We’ve located the roots of the George Romero zombie in spiritual beliefs developed during the African diaspora.
looked at the Haitian zombi/pop culture zombie dichotomy, and the role slavery played in how the monster was shaped and why it took hold in popular culture.
Now we can explore one of the most influential and enduring horror legacies of all time the Romero zombie.
Pause with music up and animation You simply can’t talk about zombies without talking about George A. Romero. Spanning 41 years, his six-part zombie series (plus two remakes!) introduced the world to an evolving vision and version of the monsters, starting in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead.
Slow-moving, flesh-eating, and very clearly undead, the zombies presented in this first film impacted horror movies in ways that still resonate today, and absolutely contributed to Romero’s reputation as one of the most significant directors of the genre.
More than just the reinvention of a frightening fiend, the Romero zombie’s introduction during a time of great political and cultural unrest in America impacted how it was received and why we still talk about it.
Whether it’s what he intended or not, Romero’s work forever changed the way we look at zombies.
Before we get into the details of the film that put Romero on the map, let’s talk about why his specific portrayal of zombies is so notorious that they get their own title.
After all, Romero wasn’t the first person to show undead bodies eating living human flesh. But you could call him the Bram Stoker of zombies he took bits and pieces of existing lore and mythology and combined them together into one iconic monster for the first time. Romero zombies are reanimated corpses that crave human flesh, and literally, anyone can become one. They are almost always slow-moving and in some cases can even use tools. They can be destroyed by a shot to the head or a heavy blow to the skull. No clear explanation is ever given for why they returned from the grave and unlike the Haitian zombi, Romero’s creations are autonomous and even sometimes self-aware; they answer to no human master. We can pretty confidently say that
Romero’s zombie looked so different because he wasn’t really aware of the Haitian zombie tradition.
Just ask Daniel Kraus, the author who finished Romero’s novel The Living Dead.
I’m not convinced he knew much about Haitian zombies. He wasn’t even thinking about these as zombies at all.
But he was just trying to create something that would, that would be the chaos outside the farmhouse.
Um, so I don’t think that shift really existed in his mind. I don’t know that the concept of the Haitian zombie was well enough known in America for there to be that conscious of a shift.
Romero claims that it was another type of undead creature that inspired him the vampires in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a
book about a city ravaged by a virus. In Night of the Living Dead, what we would now identify as a zombie is actually called a “ghoul.” Romero eventually called the monsters zombies, only because other people did. I think some of it happened kind of, especially with George Romero happened sort of organically. And it’s almost like after the fact once they started being called zombies, which would have been some time, I guess, the early seventies or something, certainly by Dawn of the Dead they’re calling them zombies.
Night of the Living Dead is one of the most culturally and critically acclaimed contributions to the zombie canon. The film follows a group of survivors sheltering in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania after escaping from an attack by suddenly-and-inexplicably-resurrected corpses. The movie is centered around the characters of Barbara, a woman in a catatonic state as a result of seeing her brother killed and another woman half-eaten, and Ben, the competent, resourceful man who tries to save her.
Tension builds as the two leads find themselves at odds with the competing personalities and interests of the other survivors sheltering with them.
Sounds like a traditional set-up for a horror film, right? So why did this film have so much impact and staying power?
To get more insight into the george romero zombie, I had a conversation with Tananarive Due, a screenwriter, author, and the executive producer of Horror Noire.
This film conceived and shot and the tumultuous 1960s against the backdrop of the civil rights era, which much like our contemporary era had really disturbing images coming across people’s screens. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that the 1960s, in particular, produced the more violent zombies that would actually invade your home.
It’s almost as if the violence on your television screen has been brought to life and is trying to kill you. he was shooting night, living dead, um, in the style of news footage and that was conscious. Um, and he was basing it off of footage and photographs of protesters being beaten up that was conscious. So all these, you know, all these decisions prove who the man is. Emily from Tananarive Due Interview.
For me, the two scenes that stuck out the most were Ben being shot and the little girl eating her mother, I interpret that as also sort of an uprising of youth culture and like a very violent visceral way.
You know, we see this child devouring, her mother represents it is just the world turned upside down. And as a kid watching that, it’s really horrifying because, uh, you’re engaging with the question of
how much violence is a child capable of and, and, and this idea of being parentless, being orphan?
The final scene of the movie depicts Ben, the lone survivor among the farmhouse’s inhabitants, and also the lone Black man in the entire film, being shot in the head by a member of an all-white rescue squad.
The town sheriff gives the order when he mistakes Ben for one of the reanimated dead. The rescuers who basically look like a Lynch mob do not look like saviors to me as a black person. And sure enough, Duane Jones is shot without even a word without even thought. …His history is erased. His heroism erased. Just had to really really stun a lot of audiences. Now, george romero zombie consistently refuted that he meant to make any connection between the murder of Ben and the Civil Rights movement sweeping America at the time. He insisted that he cast Duane Jones, the only black actor in the film,
because he had had the best audition.
Even if you weren’t thinking about racial strife and the power difference between whites and blacks, when you cast Duane Jones, I have to think that when he was looking at the daily footage, he had to be struck by the image of this dark skin, black man taking charge throughout this movie, uh, punching Mr. Cooper, who definitely represents the white patriarchy of the day In 1960s America it seems impossible that this moment would not have been seen as a statement about Black power.
I don’t think there were any black zombies in Night of the Living Dead.
So he is killing a white person after white person after white person. I don’t understand how you can be looking at that footage and not realize, wow, this is really going to hit people hard, this is going to hit people where it hurts.
The years preceding the release of the movie itself were politically and socially charged with conversations about race.
Brown v. Board of Education, declaring racial segregation of schools unconstitutional, had been passed only 14 years before.
Ten years after Brown v. Board and only four years before Romero’s film was released, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed discrimination based on sex, nationality, religion, color, and race. Loving v. Virginia had given interracial couples the legal right to wed in 1967 and that same year Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on television. Of course, george romero zombie, who shot the film in 1967, could not have predicted that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. would occur the same year the movie was released. This is Dr. Robin Means Coleman, professor, and author of Horror Noire.
It’s 1968, he’s driving to New York, he’s got these film cans in the car, in the trunk of the car, and he hears it. Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence and the Civil Rights movement has been shot to death in Memphis Tennessee.
And you have to think that he knows that he knows what he has in the trunk of his car, that he has a film that is already whether, you know, he overtly understands it or claims it is a brilliant piece of art, but also human and political history. It is notable that when the
the movie was re-released in 1969,
it was advertised as a double-feature alongside other movies that were explicitly about race, like Slaves.
Despite Romero’s denial of any intentional racial allegories, Duane Jones appears to have had a different perspective.
The original script described the character of Ben as a white, redneck truck driver. But Jones insisted that the character’s speech and wardrobe should be more sophisticated. george romero zombie even said that Jones “didn’t want to look gruff and he wanted to be presentable. He was the one who was much more worried about any of that than we were.”
Finally, having heard Night of the Living Dead called a political film time and time again, Romero seemingly relented. He acknowledged that he may have unconsciously had certain themes in mind.
This is an important, powerful text if for no other reason than it emerges right in the, in the sort of context of King’s assassination and says, you will see, and appreciate the power, the resonance of blackness. That’s what makes Night of the Living Dead so special. George has great affection for his human characters, but he essentially saw them as doomed, and maybe as the human race was sort of deservedly doomed and that we had to make way for this uprising So it was always intended as an uprising narrative.
Romero’s next zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead, came out in 1978, and portrayed the same type of zombie, but moved the setting to a shopping mall than a growing site of importance in American consumer culture and a symbol of mass culture and homogenous suburban life. The movie opens in a newsroom where the media becomes the target of Romero’s social critique. The news anchor says he does not believe the doctor being interviewed despite the professional’s insistence that the dead have risen and begun attacking the living. In a downtown setting SWAT team officers gun down housing project residents seemingly indiscriminately before a group of survivors flees the city in a helicopter.
They seek shelter in a large shopping center where zombies roam outside,
drawn by some memory of the place having significance.
The humor and ridiculousness of some of the scenes in Dawn of the Dead reflect the comedic over-exaggeration and gore endemic to the late 70s horror movies.
Dawn spawned this entire genre that was bigger and brighter and had these elements of joy in it that were missing from the earlier zombie works, so I think it just was the perfect kind of film at the perfect time in the seventies.
That really just is the kind of thing that makes fanboys and fangirls.
It made him the godfather of the zombies. Dawn of the Dead was followed by Day of the Dead in 1985, in which science takes a front-seat as military personnel and scientists attempt to stop or reverse zombification in an underground bunker. Of course, there’s a doctor performing strange experiments on the undead another trope george romero zombie helped to establish in the zombie genre.
Interestingly, Romero would later say that Day of the Dead was unique for its use of the zombie Bub as the film’s main character. Bub defies zombie norms by showing some level of intelligence since he is trained to not act violently.
He’s friendly to most of the living characters and remembers some parts of his previous life. He even speaks and shoots a gun at one point. Bub marks the first, but not the last, of Romero’s zombies who appear capable of domestication. Romero is humanizing the undead. A sign that the zombie was changing, both in meaning and popularity, was clearly demonstrated in the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake. george romero zombie rewrote the original script
himself, which featured key changes like making Barbara actually capable of contributing to her own survival.
The establishment of the stronger female characters in horror and action movies since the 1970s and the feminist movement can account for Barbara’s altered character arc.
Romero even said that 90’s Barbara was “his apology to women” for the 1968 original character. Ben is still killed, but only
after he has become a zombie,
justifying his death, and seems to be an attempt to remove any racial commentary. The dramatic cultural and social differences between the late 20th and early 21st centuries are also reflected in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Like all Romero films, this “reimagining” as the creators like to call it, is profoundly reflective of its place in history. While still set in a mall, the opening scenes of the zombie attacks and instant apocalyptic chaos of the undead are jarring to Americans. – And let’s be honest, those scenes of the undead swarming the mall and banging on the
doors read differently once you’ve seen those videos of how people can get
2005 saw the release of Land of the Dead, set in Pittsburgh where the safety of the living is ensured by a feudal-like government. Romero’s application of the zombie film as social commentary is again on full display as the survivors with money and power live in a luxury apartment building while the majority of the population lives in slums. Oh, and suburbia? Yeah, that’s been completely overrun by zombies.
For me, this film stands out because of the character of Big Daddy a Black zombie hero with intelligence, who leads the other zombies and uses tools.
He also figures out that zombies can walk underwater and use machine guns, so that’s terrifying. The movie ends with Big Daddy and a group of his undead followers leaving the city and not attacking the living, which to me reads as another homage to I Am Legend as well as george romero zombie again alluding to the ascension of a new generation that uses ingenuity and makes the best out of bad circumstances. Perhaps this is also an intentional contrast with the violent end of the Black character in Night of the Living Dead.
In 2007, Diary of the Dead introduced us to a group of college film students navigating the zombie apocalypse with the aid of their only source of up-to-date information bloggers on the Internet. This penultimate george romero zombie film explored analogies including our eroding social connections, the effect of emerging technologies on our bodies and our brains, and the collapse of civilization in a post-apocalyptic setting. Indeed, as technology advances, it is increasingly presented as threatening to our very humanity, and even in some cases, the
the direct cause of a zombie plague george romero zombie definitely wanted to make this connection in Diary of the Dead.
In an interview, he said that the film was in part inspired by his concern of the explosion of “alternate media, the blogosphere and all that, and it just occurred to me that there are some dangers lying here potentially hidden. It just really struck me that this was what was going on in the world now, everyone’s a camera, everyone’s a reporter, and people seem to be obsessed with it.” The last zombie film Romero wrote and directed, Survival of the Dead, premiered in 2009 and focuses on two families whose mutual hostility and loathing — diseases of the mind and soul — long predate the arrival of the zombie infection. The movie culminates in a gruesome scene in which the two reanimated patriarchs attempt to kill each other again. Clearly, the zombies are a backdrop, a foil for festering social, personal, and political conflict. I think that one of the reasons zombies become so popular in recent years is again the kind of a retread of that fear of social upheaval that we saw in the 1960s. You only have to open a newspaper or watch a news program today to see the fears represented by the segment of the population that is afraid of change.
That doesn’t like the way the nation looks because it doesn’t look as white as they thought it’s supposed to look. And that segment of the population that’s afraid because they’re being targeted because of their race and, and, and in policing and in mass incarceration. So I think all of those fears are kind of at a, at a boil. That’s what Romero’s real legacy is: he created a monster whose genesis is vague and whose manifestation is rot, and juxtaposed it with American society at the turn of the 21st century. His zombies have, from the beginning, represented so much more than just mindless flesh-eating automatons.
He had done night and Dawn and that alone was going to make him a legend.
And it didn’t hurt that he was, you know, 11 feet tall and wore giant black glasses and was just incredibly amiable. Um, he, he was a perfect Emissary for horror and the way that the people who created can be extremely approachable and gentle and kind Ramiro was a pacifist. He might’ve made these violent movies, but they were all in aid of his, his beliefs and his politics, which were largely, you know, learn how to walk away from a fight.
In a 2010 interview, george romero zombie said he largely thinks his movies are “overanalyzed” and he’s “not into it.” But, I don’t think he’s giving himself enough credit. Regardless of the original intentions of the filmmaker, ultimately the audience gets to decide what it means. Our own experiences and perspectives influence how we interpret any kind of art, including zombie films. So to end, I’ll use the late,
great horror icon’s own words: All the monsters we’ve created in fiction unless expressly identified as the Devil, represent our own evil. We create them so we can kill them off, thereby justifying ourselves it’s a kind of penance, self-exorcism.