Critic's Notebook: In George Romero's Zombie Films, a Cathartic Form of Escapism
The 'Night of the Living Dead' director all but created the contemporary film/television zombie, offering bored or anxious American consumers a fresh and indelible fantasy.
George Romero, who died Sunday at 77, had an impact on contemporary pop culture that is difficult to overstate. Other living filmmakers, like George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, transformed genres; Romero all but created one.
Yes, there were "zombies" in movies before his Night of the Living Dead came along in 1968. But the wretched victims of 1932's White Zombie and later schlock movies bore little resemblance to Romero's ghouls. Before 1968, zombies tended to be people enslaved by voodoo or revived as slaves by evil scientists; Romero's mysterious plague of widespread corpse reanimation — and the peculiar way these undead beings threatened the still-living — was something new, and lasting.
That was especially true once Romero and co-writer John Russo's vision commingled in the public imagination with that of Richard Matheson, whose novel I Am Legend inspired the 1971 film The Omega Man. Combine that story's eerily emptied-out urban spaces and Living Dead's shuffling, flesh-hungry hordes, and you have everything you need to make a phenomenally successful TV series for AMC.
It turned out that the zombie-apocalypse scenario was one of the most captivating daydreams of escape from the numbing routines of American consumer capitalism. A mature adult may find it hard to fantasize seriously about learning he was born on Krypton or inventing an Iron Man suit. But who hasn't done a mental inventory of the kitchen and the tool shed and wondered, "How long could I survive if it all hit the fan? And how exciting would it be to try?" Mentally transforming one's co-workers and neighbors into zombies lets one imagine all sorts of cathartic mayhem without feeling too guilty.
As he responded to the surprising success of his first film with sequels in 1978 and 1985, Romero made it impossible to ignore the social critiques underpinning his horrifying fantasies. Dawn of the Dead took place in that new temple of commerce, the indoor shopping mall; Day of the Dead suggested that the impulses of testosterone-jacked military men are as big a threat as brain-devouring monsters.
Romero then took 20 years off from directing Dead films, letting the world catch up to him. A 2004 Dawn remake showed a new generation of moviegoers how scary that film's premise was; Danny Boyle put a terrifying spin on the format in 28 Days Later (please, let's for once skip the fast-versus-slow-zombies debate). And in Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg paid perhaps the highest compliment to their forebear, showing that a Romero-style film could be a full-bore comedy and still scare us.
When he returned, Romero refused to repeat himself. Most sequels to trailblazing films are variations on a theme, changing as little as possible; as enjoyable as it is, The Walking Dead has largely told the same story over and over for seven seasons. But in each Dead movie, Romero followed his premise to a new logical conclusion, thought more about how humans would relate to zombies and to each other once the world began to end. Continuing his habit of working (mostly) outside the studio system and (always) with budgets dwarfed by that of the Dawn remake, he saw little commercial success.
But he remained revered by horror fans and viewed with affection even by many outside that circle. Who could fail to admire his humor, his longevity, his desire to expand the horizons of the world he created?
Some of his most loving fans are surely already inverting the traditional "rest in peace" benediction, imagining the auteur having a hard time staying in the ground once he's buried. Expect to see fond cartoons of a Zombie George out there online, if they aren't there already. In Survival of the Dead, the last movie he directed, Romero imagined a clan of humans who kept their reanimated loved ones chained up safely, unwilling to accept they were permanently lost. If anything actually does happen after death that isn't just a big, blank void, one thing is certain: George Romero will have some ideas about it.