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Paying respect to zombie maestro George Romero

Director George A. Romero (R) and a zombie arrive at the
Director George A. Romero (R) and a zombie arrive at the "Survival of the Dead" Midnight Madness screening at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.
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When horror director George Romero died on Sunday at the age of 77, fans and friends issued heartfelt tributes on social media.

Matt Birman, a second unit director on Romero's last three films who was working on Romero's next film, "Road of the Dead," was with Romero the night before he died of lung cancer.

 "We were sort of waiting, for lack of a better word," said Birman. "The most shocking thing for us has been the speed that this happened between the diagnosis and now."

Romero is best known for his 1968 horror film "Night of the Living Dead," which is considered the first modern zombie film. The film established the idea of a “zombie apocalypse,” where hordes of the dead lumber the earth in search of human flesh. 

The film spawned the "Dead" series with films like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Romero collaborated with horror writer Stephen King on films like "Creepshow" and "The Dark Half."

Romero's films were cult classics that inspired many filmmakers including Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), James Gunn ("Guardians of the Galaxy") and Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead").

When Birman spoke with The Frame, he remembered meeting Romero for the first time early in his career.

I was brought in to interview for the stunt coordinating position on "Land of the Dead." It's the first time I met George. Of course I knew who he was but not a huge horror genre fan at the time. [It] wasn't really my cup of tea and that's the first thing I said to him and he loved that. And we sort of hit it out of the park right away.

Romero is known for political commentary in his films. But when asked whether Romero spoke about using film genre metaphors for political satire, Birman says he rarely addressed them:

He didn't talk about it too much. I think he took some joy, or some pleasure I should say, in sliding it in there, as he used to say. And not beating you over the head with it. ... It was open to interpretation. Some people will call Night an anti-racist film or an anti-violence film, all sorts of things. But it's not something he talked a lot about in terms of pushing the story through some kind of comment.

Romero is credited with inventing the modern zombie movie, a horror film genre that has seen a surge in recent years with films like "28 Days Later," "World War Z" and "Shaun of the Dead."

While he wasn't completely unhappy with all zombie films, Birman says that Romero felt like each film had its own set of unique issues:

As his fans know, he didn't believe that zombies could run. In fact, I think he ducked "28 Days Later" because they weren't zombies. It's more of a virus. And he allowed that. But in "World War Z" they're like bullets and he hated it. As interesting as the "Dawn of the Dead" remake zombies were ... he just hated that they were fast. He just felt that there wasn't any room anymore for his type of film.

But there are some zombie films that Romero appreciated, like "Shaun of the Dead" by Edgar Wright, director films such as "Baby Driver." Birman says:

[Romero] absolutely adored "Shaun of the Dead." A big, big favorite of his. And Edgar wrote some very moving stuff yesterday. It's all a bit much to take right now. It's a little overwhelming because it's fast. I'm speaking to you for some kind of therapy but when we hang up I'll go back to my trance.

To hear John Horn's full interview with Mark Birman, click on the player above.

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