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George A. Romero, famed director and father of the zombie film genre, has died at the age of 77. The legendary filmmaker passed away in his sleep after a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer” while listening to the score of 1952’s The Quiet Man with his family by his side, according to his long-time producing partner Peter Grunwald.

Romero is often credited with reinventing the zombie film genre with his cult classic 1968 movie, Night of the Living Dead. His creation would go on to set the standard for every zombie-themed film and TV show after it – an undead creature that moved slowly, fed on human flesh and could only be killed if shot in the head.

However, it wasn’t all horror and gore to Romero. In his films, the creatures served as metaphors for the social issues of the time – racism, capitalism and classicism, for example.

“They [the zombies] could be an avalanche, they could be a hurricane,” he said in 2008. “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 recognising maybe this is too big for us to try to maintain. That’s the part of it that I’ve always enjoyed.”

The hit debut film, made for around US$114,000, grossed $30 million upon release and was added to the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Films in 1999, having been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Romero followed up the movie’s success with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead. Three others in the series were produced throughout the 2000s, and two more are due in the future – another sequel next year, and a prequel written by Romero’s son.

He is survived by wife Suzanne Desrocher and their filmmaker son Cameron, as well as children Andrew and Tina from a previous marriage.