George Romero And His Softening Stance On Zombies

romero-zombieWhen you hear the name George Romero, the only thing that you can possibly associate it with is zombies. With Night of the Living Dead in 1968, he created the zombie apocalypse genre, as well as redefined what made up the cinematic zombie. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombies were generally people under some type of voodoo spell, not the reanimated dead. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

I recently treated (some might say subjected) myself to a Living Dead marathon, watching Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. There are worse ways to spend a day.

What struck me the most was that, as the movies progress, Romero starts looking more favorably on the zombies and more cynically toward (living) people.

In Night of the Living Dead, it’s pretty clear that the zombies are evil and need to be killed. The undead are always attacking and the living have to defend themselves. There’s really no middle ground, it’s kill or be killed (or be killed again) for both sides. Romero has always had a cynical streak, as pointed out by the African-American protagonist being shot and killed by a redneck posse at the end of the movie. But at least Romero suggests that the struggle to stay alive is worth it.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) picks up where Night if the Living Dead left off, just transporting us 10 years ahead. All hell is breaking loose and a new band of survivors has taken refuge in a shopping mall. The zombies still attack mindlessly, but often disposing of the undead is more about sport than survival. The living taunt the zombies and pick them off shooting gallery-style. Eventually the little group clears the mall of  zombies and seals all the entrances. It’s a perfect refuge from the undead, but not from the motorcycle gang that forces their way into the mall. The zombies still pose a significant threat, but the marauding bikers are way more dangerous.

Then we jump ahead to Day of the Dead (1985). A small group of scientists and soldiers are trapped in a secure research facility, surrounded on all sides by zombies and may very well be the last living people on Earth. The scientists are experimenting on some zombies they have captured, trying to find a cure for the zombism. The soldiers are there to provide security and relish each opportunity to harass and torture the undead. Maniacal Dr. Logan has made a breakthrough in his private experiment with one zombie, affectionately named Bub, able to curb his zombie instincts and form a bond. But the soldiers, seeing themselves as an authority unto themselves, take control of the facility and show no hesitation to take the lives of their fellow living. It is Bub that eventually kills the soldier in command, the zombie exacting revenge for the evils committed against both the undead and the living.

It’s then 20 years until the next movie, Land of the Dead (2005). The living are now vastly outnumbered by the dead and have managed to secure the city of Pittsburgh from the zombies. Absent any real law and order, a feudal system as taken hold in the city, with a wealthy few, and the masses impoverished. The zombies have learned to stay away from the city, as coming near results in either death (again) or being tormented and used for sport. Although the living are relatively safe and unprovoked by the zombies, they never miss a chance to kill a few just for fun. Then the zombies start showing some signs of intelligence, and the most aware among them makes a zombie call to action- to advance upon the city. As the living are fighting amongst themselves, the zombies are able to breach the city’s security and make their way to the center of the city, where the upper-class lives. After wreaking their zombie justice on the upper-crust, the undead leave the city, allowing most of the population to survive. The zombies don’t want to kill everyone, they just want to live their (after)lives in peace.

Finally Diary of the Dead (2007) takes us back to the beginning, with a first-person account of the zombie outbreak, only set today. The zombies are always on the attack and the living are just defending themselves, same as with Night of the Living Dead, but some of the characters openly ponder whether or not the living deserve to keep on living. When you get down to brass tacks, who’s really the monster? The movie closes with a video of men shooting zombies that have been tied to a tree, with the narrator asking, “Are we worth saving? You tell me.”

Zombies were once something to fear and made a good argument for cremation, but George Romero seems to be suggesting that maybe zombies aren’t so bad. Can a zombie possess intelligence and control it’s craving for living flesh? He seems to think so. It could be that we’re scared of the zombies because they’re gross and different, so we assume they’re bad. If we took the time to get to know them and treat them like equals, maybe there wouldn’t be a zombie apocalypse, just some new, ugly neighbors.

I’m not a big fan of trying to read allegory into movies, so as to what the zombies are meant to represent, I’ll leave that to others. But as far as zombies go, maybe it’s finally time we start thinking of them as an alternative lifestyle rather than the embodiment of evil.

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