“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
When it comes to contemporary horror films, there are two basic categories: those that came before George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and those that came after. Odd as it may sound, this lurid debut brought a whole new level of maturity to the genre. If a film like Jordan Peele’s Get Out can now generate Oscar buzz, it’s partly because Romero understood back in 1968 that horror is uniquely adept at confronting a range of complex issues, including social injustice—a fact that Peele acknowledged in a recent tweet.
Horror is now a serious subject for the critical establishment, and a whole new generation of ambitious filmmakers continues to push the genre further into unknown territory. This surprising turn of events has a whole lot to do with an intrepid young director who used zombies to expose everything from systemic racism to ruthless consumerism.For all their lack of subtlety, zombies dramatize many of our deepest inner conflicts.
George Romero died in his sleep on July 16, having succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 77. Because his name is nearly synonymous with hordes of walking corpses, people tend to overlook the more eclectic titles in his filmography. When it came to his own films, for instance, Romero was always partial to Martin—a psychological deconstruction of the vampire myth that preceded later exercises in vampiric meta-horror like Fright Night by nearly ten years.
True, his interests may have included more than zombies, but Romero’s abiding devotion to this grisly subject will certainly be part of his enduring legacy.
Believe it or not, the word zombie never occurs in Night of the Living Dead. Yet it’s arguably this landmark film that ignited our cultural obsession with these gnarly intruders in the first place. Since its release in 1968, zombies have infiltrated every conceivable cultural domain; not even Shakespeare and Jane Austen are immune.
Made on a micro-budget in Romero’s native Pittsburgh, Night of the Living Dead became an overnight sensation, pushing unassuming audiences into new frontiers of mayhem and carnage, and incensing both critics and politicians. It’s not for nothing that Romero declared his films to be “a form of punk: that’s purposefully disrespectful.”
The film is now so firmly ensconced in the popular imagination that it’s difficult to see just how innovative it is. From the radio broadcasts that warn of “an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins” to the nonstop cycle of news and speculation that unfolds on the vintage television as the characters labor to barricade the house that’s under siege, a good deal of the movie’s outlandish antics are now thoroughly domesticated by pop culture. It’s hard to maintain a serious tone when Rob Zombie samples your movie.
Ghouls have always stalked through scary movies, but Romero’s undead marauders, with their somnambulistic walk and vivid decay, set the standard for all their onscreen descendants. In early Hollywood efforts like White Zombie, the creatures look like phantoms. In Night of the Living Dead, they look like corpses, and the grotesque details of Romero’s zombies would soon achieve near-forensic levels of accuracy when he enlisted the help of special effects (read gore) wizard Tom Savini.
Despite the inevitable sense of overfamiliarity, many of the scenes in Night of the Living Dead remain as potent as ever. Repeated viewings have not softened the abject shock I feel when an infected young girl suddenly turns on her parents, nor are the eerie parallels between the film’s panicked news cycle and the constant apocalyptic forecasts of our own age lost on me. Though Romero always insisted that the casting of Duane Jones as the lead wasn’t a political gesture, it’s hard to overlook the fact that this was a fairly radical choice in 1968. Jason Zinoman is surely right when he says, “But what was and remains truly unsettling is the violence of the white law enforcement toward the black hero, played by Duane Jones. No horror movie seemed to take on racism with as much visceral force, until this year, with ‘Get Out.’ And Mr. Romero’s movie is even bleaker.” As Matt Thompson says, “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” At the heart of Night of the Living Dead is a scathing indictment of racism that remains as powerful as the day it was filmed. This is the movie’s true horror.
Tellingly, Romero had little sympathy for today’s lushly produced undead dramas: “I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism, and I find that missing in what’s happening now.” Compare a show like AMC’s massively popular (and seemingly interminable) The Walking Dead with Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s unsparing follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. In his superb book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, Joel Skal describes Dawn as a “razor-edged satire” that “peopled a shopping mall with flesh-eating zombies, an indelible image of consumerism gone mad.”
For all their lack of subtlety, zombies dramatize many of our deepest inner conflicts. A zombie is a slave of the body and its mindless appetites. Zombies are led on the leash of their own urges, and in them we see a chilling portrait of our own desires run amuck. None of us can imagine being dead; all of us can imagine a life of living death. Consider the many faces of addiction on display in our culture, and you’re approaching zombie territory. In an age of excess, boredom, and overstimulation, zombies may just be the clearest distillation of all our worst fears. They’re here because we recognize them. If this sounds obvious now, it’s partly because of Romero’s unique genius.
As exciting as many of the new developments in the horror genre are, I’ll confess that I do find the subversive spirit of Romero’s work lacking in many of today’s more respectable genre outings. It’s a long way from Night of the Living Dead to Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. As a life-long horror fan whose taste is frequently called into question by fellow Christians, I agree that the “transgressive frisson” that A. O. Scott mentions in his overview of Romero’s career is an undeniable part of the genre’s appeal. Like punk rock music, films that proceed by disruption, subversion, and confrontation may be hard to stomach, but they’re also an undeniable goad to deeper thinking on subjects we often try to avoid. (I’ve argued elsewhere that this is part of the reason for the success of Get Out, a refreshingly irreverent film that is certainly a worthy successor to Romero’s challenging vision.)
When we lose great directors, we’re usually drawn back into the web of their work, pouring over their catalog and doing a bit of preliminary ranking for the inevitable blogs and social media posts. Consequently, I can’t think of a better way to conclude this article than by saying a few words about my favorite George Romero film.
While I can appreciate their incisive exposé of our societal ills, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Romero’s many forays into the zombie world. My own preference is for a decidedly less serious movie of his. With a script and a cameo by none other than Stephen King, Creepshow is a love-letter to the Entertainment Comics (EC) that inspired a generation of filmmakers to bring their affection for monsters to the big screen. With each shot framed to resemble a comic book panel and many of the scenes filled with expressionistic lighting and EC’s trademark mordant humor, this film is Romero at his most fun. Creepshow can also stand as one of the best horror anthologies to date. It may lack Dawn of the Dead’s satirical bite, but it’s every bit as “punk” as a Dead Kennedys song.
Horror fans often get a lot of pushback for their taste. They should. It’s a uniquely provocative genre that invites searching conversations. In this sense, I understand if you’re shaking your head in disapproval at this article, and I don’t fault anyone for being disgusted by the abundant carnage in George A. Romero’s films. His take-no-prisoners approach is definitely not for everyone. But I do think that the modern, socially conscious horror film will be part of his legacy, and I think that’s a contribution worth celebrating. Sometimes we need nightmares to wake us up to the horrors of the waking world.