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.

AIRED: October 23, 2020 | 0:19:43

- 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.

(dramatic music)

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,

(woman screams)

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.

(gunshot bangs)

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.

(woman screaming)

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.

(crowd shouting)

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.

(dramatic music)

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."


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv