peele, the Get Out filmmaker.

Many considered Night of the Living Dead to be a critique on racism in America. Ten years later, he made Dawn of the Dead, in which human survivors take refuge from the undead in a mall and then turn on each other as the zombies stumble around the shopping complex.

Film critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the best horror films ever made – and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying. It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling. It is also … brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society."

Mr. Romero had a sometimes combative relationship with the genre he helped create. He called The Walking Dead a "soap opera" and said big-budget films such as World War Z made modest zombie films impossible. Mr. Romero maintained that he wouldn't make horror films if he couldn't fill them with political statements.

"People say, 'You're trapped in this genre. You're a horror guy.' I say, 'Wait a minute, I'm able to say exactly what I think,'" Mr. Romero told the AP. "I'm able to talk about, comment about, take snapshots of what's going on at the time. I don't feel trapped. I feel this is my way of being able to express myself."

The third in the Romero's zombie series, 1985's Day of the Dead, was a critical and commercial failure. There wouldn't be another Dead film for two decades.

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Land of the Dead in 2005 was the most star-packed of the bunch – the cast included Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento and Simon Baker. Two years later came Diary of the Dead, another box-office failure.

There were other movies interspersed with the Dead films, including The Crazies (1973), Martin (1977), Creepshow (1982), Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993). There also was 1981's Knightriders, Mr. Romero's take on the Arthurian legend featuring motorcycling jousters. Some were moderately successful, others box-office flops.

George Andrew Romero was born on Feb. 4, 1940, in New York. He was a fan of horror comics and movies in the pre-VCR era.

"I grew up at the Loews American in the Bronx," he wrote in an issue of the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine in 2002.

His favourite film was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman, based on Jacques Offenbach's opera. It was, he once wrote, "the one movie that made me want to make movies."

He spoke fondly of travelling to Manhattan to rent a 16mm version of the film from a distribution house. When the film was unavailable, Mr. Romero said, it was because another "kid" had rented it – Martin Scorsese.

Mr. Romero graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1960. He learned the movie business working on the sets of movies and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which was shot in Pittsburgh.

The city became Mr. Romero's home and many of his films were set in western Pennsylvania. Dawn of the Dead was filmed in suburban Monroeville Mall, which has since become a popular destination for his fans.

The last film Mr. Romero directed was 2009's Survival of the Dead, though other filmmakers continued the series with several sequels, including a recently shot remake of Day of the Dead.

But Mr. Romero held strong to his principles. A movie with zombies just running amok, with no social consciousness, held no appeal, he often said. "That's not what I'm about."

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