George A. Romero, father of the zombie film, dies at 77

George A. Romero, the legendary writer-director from Pittsburgh who made the 1968 cult classic "Night of the Living Dead" for $114,000, thus spawning an unrelenting parade of zombie movies and TV shows, has died. He was 77.

Romero, who put out five other zombie movies after a copyright blunder cost him millions of dollars in profits on his wildly popular first one, died Sunday in his sleep after a battle with lung cancer according to a statement from Romero's producing partner Peter Grunwald to the L.A. Times. Romero's family confirmed his death to the Times as well.

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George A. Romero through the years
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George A. Romero through the years
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 05: Director George A. Romero addresses the audience at the Night of the Living Dead World Premiere of Restored Print during the To Save and Project: The 14th MOMA International Festival of Film Preservation at MOMA on November 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for Museum of Modern Art, Department of Film)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 05: Director George A. Romero attends the Night of the Living Dead World Premiere of Restored Print during the To Save and Project: The 14th MOMA International Festival of Film Preservation at MOMA on November 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for Museum of Modern Art, Department of Film)
LUCCA, ITALY - APRIL 07: American film Director, screen writer and editor George Romero (L) leaves with his wife Suzanne Romero after attending a press conference and interviews during the Lucca Film Festival 2016 on April 7, 2016 in Lucca, Italy. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)
LUCCA, ITALY - APRIL 07: American film Director, screen writer and editor George Romero poses for a photo after attending a press conference during the Lucca Film Festival 2016 on April 7, 2016 in Lucca, Italy. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - JULY 13: Director George Romero attends 'L'Aperitivo Con Gli Autori' held at Sala Buzzati on July 13, 2010 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - JULY 12: Director George Romero attends La Milanesiana held at Teatro Dal Verme on July 12, 2010 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - JULY 12: Director George Romero attends La Milanesiana held at Teatro Dal Verme on July 12, 2010 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MAY 16: Director George A. Romero and Zombies attend the premiere of 'Survival of the Dead' at Village East Cinema on May 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 17: Director George A. Romero accepts the Mastermind Award onstage during Spike TV's Scream 2009 held at the Greek Theatre on October 17, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 12: Writer/ Director George A. Romero (L) attends 'George A. Romero's Survival Of The Dead' Premiere held at the Ryerson Theatre during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2009 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Alex Henry Moore/WireImage)
Director George Romero attends the premiere of 'The Dark Half' on April 20, 1993 at Anjelika 57 Theater in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
ITALY - SEPTEMBER 09: 66th Venice International Film Festival - Close up of American Director Georges Romero In Venice, Italy On September 09, 2009 -George A. Romero is the director of 'Survival of the Dead'. (Photo by Pool CATARINA/VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 09: Director George Romero attends the 'Survival Of The Dead' Premiere at the Sala Grande during the 66th Venice Film Festival on September 9, 2009 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage)
Director George A. Romero attends the photocall of Survival of the death during the 66th edition of the Venice Film Festival. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Romero's 1978 sequel "Dawn of the Dead" was made for $1.5 million and grossed $55 million. He followed that by writing and directing "Day of the Dead" (1985), "Land of the Dead" (2005), "Diary of the Dead" (2007) and "Survival of the Dead" (2009), a decomposing body of work that earned him the nickname Father of the Zombie Film.

Romero also penned a new version of "Night of the Living Dead," released in 1990, that was directed by Tom Savini, his longtime collaborator and horror effects guru. (And "Dawn of the Dead" was remade by Zack Snyder in 2004.)

Some film scholars and horror enthusiasts contend that social commentary — specifically salvos against the military and materialism — lurked within Romero's films. Most of his work was shot in Pittsburgh, where Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University.

"Night of the Living Dead," the story of seven strangers trapped in a farmhouse besieged by a lynch-mob posse of staggering zombies, devastated/delighted audiences at the time of its release, its stark and grainy black-and-white cinematography imbuing it with a documentary realism.

Romero and his nine other investors, including co-writer John A. Russo, had cobbled together $6,000 to start production on the film, then titled "Night of the Flesh Eaters." It premiered at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh on Oct. 1, 1968, and quickly caught on as a staple of midnight screenings around the country. But most of the profits eluded the investors because of a mistake by the distributor.

"We lost the copyright on the film because we put it on the title," Romero explained in "Night of the Living Steelers," an installment of NFL Films' "Timeline" series that premiered in October 2016. "Our title was 'Night of the Flesh Eaters,' they changed it to 'Night of the Living Dead.'"

"When they changed the title, the copyright bug came off, so it went into public domain [and] we no longer had a piece of the action. Everybody had a copy of 'Night of the Living Dead' because they were able to sell it without having to worry about royalties going to us."

"Night of the Living Dead" was rare for its time in that it featured an African-American actor (Duane Jones) as a hero in a mainstream movie.

After directing the box-office failures "There's Always Vanilla" (1971), "Hungry Wives" (1972) and "The Crazies" (1973), Romero, looking to make ends meet, produced a series of TV documentaries that focused on such Steeler legends-in-the-making as Mean Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw and Rocky Bleier.

He returned to the zombie milieu with "Dawn of the Dead" (this time with copyright intact), which was filmed at the Monroeville Mall outside Pittsburgh. "This was the first indoor mall we had ever seen," he said in the "Timeline" documentary. "I said, 'Wow, this is a temple to consumerism. There's my topic.' "

Once, during an AFI screening of "Night of the Living Dead," he was asked what terrified him. "I don't have any supernatural hobgoblins that I worry about," he said. "What scares me is life."

George Andrew Romero was born Feb. 4, 1940, in the Bronx. As a teen, he was crazy about movies, especially the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger opera fantasy "The Tales of Hoffmann" (1951). To watch it, he had to rent a movie projector and a print of the film from a movie house in Manhattan.

"They had one print," he recalled. "Whenever it was gone, I knew the guy who had it. And when that guy came in and it was gone, he knew who had it. And that guy was Marty Scorsese. ...; We were the only two people who rented 'Tales of Hoffmann.'"

Romero studied art and design at Carnegie Mellon, graduated in 1960 and started a commercial production company, Image Ten Prods. He made a Calgon detergent ad that lampooned the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage and did a segment for the kids show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that showed the host preparing to have a tonsillectomy.

All that helped pay for the camera his team used to shoot Night of the Living Dead. Money was tight, so the basement of his company's office on Fort Pitt Boulevard in Pittsburgh doubled as the farmhouse basement in the movie.

Romero's other work included "Knightriders" (1981), a mayhem movie with combatants jousting on motorcycles; "Creepshow" (1982), modeled after horror comics and scripted by Stephen King; "Monkey Shines" (1988), a psychological thriller revolving around a killer simian; "The Dark Half" (1993), where a writer's alter ego aims to take over; and Bruiser (2000), about a man who finds his face transformed into a blank mask.

Romero also dabbled in the world of comic books with the limited Marvel series "Empire of the Dead."

Glimpses of the man himself can be seen in many of his films, and he had a cameo as an FBI agent in Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991).

Thanks to Romero, Pittsburgh has been called the "Zombie Capital of the World" and each year hosts an event called Zombie Fest, complete with a brain-eating contest.

"I used to be the only guy in the playground, I was the only guy doing zombies," he said in the "Timeline" doc. "Then all of a sudden 'The Walking Dead' happened and it became mainstream. And now they're all over the place."

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

Read more: George A. Romero on Brad Pitt Killing the Zombie Genre, Why He Avoids Studio Films

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