I was saddened to learn that George Romero passed away on July 16th. I was even sadder that he didn’t turn into a zombie and take a bite out of someone with his trademark nicotine-stained yellow teeth. He was 77.
George Romero’s films had a big impact on my life and worldview. The first of his films I saw was Dawn of the Dead when I was 10 or 11 years old. The movie didn’t so much scare as fascinate me. There was something so desirable about the zombie apocalypse. Forget about school, bedtime and brushing your teeth! This was all-out survival by any means. And who wouldn’t want an entire shopping mall all to themselves?
At that tender young age, my whole perspective on life changed. I began assessing buildings and various other structures for their resilience to zombie hordes. I considered random household items in terms of their ability to be weaponized. I hardened my heart and resigned myself to the reality that, family, friend or foe, all zombies must be taken down with extreme prejudice.
Unlike those annoying hipsters making similar claims, I really did like zombies before zombies were cool. Shortly after I saw Dawn of the Dead on The Movie Channel, I was given a novelized version written by Romero and Susanna Sparrow that I devoured like a famished flesh-eating ghoul. Only Star Wars had more of an impact on my delicate developing elementary school brain, but I eventually lost interest in Star Wars. My love for zombies and the films of George Romero, however, continues to grow. I regularly watch them whenever the mood strikes. Romero made six zombies movies in all, spanning more than 40 years.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Not only is this the granddaddy of all zombie films, the movie that defined the genre, it is also one of the greatest American movies of all time. Made on a shoestring budget with a handful of friends, this is one instance in which low-budget and inexperience actually proved to be assets. There is a creepy realism about Night that, in some scenes, makes it feel as though you are watching a documentary rather than a work of fiction. As soon as Barbara and Johnny are attacked in the cemetery, the camera angles begin tilting wildly, and the film becomes increasingly grim and gory. With the sophisticated special effects and computer graphics used in movies today, it is hard for us to imagine how scary this simple movie was when it came out. Unlike typical Hollywood tripe, all the main characters die. There is no happy ending. We never find out why the dead are reanimating. Nothing like this had ever been seen before, and audiences were shocked, disgusted and outraged—perhaps the very reasons why this movie has become such an enduring cult classic.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
One of the most interesting aspects of George Romero’s zombie films that many people overlook is that each one is actually a social commentary, sort of an allegory of the times. Night was an expression of the violent 1960s and the Vietnam War. Dawn is a critique of mindless consumption—after all, what is a zombie if not a mindless consumer? And how different are we from the zombies that wander aimlessly through the shopping mall, never satisfied no matter how much we consume? This sequel to Night cranks up the gore, thanks to the make-up effects of the legendary Tom Savini. Even if the zombies in Dawn did turn out a bit gray in color, that iconic bite scene will go down in history as the most hideous mouthful ever captured on film.
Day of the Dead (1985)
This was the only Romero zombie movie I actually saw in the theater when it came out. Day has always struck me as one of the darkest of the series. The overarching theme here is that, eventually, all our institutions will break down. The government, military and even the priestly scientist caste are no match for the zombie apocalypse. None of these will be able to protect us when SHTF. We are on our own and we are our own worst enemy. In Day, it is suggested that we may not be able to stop the dead from rising, but we may be able to train them not to eat us. We are introduced to the most loveable zombie in Romero’s stable, Bubs. This is no ordinary zombie; he seems to remember more about his past life than other zombies, he is quite suggestible, and apparently a music lover.
Land of the Dead (2005)
After a 20 year hiatus, Romero drags us back into the world of zombies, which eerily resembles what myself and others predict for the future of major urban areas: a two-tiered society where the few privileged elites live luxuriously in comfort and security while the rest of us are left to live in neo-feudal squalor and constant peril. But all is not what it seems, as even the “old world comfort” of Fiddler’s Green, the high-rise condos where the beautiful people live, is not immune to backstabbing intrigues and, of course, zombies. Land tells us that, even in a zombie apocalypse, the elites are still going to engage in inhumane and predatory behavior that exploits the vulnerable and ends in disaster. There is also a continuation of the idea that the zombies can learn. A zombie known as Big Daddy learns to use tools and leads a horde of zombies into the heart of Fiddler’s Green in a symbolic revolt of the downtrodden common man against the real forces of evil in the world.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
In keeping with his social commentary, Romero goes all the way back to the beginning to show what the zombie apocalypse might be like if it happened today in the age of the internet and social media. Interestingly, he shows how the mainstream media denies, covers up and lies about what is really going on, and it is only bloggers, YouTubers and other independent media who tell the real story. Unlike many of the characters in his other movies, I actually didn’t mind seeing most of the snide, narcissistic millennials munched on in this one. In particular, the student who is documenting the horror. He is more concerned with capturing everything on film than he is about helping his friends or simply staying alive. Once again, Romero presents us with a disturbingly prescient commentary on our rapidly decomposing society.
Survival of the Dead (2009)
This final entry in the series is focused on a group of AWOL National Guardsmen who find their way to a small island inhabited by two Irish families that hate each other. This is probably the least inspired film of the entire series, but if there is a theme at all, it would be that old classic, man’s inhumanity to man. Despite the immediate danger of friends and family members turning into zombies, the two families are more concerned with their war on each other. In fact, they treat the zombies more humanely than they do the other humans. Even after the leaders of the two sides turn into zombies, they still try to shoot one another. And that really sums up the challenge we face as a species: how the hell are we going to survive at all if we can’t stop killing each other? No more brother wars!
There is something so satisfying about watching society collapse in the way Romero depicts it. When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth. For 40 years he was trying to tell us the scariest story of all: We walk, half-dead, hunched over our smartphones, upon this Earth, which we have made a living hell. We are, all of us, zombies.