Life Over Undeath: Looking at George A. Romero’s Zombie Films

By Tristen Calderon, Staff Writer

Being a massive fan of horror, I’ve seen George Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” many times. It’s the film that most find when seeking out the roots of the zombie film. With remarkable writing, direction, editing, performances, even set design, the influence of this terrifying masterpiece is unparalleled. Romero launched his name into stardom, to be forever revered as the Godfather of the Dead and Father of the Zombie Film.

Early on in his career, Romero didn’t pay much attention to societal convention and introduced a new and more visceral gore to American audiences. Even more groundbreaking, Romero cast African American stage actor, Duane Jones as the protagonist in his first film. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, this decision was probably controversial. According to Romero, Jones simply gave the best audition. American films of the time rarely depicted a black man as a hero, horror movies even less so. But Jones’ character is more levelheaded, resourceful, and capable than any of the white people in the film.

The film’s thinking and poignancy are engaging and revealing through to the end. These qualities would become a trademark of Romero’s films. The filmmaker continually forged his own undead path. It was tragic to hear of his passing two months ago. So, in honor of this legendary man, I finally sat down and watched his 5 other “Dead” films: “Dawn of the Dead,” “Day of the Dead,” “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead.”

        His second installment, 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” was in full color and included much more blood and even a bit of well-placed comedy. This frightening yet fun feature placed four survivors in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse. Breaking social norm again, a black man and a woman feature heavily in this installment. In this film, Romero introduces the idea of a residual memory in the reanimated corpses. In their paradise, the living became reckless and instigated their own destruction.

        “Day of the Dead,” the third film in the series, featured a female scientist as the primary protagonist of this film, Dr. Sarah Bowman. While most of the world is dead, the few surviving military and science personnel are holed up in maximum security bases. In one underground base, a team of scientists is trying to find a cure, while one eccentric doctor is trying to train the undead. Romero also wrote the wisest character of all his films, John, a Jamaican helicopter pilot who delivers one of the most memorable monologues in zombie film history.

The threat of human fear is most tangible in this film. Being locked in a tomb with little food and less communication takes its toll on the living and their outpost crumbles from within. The military men grow impatient with the lack of results and ultimately resort to violence. Here, Romero greatly advances the idea of intelligence in the undead, indicating that perhaps change is possible for those who seek it.

        Unfortunately for the 90s, Romero didn’t write and direct another Dead film until the new millennium, returning 20 years later with “Land of the Dead.” Deep into the zombie apocalypse, the remnants of humanity effectively survive in a destroyed world. However, the wealthy and elite live in a heavily-guarded, private community with many luxuries. While the living squabble, a horde of undead are led to the community by one intelligent zombie. They invade, wielding weapons, but they are simply looking for more food, demonstrating a will to survive. Ultimately, the living and the dead part ways in peace. Though a bit campy and cliché, Romero came back with his signature bite. The film included a supporting protagonist who had an intellectual disability, but was a sharpshooter. It presented an entertaining twist on the classic American trope of justice unto the wicked and elite.

2007 brought “Diary of the Dead,” a found-footage style film that follows a student film crew at the very beginning of the zombie apocalypse. This is probably the only film of Romero’s to write off. With awkward dialogue and characters, there is little that stands out. Instead it feels like many films of the surrounding years–a simple plot and generic characters. It could easily be argued that Romero’s own works led to the clichés that he here relishes in. The film does deliver some substance though. Romero addresses the darkness that plagues living human hearts, specifically greed and wrath. Halfway through the film, Romero introduces the main characters of his next and final film, a thieving group of the National Guard. In the film’s final moments, the narrator briefly questions the unnecessary cruelty exhibited by the living over the undead.

The final installment, and a practically full circle conclusion to Romero’s story, arrived in 2009, “Survival of the Dead.” The ragtag group of thieving soldiers seek refuge on an island and are caught in a family feud concerning the progression of humanity and the undead. In way of unconventional writing and concepts, Romero included a gay woman in the regiment of hardy soldiers. He also had an intelligent zombie willfully attack and consume a horse for sustenance, showing that true coexistence between the living and the dead is possible.

Romero concluded his writing-directing career, and his “Dead” films, with a deserved yet tragic conclusion. A through line in Romero’s works is the idea that regardless of color, creed, or character, sometimes the living are just as dangerous as the ravenous undead. But in the very last shot, two zombies shoot and kill each other in a dramatic showdown. Romero pushed this idea one final step further. Though he foresaw an optimistic and a pessimistic future for the living and the dead, he departed with one thought: even with hope, living or dead, human beings are still their own worst enemies.

Recall Paula Cantillo’s essay from 2016, “The Shadow of the Undead.” In her piece, she examines zombie culture through a nationalistic and xenophobic lens. She writes that zombie narratives have always been closely paired with outsiders: from Cold War fears like sleeper-agents, bioweapons, and extraterrestrials to Caribbean Islanders (where the Haitian term ‘zombie’ originated), people of color and immigrants. The zombie easily parallels our own fear of the odd, the unnatural, the ‘other.’

Cantillo argues that the zombie genre is profoundly American. She argues that Americans possess a cultivated pride and nobility that obligates our young nation to be the global hand of righteous justice. We seek threats like King George III, the Third Reich, Communists, terrorists, etc., antagonists to destroy in the name of virtue, while disregarding our own antagonisms. Contemporary zombie narratives, like Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead,” are blurring the lines between right and wrong, hero and villain. The intelligence of the living makes them even more dangerous than the dead.

As Americans, the line between right and wrong can also be blurred. No group of people exists solely in the right or wrong. Coalescent inclusion exists when we know that we’re all outsiders. Just like the once exclusion of African Americans from popular cinema or the exclusion of transgender citizens from the military, erecting walls and repealing DACA do nothing to counter this fear which may one day tear the nation apart. Separate but equal doesn’t work for people. Call them Idealists, Socialists, Liberals, most people just want the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Romero obviously liked to explore this idea of coexistence. While the sheer number of the undead was daunting, they were not without their capabilities. Romero ultimately saw a world where even the zombie could be accepted. Yes, apocalypse narratives exist to thrill us, but I think intelligent filmmakers like George A. Romero exist to present the potential outcomes of living the way we do. His zombies became our own twisted reflection, indirectly prompting the living to pull together as equals, disregard senseless conflict, and instead overcome the monsters within ourselves.

But his primary focus wasn’t to change the world. George just happened to possess a rare but simple, unwavering commitment to his own vision. He exemplifies an ideal I personally value– that an artist with an audience is given an opportunity, not an obligation. There are countless causes requiring activism and countless voices pressuring people to act, but no one has to. Find your own voice, forge your own path for others to follow and have fun along the way. Then like Romero, you can make the world a better place actively or coincidentally.

Romero saw a world in chaos and constructed his own chaotic world where the dead walk the earth. His passion was tangible and evident in every cheesy line, every torn piece of flesh and every burst skull. With his camera, committed actors, and even more committed FX artists, George Romero pioneered the zombie genre. Though he may not have been so emphatically concerned with the reception of his films or even their socio-political impact, he was exceptional at what he did.

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