; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Brain-Eaters and Bloodsuckers: A Fond Look Back at George A. Romero's Zombie Films

By Brandon E. - George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first modern zombie film, and without it, the zombie craze as we know it today would not exist. Prior to 1968, zombies featured in movies where corpses were typically reanimated through witchcraft — voodoo style witchcraft in particular. George Romero introduced a new zombie which was created by an unknown phenomenon thought to be biological in origin — possibly a virus or an alien infection. The exact cause of zombie infection has morphed over time, and more than forty years later is still debated among zombie fans who love to disagree on what constitutes a “true zombie.”

This change in emphasis was an important development in popular zombie culture because it allowed people to begin thinking of zombies outside the realm of spirituality and focus instead on ways perceptions of zombie horror relates to fears of real world events such as civil rights issues, political unrest, war and pandemics.

George Romero’s brilliance played out in a long succession of six Dead movies over a span of over forty years. Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) featured black men playing a strong leading role. When asked about his selection of Duane Jones for the Night of the Living Dead, George Romero denied he was making a racial statement and stated simply that “Duane Jones was the best actor for the job.” That colorblind statement is representative of Romero’s belief in racial equality.

The first two Dead movies, by featuring black men protecting white people from zombies, thrust race relations into the spotlight and helped open people’s minds to ideas of black people in leadership roles. This is an example of just one issue among many explored within Night of the Living Dead. The film is also commonly viewed now as a metaphor for the Vietnam War with all its senseless death and violence, and also its sensational media coverage.

Additionally, fans and critics argue about the film’s statement about gender relations. Some feel that the film promotes equality for women by acknowledging problematic consequences of living in a patriarchal society: Barbara’s character, for instance, is catatonic and helpless because she does not realize her own strength after living a life dependent on men. Many others believe that the film is condescending towards women by depicting them as dysfunctional and incapable of responding gracefully to crises. Romero himself has insisted that many viewers have read into Night to find meanings that he doubts are actually present in the film.

However, there’s no mistaking the social commentary in Dawn of the Dead (1978), which places hordes of zombies in a shopping mall. It asks us to explore ideas of materialism and whether capitalism creates a different kind of violence when a large number of lower class people are exploited for the profit of large corporations. Many people are conflicted when they weigh their personal desire for financial success against their fear that they are hurting their families as they climb the corporate ladder. Of course, most people are just trying to provide for their families without any intention of causing harm, but Romero understands the fears and doubts people experience as they try to work within an economic system in which they have little control or influence over their own destiny.

Dawn is still treasured by many fans, but maintain that the film has not aged particularly well, citing, among other things, the crudeness of the special effects (done by a much younger Tom Savini, who also plays a memorable role in the film as the leader of a biker gang that goes toe to toe with the zombies in the mall).

Day of the Dead (1985) is a reflection of fears created by the Cold War. The arms race was largely supported by the American public, but people began to fear that even though we were the “good guys”, nuclear power was a corruptible pursuit that conflicted ideals of peace and environmental protection. With the United States military fighting the zombies, Romero plants the idea that humans represent the true warmongering evil. This theme of humans being a greater threat than zombies is carried throughout all of Romero’s films, but within Day of the Dead the focus is on the human tendency toward war when faced with serious societal problems. Of the first three installments of Romero’s Dead saga, this one has aged the best, and is thankfully, still fresh in the collective consciousness thanks to regular screenings on television (thanks to Robert Rodriguez’s new TV network) and it’s also a popular streaming option on some websites (more information on where you can stream it here).

Twenty years after the Day, Romero came out with Land of the Dead (2005). The Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, made Americans wary of government surveillance of private citizens. Land of the Dead explores these fears of government interference with a plot that centers on a power hungry politician manipulating the government for his own personal gain.

George Romero also made Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2010), but only the most diehard zombie fan will enjoy viewing these unfortunate later additions to the Living Dead films. The latter performed so poorly at the box-office, that Romero is having a beast of a time finding financial backing for an additional Dead movie.

George Romero is the founder of modern zombie culture. Without his influence, we might still view zombies as voodoo-created creatures who could be defeated with holy water and a crucifix. The popularity of shows like Walking Dead (which Romero has publicly expressed his distaste for) are based largely on Romero’s idea that zombies are not the true enemy. The real enemy is the capacity for evil contained within the human heart, and humans can only defeat the zombies by working together within a cooperative community. However, we can also turn the metaphor around and see ourselves as zombie like creatures, controlled by mass media and indifferent to the plight of the oppressed.

Thanks to Brandon E. for his submission...Lon

The Making of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead

Beyond Fear Reflections on Stephen King, Wes Craven, and George Romero S Living Dead

George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (Ultimate Undead Edition) [Blu-ray]