Why George Romero Changed Zombies Forever
The second episode of our three-part special series looks at the Romero zombie. Considered the “godfather of zombies,” Romero’s 1968 film The Night of the Living Dead introduced the flesh-eating reanimated corpse to popular culture. Notably, 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.
- We've located the roots of the zombi
in spiritual beliefs developed from 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.
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 zombies 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.
I'm Dr. Emily's Zarka and this is "Monstrum."
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 and video.
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're 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 zombie,
Romero's creations are autonomous
and even sometimes self-aware.
They answer to no human master.
We can pretty confidently say that
Romero zombie look so different
because he wasn't really aware
of the Haitians zombie tradition.
Just asked Daniel Kraus, the author
who finished Romero's novel "The Living Dead."
- I'm not convinced he knew much about Haitian zombies
and that he wasn't even thinking
about these as zombies at all.
But he was just trying to create something
that would be the chaos outside the farmhouse.
So I don't think that shift really existed in his mind.
And I don't know that the concept of Haitian zombie
was well enough known in America
for there to be that conscious of a shift.
- [Emily] Surprisingly, Romero didn't originally
call his monster zombies.
He even 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.
- Because I think some of it happened kind of,
especially with Georgia Miro, happened sort of organically.
And it's almost like after the fact,
once they started being called zombies
which would have been sometime, I guess,
early '70s or something.
Certainly by "Dawn of the Dead"
they're calling them zombies.
- [Emily] "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.
- There's a radio upstairs and you boarded us in down here?
- Sounds like a traditional setup for a horror film, right?
So why did this film have so much impact in staying power?
To get even more insight into the Romero zombie,
I had a conversation with Tananarive Due,
a screenwriter, author,
and executive producer of "Horror Noire."
- This film conceived and shot in 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.
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 of the Living Dead"
in the style of news footage, and that was conscious,
and he was basing it off of footage and photographs
of protestors being beat up, that was conscious.
So all of these decisions prove who the man is.
- For me, the two scenes that stuck
out the most were Ben being shot
and the little girl and her parents.
I interpret that as also sort of an uprising
of youth culture in like a very violent visceral way.
- We see this child devouring her father represents,
it is just the world turned upside down.
And as a kid watching that, it's really horrifying
because you're engaging with the question
of how much violence is a child capable of
and this idea of being parentless, being orphaned.
- [Emily] 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 a thought, where his whole story erased,
his history erased, his heroism erased,
just had to really really stun a lot of audiences.
- [Emily] Now Romero 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 the best audition.
- Even if you weren't thinking about that
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 skinned black man taking charge
throughout this movie, punching Mr. Cooper,
who definitely represents the white patriarchy of the day.
- Well, listen, I got a kid down there.
She can't, plus I couldn't bring her up here,
she can't possibly take all the racket,
those things smashing through the windows.
- You can be the boss down there.
I'm boss up here.
You take orders from me.
- I don't think there were any black zombies
in "Night of the Living Dead."
So he is killing 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 proceeding 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.
10 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 one
of the first interracial kisses on television.
Of course, Romero 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. 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.
- [Radio] Dr. Martin Luther King,
the apostle of nonviolence in the Civil Rights
movement has been shocked to death in Memphis, Tennessee.
- And you have to think that he knows
what he has in the trunk of his car,
that he has a film that is already,
whether he overtly understands it or claims it,
is a brilliant piece of art,
but also human and political history.
- [Emily] It is notable that when 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.
Romero 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, that it emerges right
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.
- [Daniel] George has great affection
for his human characters,
but he essentially saw them as doomed
and maybe even 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.
- [Emily] 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,
then 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 was an importance place in their lives.
- The humor and ridiculousness of some of the scenes
in "Dawn of the Dead" reflect the comedic over-exaggeration
and gore endemic to late '70s horror movies.
- But "Dawn" spawned this entire genre
that was bigger and brighter,
and not more celebratory, but it had these limits
of joy in it that were were missing
from the earlier zombie works.
So I think it just was the perfect kind
of film at the perfect time in the '70s
that really just is the kind of thing
that makes fan boys and fan girls.
It made him into the godfather of the zombies.
- [Emily] "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.
- It still has motor function.
- [Emily] Another trope Romero 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.
- I call him Bub.
- [Emily] Bub defies zombie norms
by showing some level of intelligence.
- Extraordinary, isn't it?
- [Emily] 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.
Romero rewrote the original script himself
which featured key changes like making Barbara
actually capable of contributing to her own survival.
The establishment of 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 the '90s Barbara was his apology
to women for the 1968 original character.
- Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago
and I do not plan on losing anything else.
- Ben is still killed but only after
he is a zombie justifying his death
and possibly removing the 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 re-imagining,
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 is jarring to Americans.
And let's be honest, those scenes of the undead
swarming them all 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
under water 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 Romero, 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 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 direct cause of a zombie plague.
Romero 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's
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 by 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 have 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 in policing and in mass incarceration.
So I think all of those fears are kind of at a boil.
- That's what Romero's real legacy is.
He created a monster whose genesis is vague
and whose manifestation is wrought
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 11 feet tall
and were giant black glasses
and was just incredibly amiable.
He was a perfect emissary for horror
in the way that the people who create
it 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 beliefs and his politics,
which were largely learn how to walk away from a fight.
- In a 2010 interview, Romero said he largely thinks
his movies are analyzed 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 icons 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."
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