In 1968, George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead on a shoestring budget of $114,000. It earned $30 million at the box office, launched the modern zombie genre, and set the rules about the animated undead that writers and directors still abide by 50 years later. Romero, who followed it up with several more Dead movies and other films in various genres, died in his sleep on Sunday in Toronto after a brief battle with aggressive lung cancer, his manager, Chris Roe, said Sunday night. He was 77 and surrounded by his wife, Suzanne Desrocher, and daughter, Tina Romero, listening to the score of The Quiet Man, a favorite film.
Night of the Living Dead didn't use the word "zombie," previously depicted as a living person enchanted through voodoo, but it set the ground rules for the zombie genre: Slow-moving undead flesh-eaters whose bite kills and infects its victims, turning them into zombies. Romero's most successful follow-up was Dawn of the Dead (1978), and after the 1985 commercial and critical flop Day of the Dead, he retired the franchise until 2005, when he released the star-packed Land of the Dead.
Romero's zombies were always social or political commentary, stand-ins for perceived political or societal ills, including racism, conformity, materialism and mall culture, and class warfare. "The zombies, they could be anything," 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." People would say, "You're trapped in this genre — you're a horror guy," he added, but he disagreed. "I say, 'Wait a minute, I'm able to say exactly what I think.' ... 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."
Romero was born in the Bronx in 1940, and was always a fan of film. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in 1960 and learned his trade working on movie sets and on Pittsburgh-based Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Nobody took his first zombie movie seriously, but now "people write their thesis about it," he told USA Today in 2010. "I don't think it deserves half of the treatises about it." You can watch the trailer for Romero's 1968 cult classic below. Peter Weber
Frank Deford, a sportswriter who began his career at Sports Illustrated in 1962 and didn't quit until right before his death on Sunday, was "a dedicated writer and storyteller" who "offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love," reads his citation for the National Humanities Medal former President Barack Obama awarded him in 2013, the first such honor for a sportswriter. It was one of many awards Deford won over his long career. He died at his home in Key West, Deford's wife, Carol, confirmed on Monday. He was 78.
Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born in Baltimore in 1938, and along with 30-plus years writing for Sports Illustrated he was a regular on HBO's Real Sports and on NPR's Morning Edition, from which he retired only on May 3, after 1,656 commentaries about the human side of sports. Hired as a researcher at Sports Illustrated, he made his bones writing about basketball, hardly a focus of sportswriters in the 1960s.
Deford "understood the particular legacy he had carved out," writes Bryan Curtis at The Ringer. "He would be seen more as a great sportswriter rather than a great writer, full stop. ... And he decided — though he was more talented than many writers who pass through the gates of The New Yorker — that he was more or less comfortable with the slur." At the same time, Curtis says, "Deford wrote so well it obscured his divining-rod abilities as a reporter. He always seemed to land on just the right quote."
So, a quote from Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports in 2004, when he told the Los Angeles Times: "Frank Deford with a pen in his hand is like Michael Jordan with a basketball and Tiger Woods with a driver." And a quote from Deford — who leaves behind a wife, two children, and two grandchildren, having lost a daughter to cystic fibrosis at age 8 — from his 2012 collection Over Time: My Life As a Sportswriter: "I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before. But I also believe that the one thing that's largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory — the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls 'the arc.' That is: stories. We have, all by ourselves, ceded that one neat thing about sport that we owned." Peter Weber
Robert Pirsig, who wrote the unexpected bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and just one other novel, 1991's Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, died at his home in Maine on Monday, after a period of failing health, his publisher, William Morrow, announced. He was 88. Pirsig's 1974 cult classic, subtitled "An Inquiry Into Values," is a lightly fictionalized recounting of a 17-day motorcycle trip he took with his young son Chris and two other people in 1968, mixed with his philosophical musings on the tension between culture and counterculture, humans and machines, mind and body, and his own experience with schizophrenia.
Prisig was born in Minneapolis in 1928, and despite high intelligence, he was expelled from the University of Minnesota due to failing grades before serving in the Army before the Korean War. During a visit to Japan, he became interested, and then a lifelong adherent of, Zen Buddhism — though he said his novel should not be viewed as a guide to Zen, or motorcycles. He returned and earned degrees in journalism, studied philosophy, and traveled to India and elsewhere before teaching writing at Montana State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down by 121 publishing houses before William Morrow took it.
The book made him wealthy, but he was so unnerved by the mostly young people showing up at his house in search of wisdom — his neighbors outside Minneapolis called them "Pirsig's Pilgrims" — that he hit the road with his wife and family, eventually settling down in Maine. He struggled to understand why his novel hit such a nerve. "I was just telling my own story," he said. "I expressed what I thought were my prime thoughts," he added, "and they turned out to be the prime thoughts of everybody else." Pirsig is survived by his wife, Wendy, son Ted, daughter Nell Peiken and her husband, Matthew Peiken, and three grandchildren; his son Chris died after being stabbed in a mugging in 1979. Peter Weber
Former child star Erin Moran, best known for her role as Joanie Cunningham, little sister to Ron Howard's Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, was found dead Saturday at her home in Indiana. She was 56. Moran began acting when she was just 5, appearing in commercials and playing bit parts before she landed the role of Joanie at age 12. After 10 years of Happy Days, Moran and costar Scott Baio had a brief spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi, but after that, Moran never had a leading role again.
Moran was born Oct. 18, 1960, in Burbank, California, the fourth of five children raised in North Hollywood by their finance manager father and a mother who encouraged Moran's acting career and got her an agent. After Happy Days, Moran said she had mixed feelings about being a child star, and she took a break from Hollywood in the mid-1980s. "Such sad sad news," Howard wrote on Twitter Saturday night. "RIP Erin. I'll always choose to remember you on our show making scenes better, getting laughs and lighting up TV screens." You can watch a short remembrance of Moran's career below, from USA Today. Peter Weber
Guitarist John Warrant Geils Jr.'s first band, formed in the mid-1960s, was called Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels, but in 1967 the band added lead singer Peter Wolf, renamed itself the J. Geils Blues Band, and jammed its way onto the national stage in the 1970s, touring with bands like The Allman Brothers and The Byrds. Dropping "Blues" from the band's name, the J. Geils Band scored a string of hits in the 1980s, before disbanding in 1985. Giles was found dead at his home in Groton, Massachusetts, on Tuesday evening. He was 71, and Groton police say Giles likely died of natural causes.
It was the J. Geils Band's 12th album, Freeze Frame, that put them on the national map. It spent four weeks at No. 1 in 1982, on the strength of the single "Centerfold," the band's best known hit, holding the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks. You know the song immediately upon hearing the opening hook. The video mostly features Wolf singing about his shock at seeing an old girlfriend in an adult magazine spread, but you can hear Geils' guitar and see him at the end, standing at the end of a school hallway.
The J. Geils Band reunited several times, notably for a 2010 concert in Fenway Park with fellow Boston band Aerosmith. When he wasn't playing, Geils raced and restored old cars and motorcycles. Peter Weber
Singer-songwriter Don McLean has famously labeled the crash of an airplane named "American Pie" the "day the music died," but thanks to a lucky coin toss, guitarist Tommy Allsup lived until age 85. Allsup, a member of Buddy Holly's band, flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens for the last seat in Holly's charter plane late on Feb. 2, 1959, after a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and Valens won. The plane crashed shortly after midnight on Feb. 3 in a cornfield, killing Holly, Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and the pilot. Allsup lived another half-century, but died Wednesday at a hospital in Springfield, Missouri, of complications from a hernia operation, according to his son, Austin.
Allsup — an Oklahoma native who went on to a career as a successful session guitarist and record producer for artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, the Ventures, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and Roy Orbison — called losing that coin toss "a blessing," Austin Allsup told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I know my dad has talked about that many times and knew that he was very lucky to be here. It could have been the other way around." Valens' sister offered him her condolences upon hearing the news, Allsup said, and "I told her in my message back, now my dad and Ritchie can finally finish the tour they started 58 years ago."
Tommy Allsup returned to the Surf Ballroom in 2007 and recounted the story of that fateful night:
The coin toss that saved Allsup's life was fictionalized in the 1987 movie La Bamba, with Stephen F. Schmidt playing Allsup, Lou Diamond Phillips playing Valens, and Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly. You can watch it below, with a fan-fiction ending. Peter Weber
When legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen died last week, his family did not provide any details. He had reportedly been fighting cancer, but on Wednesday, his manager, Robert Kory, said that Cohen died after a late-night tumble on Nov. 7, three days before his death was announced. "Leonard Cohen died during his sleep following a fall in the middle of the night on Nov. 7," Kory said in a statement. "The death was sudden, unexpected, and peaceful."
Cohen had been working right up until the end, and it wasn't clear before his death that his just-released album, "You Want It Darker," was to be his swan song. Collaborator Patrick Leonard tells The New York Times that he and Cohen were working on two other albums, one with string arrangements of his songs and another featuring songs inspired by old R&B grooves, and Cohen was also finishing a book of poetry. "He felt the window was getting narrower," Leonard said. "He wanted to use the time as productively as he could to finish the work that he was so good at and so devoted to." Peter Weber
Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, died on Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease, her sister, Maggy Hurchalla, tells CNN. She was 78. Reno, appointed by Bill Clinton, was at the center of several political firestorms during the Clinton administration, starting with the botched 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas, and ending with the controversial seizure of 5-year-old Cuban immigrant Elian Gonzalez in 2000. Reno discovered she had Parkinson's in 1995, only two years into her tenure, but still became the second-longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history, after William Wirt in the early 1800s. Peter Weber