George Romero didn't make movies about zombies - he made movies about us
Matt Barnes directed this low budget horror comedy, Red Valley, a few years back. His "monsters" were mutants, but they still owe a little to George Romero's zombies.
OPINION: As a Kiwi horror kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I loved all the monsters.
Freddy, Jason and Michael were the kings, while vampires and werewolves were also favourites. But there was another screen monster that was considered more 'serious'. One reserved for the real hardcore fans – the zombie.
There were a couple of popular horror/comedies using the zombie, like 1985's Return of the Living Dead or our own Peter Jackson's Braindead, but the mother lode was the Dead trilogy by George Romero.
Romero did not invent the zombie, but he created the modern form of it. With 1968's Night of the Living Dead, he changed the zombie from being a voodoo automaton of vengeance to being a mindless, stumbling corpse, hungry for human flesh. The movie would become a sensation although Romero and his fellow filmmakers would see little from it due to bungling the copyright.
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As a result, anyone today can release Night of the Living Dead or use its footage. Hence, many horror films which have scenes of characters watching TV sets will often be watching the film.
(Most recently, Joanna Vuckovic's entry in the all-female horror anthology XX (currently available on NZ Netflix) features a scene like this which also includes Night's most famous line, "they're coming to get you, Barbara.")
I was even in a band in the early 2000s called Stitchface and we released an EP entitled, Night of the Living Thread. It opened with an audio sample of the Barbara line.
Romero made a few other films in the wake of Night, but without the same success. His entries in the horror genre during this period, namely The Crazies (1973) and the oft-imitated vampire flick Martin (1978), made enough of a ripple for him to return to the zombie well with Dawn of the Dead.
Dawn of the Dead is perhaps the quintessential zombie film. Night may have set the template of survivors under siege by the dead, but Dawn is the realisation of it as four people hole up in a shopping mall. The film has action, gore, tension and, critically, a sly line in social commentary.
Zombies stumble around mall stores, staring blankly at window displays. Humans fight over TV sets that do not work and bank cash that no longer has value. Romero had materialism square in his sights.
"What are they doing?" Asks one character looking out from the roof of the mall at the dead gathering, "why are they coming here?"
"This was an important place in their lives," comes the response.
Day of the Dead would follow in 1985, picking up in a world now completely overrun by zombies. An underground bunker contains what may be the last people on Earth. Here, again, though, they are their own worst enemies. Scientists egotistically search for ways to domesticate the dead while soldiers, drunk on power, bicker with them.
Day is a brutal, nihilistic film and did not meet with commercial success. Romero would retreat to smaller indie flicks like Monkey Shines and the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half.
Meanwhile, gaming company Capcom had a hit on its hands with its Romero-influenced survival horror game Resident Evil and, after hiring Romero to direct a TV commercial for Resident Evil 2, asked the writer/director to work on a film version.
Ultimately, Romero's script was dumped and Paul WS Anderson was brought on board. The resulting movie in 2002 led to a surprise re-vitalisation of zombie movies. Amongst the multitude that followed were Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's comedy Shaun of the Dead (in which Nick Frost shouts over the phone to Simon Pegg's Mum, "we're coming to get you, Barbara!") and Zack Snyder and James Gunn's remake of Dawn of the Dead.
But while Wright, Pegg, Gunn and Snyder would go on to make mega-budget flicks, Romero himself would stay in the shadows.
The renewed interest in zombie films would help him make the rich vs poor allegory of Land of the Dead, followed by the low-budget Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, but the mainstream continued to elude him.
Zombies, though, would finally break into living rooms across the world with the TV series The Walking Dead. The series would take all of the tropes of Romero's trilogy – right down to not using the word 'zombie' – but with none of the metaphorical intelligence Romero used so well.
The main man behind The Walking Dead today is special effects man Greg Nicotero, who cut his teeth as a 22-year-old on Day of the Dead. He also plays a soldier in Day who, appropriately, gets eaten by zombies.
George Romero showed that the horror genre could be used to portray social issues, that monsters could be used as powerful symbols for humanity's ills.
In his sieges, it was never the walking corpses that caused the problems, it was the bickering and clashing of those trapped inside. His films are almost like a plea, that if we just put our differences aside and understood each other, we could overcome anything.
The zombies in Romero films could potentially be replaced by any other sort of disaster – a plague, a flood, aliens – and still be effectively the same movie. Because, after all, George Romero never made movies about zombies.
He made movies about us.