When it comes to zombies, there are certain things that we consider integral to the lore behind them: they move slowly, destroying their brain is the only way to kill them, you’ll turn into one of them if they bite you, they’re hungry for human flesh, and they’re nothing but cannon fodder on The Walking Dead. These are practically universal truths. You can mention zombies to someone who has never seen a zombie flick and they’ll be aware of least one or two of these things. It’s like how everybody knows that vampires can’t survive in daylight and werewolves transform on the night of the full moon. What’s different about those creatures though is that before movies and novels popularized them, there was centuries worth of myths about them; the result of thousands of different tales coming together to create a shared set of rules. That ain’t the case with zombies. The rules that define them came from the mind of one man. In 1968, George Romero made Night of the Living Dead and created an entire genre so prevalent in pop culture that even hardcore horror fans like myself are tired of these brainless beasts. Romero’s first film wasn’t merely great or influential. It was the birth of a brand new mythology, one that has spread so far into human consciousness it’s incredible to think it only got started 50 years ago.
Romero passed away on Sunday, at the age of 77. To say he left a mark on the horror genre, or on film in general is a grotesque understatement. How many filmmakers are responsible for something as influential and omnipresent as zombies? And how many did so on a shoestring budget partially funded by Mr. Rogers? (this is true, go look that up) If that were all Romero had done with his career, he would still be one of the most important figures in film history. Thankfully, that’s hardly all he did. Over a year ago, I published a (very lengthy and overblown) list of my picks for the 100 Greatest Horror Films of all time. As I was putting it together, I was struck by the fact that Romero had more films on it than any other director. I didn’t do this consciously. His work just naturally came to mind. I was also struck by how diverse the films were. There of them were zombie films of course, but all three centered on different themes. There was also a brilliant deconstruction of the vampire movie, a terrifying depiction of mass paranoia, and the only movie I’ve ever seen whose tagline describes it with perfect accuracy; “the most fun you’ll ever have being scared”. Let’s take a look at each of those films shall we?
Day of the Dead
Often considered Romero’s weakest film and dismissed out of hand by critics when it was first released, Day of the Dead has built up a steady cult following over the years and is now widely and correctly regarded as one of the great films of the genre. It’s easy to see why people didn’t take to it initially. It was too talky, it wasn’t as scary or funny as either of previous Dead pictures, the acting was more over the top than usual, and the social commentary was spectacularly on the nose. Funny thing though, these elements are actually what make it work so well and differentiate it from the auteur’s other work. First of all, to say it is too talky is to miss the point. The film takes place in a world where humanity is all but wiped out—the harrowing and desperate ‘rescue’ mission that opens the film drives this point home terrifically—and all that’s left are a bunch of scientists and army guys holed up in a bunker. When the world is this far gone, what else is there to do but sit and talk? The conversations in this film are all loaded with meaning and wisely observed, whether people are reminiscing on days gone by or seething with paranoia about what new horrors must be coming towards them. This is also precisely why the film isn’t as scary or funny as Dawn and Night. It’s bleaker, far more interested in taking the zombie apocalypse to its inevitable conclusion than in providing jump scares. The acting serves this purpose as well. These characters are broken and terrified. It’s no wonder all they can do is scream at each other. And as for the on the nose commentary? Zombies have never been the most subtle metaphor and the points Romero raises about humanity being its own worst enemy ring true even as they play out in gruesome fashion. What elevates Day even further and cements its place in the canon of great horror films is the character of Bub, the most sympathetic zombie to ever grace the screen. This is a testament to both Romero’s skill and his desire the push the genre in new directions. The film’s most human and relatable character is an undead thing. I can’t think of any other film that’s been able to pull that trick off.
Arguably Romero’s most haunting film, Martin is a chronicle of abuse disguised as a deconstruction of the vampire movie. The film’s central mystery as to whether or not the title character is an actual creature of the night or an unhinged serial killer is compelling but takes a backseat to the more human themes on display. Martin is told consistently by his old world granduncle that he is a monster. He’s treated as something to be feared, to be ashamed of, a person not worthy of human connection. Martin rebuffs his uncle’s methods of controlling him but also cannot do anything to better himself except embrace the darkness as his awful urges compel him to commit terrible acts. Does this make him worthy of our sympathy? Not particularly. He’s a killer and he deserves his comeuppance. But did it always have to end this way for Martin? Here is a man who never had a chance, who was forged by out dated ideas and old beliefs. Pain was inflicted upon him and he, in turn, inflicts it upon others. The cycle of abuse Romero presents is more chilling than any typical vampire story. And the theme extends to the side characters. The lonely woman Martin begins an affair with clearly has deep wells of pain within her and turns to Martin to simply stop feeling numb. Self-destruction is the only escape for these characters. Romero doesn’t just let the dialogue and performances convey this. He shoots the city of Pittsburgh like something out of a gothic novel: cold, filled with sharp edges, and fog so pervasive it threatens to envelope everything in sight. Martin is a terrifying depiction of how abuse is taught, how it ingrains itself (like a blood disease), and how it infects everything it touches.
Government paranoia was at its height in the 70’s and Romero, never one to have much faith in authority to begin with, tapped into this to make one his most relevant films. When the government drops a chemical weapon on a small town, fear spreads like wildfire. As the chemical drives the townsfolk mad, the government swoops in wearing gas masks and white suits to kill the infected. It’s a clear reflection of the idea that “we need to destroy the village in order to save it” and a very effective one. Romero is careful to look at the outbreak from every angle. The central military character is not a bad man, but one who must remove himself from human thinking in order to get the job done. The film’s heroes understand the risks if this infection spreads but care too much about their own lives to trust anything the government tells them. And why should they when men with guns are murdering their neighbors? The film’s most frightening sequence is so effective because of how awfully plausible it is. A scientist discovers a way to cure the infected but the military is too busy killing everyone to notice. The quarantined are too scared to pay attention. When he tries to tell everyone that they can stop, that it’s all going to be okay, his cries fall on deaf ears and he is trampled to death by a frightened mob who just want to escape. That’s the truly brilliant thing about The Crazies: it suggests that paranoia and mob mentality are the standards of human thinking, not the exception. In the 70’s, this was merely reflective of current fears. Today, doesn’t it seem like the norm?
Night of the Living Dead
The influence of Night of the Living Dead cannot be overstated but what about the film itself? In short: it’s terrifying. From the very first moment Johnny intones, “they’re coming to get you Barbara”, we do not feel safe. That sense of dread permeates every frame and culminates in one of the most devastating final moments in film history. As it progresses, the story takes on the quality of a nightmare with the gruesome images being played out in black and white adding a sense of the surreal to the proceedings. There are so many moments that linger in the brain long after the movie is over: Johnny dragging Barbara into the throng of walking corpses, the little girl in the basement rising up, the shots of the undead chowing down an any number of dismembered corpses, and, of course, the image of poor Ben being dumped into the pile of bodies. Romero was ahead of his time in more ways than one. Casting a black man as the lead was a bold, progressive choice and having him be coldly shot at the end added a layer of social commentary that many were unprepared to deal with. As I said, if Romero had just made this one movie, he would still be a true pioneer not only of horror but of film in general.
“The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Being Scared”. Oh yes, indeed it is. Inspired by EC Comics—and an even better adaptation of them than Tales from the Crypt was—Creepshow is a ghoulish delight from beginning to end. Romero and Stephen King leave all social commentary and deep themes behind to create a wild celebration of all things horror. Each story has its charms but it’s The Crate that I think is the most fun and surprising. When Fritz Weaver screams (whispers? shrieks?), “It whistles! It whistles when it’s hungry…when it’s angry!” I never know whether to scream or laugh my ass off. Usually, it’s a mixture of both and I think that was the idea behind the whole project. For those who have accused Romero’s directing style of being uninspired, have you not seen this film? It remains one of the best comic book adaptations ever, perfectly recreating the look and feel of a comic while making the panels cinematic. Romero’s use of swipes, the occasional split screen, animation, color scheme, and framing beautifully captures the feel of any old issue of Tales from the Crypt. AND THE MUSIC!!! MY god, the score is so good! Also, let it be remembered that this is the film where George Romero somehow got Ed Harris to do this:
What did I say earlier? He’d be a pioneer if he’d only made Night? Yeah, well he’d also be a pioneer if he’d only given us that scene. It’s amazing. You should watch it fifty times.
Sorry. I just love Creepshow so much.
Dawn of the Dead
In his second zombie film, Romero realized something crucial about the undead that most people still don’t seem to grasp today: they’re not very interesting. So how best to make use of them? By making them a ridiculously unsubtle but nonetheless effective and humorous metaphor for blind consumerism. Why are the zombies drawn to the mall? Cuz they sort of remember it and have nowhere else to go. Isn’t that why most people go to the mall? The scenes of them stumbling about are so damn funny because they don’t look all that different than the average person walking around the mall taking it all in but seeing nothing. The zombies aren’t even much of a threat in this film; they’re more a nuisance that needs to be dealt with. When the characters let their guard down though, they’re ready to pounce which keeps the tension going throughout the whole run time. Also keeping the tension going is the way Romero shows how quickly society breaks down. The news station manager demands the names of defunct crisis centers be left on the air in his mistaken attempt to hold onto the idea that his job still holds any meaning. The people who live in the apartment building refuse to believe that their loved ones are dead. The rednecks just like having more fodder to shoot at. And our band of heroes cling to material items even when it’s clear they hold no purpose anymore. The mall isn’t theirs yet they defend it as if they have some kind of special right to it. There’s so much going on in Dawn of the Dead and it all works so splendidly, it’s hard to focus on just one thing but I’ll try. Most of the films listed above are grim or Creepshow. Which is to say, they’re either searing looks at the worst of humanity or just a wild romp. Nothing wrong with either of those things. Yet, Dawn of the Dead adds a different element, one that Romero himself is uncertain about. Dawn originally ended with the two main characters killing themselves. At the last moment, Romero decided to let them both get away. They fly off into the sunset in a helicopter with not much fuel so there is little hope for their continued survival. But still, there’s a little hope. That’s just enough for me. It’s an ending that doesn’t feel like studio interference but instead like a director saying, “Hey you know what? Maybe we can make it through this. Not definitely. But maybe. Just maybe.” I’ll take that over a forced happy ending any day of the week. And while I appreciate and love Romero’s dark take on many societal issues, I also love that he could leave room for a little hope, even if he doubted it.
RIP George. Thanks for all you gave us. Thanks for paving the way for so many others who came after you. Thanks for always supporting the horror genre. Thanks for being someone who just seemed like a genuinely cool guy. And thanks for that ending. I know it didn’t always sit right with you but I’ve always treasured it. People need a little hope sometimes.
And just like Bub, I salute you.