George A. Romero, the legendary filmmaker who terrified America with the 1968 zombie cult classic Night of the Living Dead, has died at the age of 77 after a battle with lung cancer, his manager confirms to PEOPLE.
Romero died Sunday in his sleep while listening to the score of one of his favorite films, The Quiet Man, with his wife Suzanne Desrocher Romero, and daughter, Tina Romero.
Romero had a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer, and leaves behind a loving family, many friends and a filmmaking legacy that has endured, and will continue to endure, the test of time,“ his manager Chris Roe said in a statement. Roe calls Romero “a gentle giant and one of the kindest and most giving human beings I’ve ever known or had the pleasure to work with.”
Dubbed the father of the zombie-movie genre, the filmmaker struck it big with his iconic black and white 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Romero was the director and co-wrote the film along with John A. Russo.
He directed several sequels and worked on other projects, including writing the story for the 1973 film The Crazies and directing the 1981 film Knightriders.
Author Stephen King made his screenwriting debut with the 1982 horror anthology Creepshow, directed by Romero.
Romero was born in the Bronx in New York City, but had a lifelong love for the city of Pittsburgh, where he moved in 1957 to attend Carnegie Mellon University. He filmed Night of the Living Dead in that city on a $114,000 budget.
The movie, about a small group of people trapped in a farmhouse besieged by zombies, shocked some critics (including Roger Ebert) with its gore, but its and acclaim grew over the years as film buffs recognized its influence and subversive themes. “It was 1968. We were angry that peace and love hadn’t worked the way we had hoped,” Romero told TIME in 2010.
Of the recent proliferation of zombie movies, he told TIME: “I don’t rush out to see those films. I have a particular use for them. If there’s something I’d like to criticize, I can bring the zombies out. And I get the financing that way. So I’ve been able to express my political views through those films.”
Asked if zombies have an “expiration date,” Romero replied: “I hope that my guys don’t have an expiration date. My zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they’re where the trouble really lies. The zombies are just [swats at the air] mosquitoes.”