So zombies are pretty much everywhere at the moment. They’ve been around for decades of course, but the past few years have seen zombies take over the world with a speed and ferocity not unlike a zombie apocalypse itself. They’re in our movies and our videogames, in our comics and on our televisions and with Halloween fast approaching you can bet you’re going to be seeing a hell of a lot of them over the next few weeks. But that’s ok – because while zombies are becoming increasingly overused, they’re still pretty damn awesome. They’re a terrifying foe in their own right (and one we don’t have to feel guilty about blasting with a shotgun on our Playstation because they don’t have feelings), but they can also provide the perfect backdrop for all sorts of grim (or even hilarious) tales of human interaction at the end of days. They’re also showing no signs of slowing down. With Halloween (and, by extension, zombie season) drawing near, it’s the perfect time to look back at why we love zombies so much and why our obsession with them ultimately comes back to the efforts of one man. That man is George A. Romero.
Even in the 1960’s zombies were not a new concept, but before George A. Romero got his hands on them they had more to do with Voodoo curses than flesh-eating corpses. Early versions of zombies usually portrayed them as them servants put under a spell by their malicious masters rather than living corpses, but this all changed with the release of George A. Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead essentially invented the modern horror film. Whereas prior horror films usually dealt with Gothic monsters and the supernatural, Night of the Living Dead was about a group of people under attack from an unrelenting force that wanted nothing more than to feast on their flesh. The characters didn’t know how or why and neither did the audience. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the dead were rising from the grave and people were powerless to stop them. Interestingly despite the fact that The Night of the Living Dead popularised the modern idea of the zombie, the term is never used in the film itself. The shuffling undead are instead referred to as ‘ghouls’ though for all intents and purposes they are the same as the zombies we know and love today.
Though the zombies themselves aren’t exactly scary in the present day, Night of the Living Dead is still an unflinching and horrifying film. When a group of survivors hole up in an abandoned farm house it quickly becomes apparent that man, when pushed, can be just as dangerous as the ghouls he hides from. Tensions in the group run high and even when they do eventually work together, things don’t exactly go to plan. Things rapidly escalate in the final act and suddenly a film that seemed quaint and of-its-time is transformed into something altogether more disturbing. The movie’s conclusion is utterly chilling and to this day remains one of the bleakest codas ever put to film. Surprisingly, The Night of the Living Dead is as significant for its politics as its zombies. The film has been linked to themes like counter culture and racism and although it was one of the first films to feature a black hero, George A. Romero has denied trying to make any political statement with his choice of casting.
After a nearly a decade working on other projects, George A. Romero returned to zombies with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the greatest zombie movie ever made. In Dawn of the Dead, the living are gradually losing their fight against the undead hordes. A small group consisting of a reporter, a pilot and two SWAT members escape the carnage of the city in a helicopter and move into an abandoned shopping mall while on the search for supplies. Realising that everything in the mall can be theirs, the group go about cleaning out the zombie infestation and making their temporary stay more permanent. Refreshingly, their plan is a rational one and is executed logically and methodically. It’s nice to follow a group of horror movie characters that aren’t stupid.
Once again though it’s man, not the undead, that proves the biggest threat. The use of a shopping mall as the setting for a zombie film was a genius decision that allowed for some smart social commentary on consumerism as well as some truly imaginative scenarios. Dawn of the Dead represents a slight shift in focus away from the horror of Night of the Living Dead to a more action-adventure feel, but by the end the of the film the blood still flows freely. It’s (slightly) lighter in tone than its predecessor but also smarter, gorier and altogether better.
It would be another seven years until George A. Romero returned to the undead and when he did, the result didn’t please everyone. 1985’s Day of the Dead might not be the instant classic Night and Dawn were, but it is still a worthy entry into his zombie saga. By the start of Day, the undead have truly taken over and a small group of soldiers and scientists cower in an underground military base, uncertain if there are any other survivors. The soldiers and scientists have very different views on what the next plan of action should be and while the military are determined to eliminate the threat, the scientists are keen to study them and see what they can learn. Day of the Dead is slower, darker and more claustrophobic than its predecessors and features an (intentionally) unsympathetic cast of shouty military types and mad boffins. Strangely, while the human characters might be largely unlikable, one particular character stands out – Bub the zombie. ‘Bub’ is a zombie the scientists have trained to respond to their actions and as a result he gradually shows signs of intelligence. By the end of the film he seems more human than they are.
Nearly twenty years passed until Romero returned to zombies by which point films like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and a remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had reintroduced them to a modern audience. Thankfully, when Romero did step back into the limelight, the wait was worth it. Land of the Dead, released in 2005, was a brilliant fourth instalment that returned to the action-adventure feel of Dawn of the Dead, only with a much larger scope. Again, Romero couldn’t resist throwing in social commentary, this time in the form of the class struggle that exists in the film between the rich who occupy ‘Fiddler Green’, a safe haven and the poor who have to survive against the undead every day. More accessible than Day, Land lacks anything as imaginative as Bub the zombie listening to classical music, but is generally the more enjoyable of the two.
Though Land of the Dead wasn’t a huge financial success, it did reignite Romero’s interest in zombie filmmaking and he wasted no time following it up with not one, but two zombie instalments in the space of five years. 2007’s Diary of the Dead ignored the thematic progression of his prior four Dead films and instead re-imagined a fresh zombie outbreak. Adopting the documentary/found footage style that has become popular in modern horror films, it lacked the scope and heft of its predecessors, but still made for a generally enjoyable modern horror film. Survival of the Dead, Romero’s last zombie flick, was sadly anything but. A quasi sequel to Diary, it follows a group of military characters briefly encountered in that film as they look for safety on a small island. Ditching Diary’s shaky-cam style, it also ditched everything that made that film enjoyable and the result was a confused, inconsequential and often laughably bad film that felt like the straight-to-DVD release it was. It does feature zombies eating a horse though, so at least it has that going for it.
It’s a shame that Romero’s latest outing was such a damp squib because truly no man has done more for the zombie movie genre and zombies in general. For over four decades he has been making fantastically gruesome tales of the undead that have terrified generations of movies-goers while containing an intelligence rarely seen in horror movies. As Halloween draws near and the undead come out to play once again, it is only fitting that we pay tribute to the man who started it all. George A. Romero, we salute you.