Our Zombies, Our Selves

Scott McLemee writes of the recent passing of George A. Romero, the “godfather of zombie film,” and how his work was simultaneously horrific and satirical.

July 26, 2017
Theatrical poster for “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

George A. Romero, the artist who did more than anyone to enrich our nightmares over the past half century, died last week at the age of 77. Working outside Pittsburgh with local talent and a small budget, Romero directed Night of the Living Dead (1968), the horror film that introduced a new element into the genre’s visual and narrative vocabulary: the cannibalistic zombie horde.

The notion of reanimated corpses driven by insatiable hunger clearly owed something to earlier screen terrors. It was akin to Dracula, for one, albeit with a less restricted diet and no lascivious overtones, or even to Frankenstein’s monster, minus the emotional volatility. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the new creature would have been a profitable gimmick, at best. And it’s possible that Romero himself only grasped the potential of his own material through an afterthought of casting: Ben, the most cool-headed and intelligent of the characters trapped in a farmhouse under siege by the living dead, was played by Duane Jones, an African-American actor. Nothing in the script referred to race, and in Tony Williams’s collection George A. Romero: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), the director mentions that he originally pictured Ben as a white truck driver.

But Jones proved the best actor to try out for the part. (Besides performing on stage and in film, he went on to become a professor of literature and a theater director.) The color-blind casting brought out more fully the implications of an apocalyptic scenario produced during years of massive upheaval. Romero’s characters form a social microcosm; they find refuge in a structure that just barely holds together under the impact of unexpected and unpredictable forces. Without giving too much away, I can say that a happy ending never feels likely. Night of the Living Dead reached the movie screen not quite six months to the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. -- and the sheriff’s posse pictured in stills at the end of the film represents what was being called, in the new catchphrase of the day, “law and order.”

In an interview with Film Comment upon the release of the sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero indicated that he had originally conceived Night as set during the first of three stages in the zombie apocalypse -- the phase in which an “operative society” still exists, “even though there’s a lot of chaos and people don’t know how to handle it.” Dawn of the Dead shows stage two: the living and the undead are “an equal balance, with the outcome undecided.”

The balance was not just one of power. In a move that elevates Dawn from the status of sequel to a well-made film in its own right, Romero sets the action in a shopping mall and depicts humans and zombies as disconcertingly similar. (“Why do they come here?” asks one character, to which another replies, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”)

Romero envisioned the final phase of his metanarrative arc many years before he was able to make Day of the Dead (1985). In the Film Comment interview, he sketched “a layered society where the humans are little dictators, down in bomb shelters, and they fight their wars using zombies as soldiers … feeding the zombies, controlling them, and keeping law and order.” If Night was almost inadvertently a commentary on the civil rights struggle, Dawn was much deliberate in its treatment of consumerism, while Day’s vision of the military-industrial complex ran very much against the mood of the Reagan years.

Romero returned with Land of the Dead in 2005 and released two more zombie titles by 2009 -- films of interest mainly as evidence that the original trilogy both created a genre and set its standard. Romero’s zombies can be reduced to a formula, as countless imitators have shown, but not his wit. Nor, for that matter, his theological undertones, as discussed in this column some years ago.

Upon learning that Romero had passed, I considered trying to compile a brief bibliographical essay on the critical literature concerning zombie films -- plus, if it could be managed, a survey of whatever had been published on Martin (1978), Romero’s original and disquieting take on vampirism. (Surely one of his two or three best films, it tends to be overlooked given his status as “godfather of the zombie movie.”)

But my plan was preposterous. Sarah Juliet Lauro puts it best in her editor’s introduction to Zombie Theory: A Reader, due from the University of Minnesota Press in October: “I soon found that by the time one compiles a reading list and works one’s way, methodically, through it, a whole new crop have sprouted that need to have their heads kicked off. It’s rather like the way they are never not painting the Golden Gate Bridge, or so my grandmother tells me, for as soon as they finish at one end, they have to begin again at the other.”

The Sisyphean nature of the effort also yields diminishing returns. An awful lot of the commentary tends to resemble the zombies themselves, shuffling around in too-familiar circles and emitting similar noises. But Lauro includes a paper that is worth reading at whichever end of the bridge you find yourself: Steven Shaviro’s “Contagious Allegories: George Romero.” Originally a chapter of a book published in 1993, its treatment of the trilogy precisely registers the qualities of both the films themselves and the experience of watching them. He captures the simultaneously horrific and satirical nature of Romero’s zombies:

They are slower, weaker and stupider than living humans; their menace lies in numbers, and in the fact that they never give up. Their slow-motion voracity and continual hungry wailing sometimes appear clownish but at other times emerge as an obsessive leitmotif of suspended and ungratified desire … They continue to participate in human, social rituals and processes -- but only just enough to drain them of their power and meaning. For instance, they preserve the marks of social function and self-projection in the clothes they wear, which identify them as businessman, housewife, nun, Hare Krishna disciple and so on. But this becomes one of the films’ running jokes: despite such signs of difference, they all act in exactly the same way. The zombies are devoid of personality, yet they continue to allude to personal identity. They are driven by a sort of vestigial memory, but one that has become impersonal and indefinite, a vague solicitation to aimless movement.

It suggests both the director’s depth of vision and the critic’s knack for apt characterization that this passage is also bound to apply to the viewer, too, in certain moments: stuck in ruts, going through the motions, a little too close to self-parody. Both laughter and fear are suitable responses to this condition, and Romero held up a mirror to it.


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