Few images embed themselves into pop culture and the collective imagination as much as the opening of George A. Romero’s first full-length feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968). That slow, shambling, ghoulish shape gradually making its way towards protagonist Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russel Streiner), and then proceeding to kill him before turning on Barbara, is one of the most terrifying and indelible images ever put on film. By the end of Romero’s opening salvo in what would become a thematic trilogy, audiences in 1968 would have realised a stark truth: these shuffling, flesh-eating ghouls had changed horror cinema (and cinema in general) forever. “They’re coming to get you” indeed!
Romero’s almost eerie gift of reflecting and satirising the times he made films in characterises the entire trilogy; these aren’t just simple monsters in the vein of Hammer or AIP, but sober reflections on the worst parts of ourselves and the things we do to others. We can still see the effect that this humble low-budget film has upon the social consciousness of both moviegoers and television audiences today in shows like The Walking Dead (2010-), The Returned (2015), Z Nation (2014-) and, even to some extent, television’s biggest show at the moment, Game of Thrones (2011-). The point is, zombies are everywhere: in our literature, in our video games, in our comics, in our films and TV shows, but most importantly, in our minds. It is undoubtedly Romero who has put them there in such a way. Just as the ‘other’ George reawakened our minds to the stars – and ever since – in 1977, so this one turned our attentions toward darker happenings and musings, and single-handedly brought about a horror and zombie renaissance. Strangely ironic is the fact that both Georges also produced one great trilogy and one bad one, but then the movie business is filled with many funny coincidences.
As with all great horrors, it begins at night and ends during the day…
Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies were kind of a no-name entity in horror cinema, mostly consisting of simply re-animated corpses that follow the lead of their masters. Effectively just dead slaves, made up to look scary and at the same time pathetic. Indeed, if the old horror studio zombie embodies anything, it is mostly sympathy; sympathy for the poor soul whose body has been invaded by an evil sorcerer or shaman. Films like White Zombie (1932), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and even Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966), made relatively close to Night, only embody, for me, a pitiful human shape, bereft of life and will, never a terrifying apocalyptic mechanism as in Romero’s films. This is most likely something the young Romero realised when he saw these films, something he would remedy at the end of the 1960s, one of America’s most turbulent political atmospheres.
Made for what was, even then, a pittance (just $114,000), Night would go on to eventually gross $12 million in the US alone, with international takings rising to $18 million; this was definitely not an insubstantial amount in the 1960s (today that would be around $83 million!). At the time, before Halloween (1978) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) came along, this was the most successful independent picture of all time. Something was obviously resonating with the audiences of the late ‘60s when the popularity of this film was assured – something American audiences knew was happening not just on the screen but in real life too.
Night finds much of its cultural and social power (as does its two sequels) in its ability to tear down the infrastructure of supposed ‘safe’ or ‘untouchable’ (in terms of moral and ethical) values and reveal them as simply false, misguided, or even worse, deliberate. If one considers that the decade was the focal point for debates on civil rights unrest, the legitimacy of the war in Vietnam, and terrible disillusionment among regular Americans, it makes sense that Night’s shambling hordes represent nothing less than our anxieties coming back from their grave to haunt us forever. Making these new zombies cannibalistic was another stroke of genius on Romero’s part, for above all else, hunger fuels all the bad decisions of mankind; hunger for power, for control, for sustenance, for status. This outlook would feed (no pun intended) Romero’s vision for the two subsequent films.
Dawn of the Dead presents another, more shocking depiction of humanity’s hungers made flesh: consumerism. Possibly a more dangerous route for corruption than the previous instalment’s more political themes, Dawn’s zombies represent the notion that, as greedy, needful little capitalists, we always return to our haunts out of needless habit, rather than necessity. We are, one could say, consumer ‘zombies’; we repeat our habits, we buy the same things again and again, regardless of need, and never question what actually matters in life. The scene where Fran (Gaylen Ross) adorns herself with makeup while looking in the mirror toting a six-shooter before looking bored and beginning to remove her false eyelashes is paramount to this idea. Consumerism is essential to our Western personalities, but it is ultimately unnecessary for survival, and worse, it becomes boring when over-used. Even Fran comes to realise this when her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) proposes to her: she flatly rejects him, stating “It’s not real”.
Romero reached his creative peak in 1978 with Dawn. This is in my opinion not just the greatest zombie picture, but the greatest horror film because it conceptualises something that not many horror films even do now: ourselves. Romero’s zombies work so well because they’re not great behemoths like Godzilla or the various oversized insects of the 1950s B movie circuits, and they aren’t the werewolves or vampires of yonder. They’re just us. Literally us. A reanimated corpse is still a human corpse, and for this reason Romero’s zombies resonate so much more than any other because once again we feel sympathy for these poor souls. Sympathy after all breeds relation and understanding, but crucially, the fear is still dead centre here: they’re us, yes, but they aren’t on our level; they only want to destroy us and devour us. Nothing is more frightening than humanity devouring and destroying itself.
One powerful scene that hammers home how important this point is occurs towards the end of the film, when raiders attempt to take the mall from our protagonists. These raiders, for me, are more zombie than human: their lack of understanding and morals show that humans are still just as dangerous – if not more so if The Walking Dead is anything to go by – as the zombies.
The concept of a dangerous humanity ties directly into Romero’s final film in the original trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985). Here humanity is on its last legs; the zombies have taken over completely and we are all forced into pockets of survivors, with this film focusing on survivors in a military silo in Florida, comprising civilians, scientists, and military personnel alike. Even I have to admit that Day surpasses Dawn in its utter gut-wrenching build-up of dread and fear; we just know that something will go wrong from the off, especially with the added complication of the zombies being used as guinea pigs for experiments to control them.
On the surface it would appear that Romero’s unease is with the military, here under the lead of the tyrannically insane Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). Honestly, I think the reflection of our society comes from the image of the treatment of helpless beings by science and the army. Horror scholar Calum Waddell, in his essay for Arrow Video’s Blu Ray release booklet, entitled ‘For Every Dawn there is a Day: Or Why George Romero Would Never Direct a Rambo Movie’, points out that one of the main issues being tackled is vivisection. It’s an interesting observation, and indeed, one can see why this seems to be so: there are many shots of zombie dismemberment, not, as in Dawn, in the name of self-defence, but in the name of science. The zombies represent, in this film, all the poor unnamed masses of people and animals who have ever been abused or harmed in the name of scientific progress, and none are more potent than the image of ‘Bub’ the zombie, trained by Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) to obey commands and eventually hopefully forget that it wants to eat people.
Ultimately, Romero’s trilogy brings full circle the one real theme that persists in his zombie apocalypse: the cruelty and incapability of humanity. Cruelty because that is our natural reaction to something we don’t understand or like, and incapability because when the real crisis begins, when, as Dawn so effectively puts it, the “shit hits the fan”, we are completely incapable of dealing with crises, and we resort back to the only thing we know: violence. Waddell posited another more shocking image and question in another essay, this time for Dawn, in which he presented the image of American GIs during Vietnam with the message ‘KILL’ emblazoned across their backs and asked the question, “At what point does someone become so numb to violence that he, or she, does not think twice about celebrating the act of taking another person’s life?”
It’s the most intriguing yet chilling question when we consider Romero’s trilogy in retrospect. With his zombies, Romero holds up to us the biggest cultural mirror that film has had for many decades, producing satirical, reflective, and most importantly for this time of year, terrifying masterpieces of horror. It’s easy to scare and disgust someone, as Stephen King has pointed out, but it’s hard to scare them and make them think simultaneously. Romero did just that with these wonderful films, and I lament more than ever the fact that this opportunity was squandered in his second trilogy. But we’ll always have this one, and we should be incredibly thankful for that.