George A Romero, the inventor of the modern zombie film, has died at 77 after a short battle with lung cancer. He was mostly known for his original Living Dead trilogy, which singlehandedly created the zombie-apocalypse genre of horror film. The dead coming back to haunt the living was hardly an original idea even in 1968, when the black-and-white Night of the Living Dead was released to cult acclaim. But Romero’s zombies were familiar: inhuman, braindead slow-walking beasts that eat the living. The fact that it’s hard to even imagine any other kind of zombie shows how far-reaching his influence is.
Romero had the gore and shoestring budget that would later come to define zombie films, but his works were nothing like the braindead splatterfests of later films in the genre. The series, which kicked off with Night of the Living Dead, wasn’t mindless, nor particularly fun. Sure, there’s black humour and the blood, guts and mouldy eye sockets are sometimes a bit over the top; but zombies don’t run, there are no flashy guns and the pace sometimes seems agonisingly slow. Then again, the collapse of the hegemony of the living isn’t supposed to be celebratory. Instead, Romero focused on building a sense of dread, and exposing the fears and hypocrisies of his time.
I remember being scared shitless after seeing Romero’s zombie flicks for the first time, not just because of the zombies, but because the undead are hardly the only source of terror in Romero’s apocalypse. The police, the military and unwanted pregnancy cause just as much trouble as walking corpses. What makes his films so terrifying is, in his own words, that his monsters are not some alien force, but something altogether closer to home: “I thought there’s nothing scarier than the neighbours,” he said in an interview with NPR.
In what is considered his most triumphant work, the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, Romero set his sights on consumerism. The film is set in an abandoned shopping mall, overrun by the living dead who are mysteriously drawn there. Only the mall doesn’t look all that different than it used to. It’s full of people with blank expressions walking slowly with no place to go. Though none of them seem to be enjoying themselves, they just keep walking. Night of the Living Dead famously ends with the main character, Ben, a black man played by Duane Jones, being shot by a police officer after surviving a zombie onslaught. This was at the height of the civil rights movement, the year that Martin Luther King was shot, and the significance was not lost.
“With his death, Romero leaves behind a world too much like the one he predicted in his work”
As Romero admitted himself, the zombie is a creature that can be made to stand for anything in the mind of the filmmaker. In his cinematic oeuvre, zombies have symbolised lynch-mobs, mindless consumers and vulnerable minorities hunted by sadistic humans. But Romero’s films are always about people, and what they do when they’re pushed too far. The thing about this director’s legion of the undead is that they don’t seem all that dangerous on their own. They walk slowly, they’re not very smart and they die when you shoot them in the head, but what always ends up being the death of Romero’s characters is the behaviour of the living. Hubris and violence are just as prevalent in the people with their brains intact, and that’s what delivers the living to their doom. He even admits to being sympathetic to the zombies. It’s the people that make the apocalypse.
The socially conscious roots of the zombie genre are surprising mostly because of what the genre later mutated into. Films like Zombieland or 28 Days Later, not to mention the B-movie boobs-’n’-spilling-entrails non-hits like Zombie Strippers or Zombies vs Strippers, and video games are the paradigm of the zombie genre now. Romero does not find this to be a problem: “My stuff is my stuff. I do it for my own reasons, using my own peculiar set of guidelines. I’m not a student of the genre. I don’t care what anybody else does.” Though his later zombie films never reached the quality of the original Dead-trilogy, he was never one to ride trends or compromise on his creative control. As a result, his works never grossed quite as much as Zombieland, or even the Zack Snyder remake of his own Dawn of the Dead. Nevertheless, nothing has ever surpassed the original trilogy in terms of visuals, story or theme.
With his death, Romero leaves behind a world too much like the one he predicted in his work. Police officers still kill unarmed black men, and though consumerism has moved from the mall to Amazon, its effects are still the same. It’s no accident that zombies are the defining movie monster of the last 40 years. In Romero’s world, death happens in the mind first and the body second, but it is not the end. He invited us to consider that this may not be a good thing. Let’s hope he rests in peace.