you really think you're going to 'blow the piss out
of them'? ALL of them?"
Logan, Day of the Dead (1985)
"zombie" is dead human flesh that has come back
to life. Parts of that flesh—an arm, a leg,
even an entire torso—may be suspiciously missing.
But it is still a zombie. It is still dangerous. It
is still hungry.
zombie is an immediately recognizable horror archetype—much
like vampires or werewolves or little green men. Everyone
knows that they're slow. Everyone knows that they
moan unintelligibly. Everyone knows that a bite from
one means a doom far worse than death.
everyone knows that they keep on coming.
unofficial "zombie rulebook" was written by a
man named George A. Romero. Because he so entrenched
himself within the world of horror cinema, with films
like Martin, Creepshow, Monkey Shines
and The Dark Half, he has yet to get
his due as a class-A entertainer, occasional genius
and oft-times prophet. His "Dead" trilogy—Night
of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the
Dead (1979) and Day of the Dead
(1985)—are cornerstones of the genre and masterfully
subtle ruminations on the three different decades
in which they take place.
trilogy creates an alternate American history that
unfolds with a brutal, almost unavoidable logic. Viciously
intelligent and loaded with rich symbolism, Romero
has slyly taken the figure he helped conceive—the
mindless, flesh-eating zombie—and turned it
into an incisive, 30-year-running commentary on the
degenerating human condition.
Romero's trilogy, particularly the latter two installments,
the relatively blank slate of the zombie personality
becomes Romero's Everyman—a bizarre, passive
protagonist; slow, silent and relentless, both villain
and hero, annoyance and purgation. There's something
about the zombie's quiet, stoic devouring of America
that, undeniably, is at once terrifying and exhilarating.
is being done that can be done."
politician, Night of the Living Dead
and her brother Jonnie arrive at a cemetery to put
a wreath on their father's grave.
Jonnie cracks jokes at his dead father's expense
and then tries to scare Barbara. A zombie suddenly
attacks them and kills Jonnie. Barbara flees to an
abandoned farmhouse, where she runs into Ben, a black
man from the city who was forced to stop when his
truck ran out of gas. Barbara remains in a state of
shock as Ben boards up the house and defends it against
the increasing numbers of living dead.
Ben discovers two couples hiding in the cellar—young
lovers Tom and Judy and bickering husband and wife
Harry and Helen, with their injured child. Harry and
Ben become instant adversaries. Tom and Judy are killed
and eaten by the zombies, and Ben murders the cowardly
Harry. Meanwhile, Barbara is abducted by the zombies
(who now include her zombified brother). Then Helen's
child dies, becomes a zombie and kills Helen. As zombies
flood into the house above, Ben retreats to the cellar,
kills the now-zombie family—Harry, Helen and
child—and waits for daylight.
gunshots, he heads up into the light. A band of local
militiamen see him through a window, think he's just
another zombie and shoot him in the head. Credits
roll over his body as it's being pitched into a fire.
in Pittsburgh by Romero's commercial/industrial film
company, the $114,000 budget was funded via several
$600 investments. The investors themselves became
the stumbling flesh-eaters, gooped with Bosco chocolate
syrup and basic prosthetic make-up supplied by Marilyn
Eastman (who also co-starred as both "Helen Cooper"
and "bug-eating zombie," as well as
the sound effects and wardrobe). Her husband, Karl
Hardman, starred as "Harry Cooper," shot all
1,250 still photographs and placed all the stock music
that would be used as the soundtrack.
Producers were zombies; writers were victims.
In fact, almost everyone who gave the film life sooner
or later died on-screen.
influential that it's still being imitated and paid
homage today, Night is an almost perfect
film—energetically acted, sharply staged and
soaked with buckets of paranoia and tension.
Reminiscent of many viciously simple Twilight
Zone episodes—particularly "The Monsters
on Maple Street"—Romero introduces one
foreign element into his narrative palette, the zombie,
and then sits back and watches us destroy ourselves.
"Let them stay upstairs! Too many ways for those monsters
to get in," barks Harry, as he paces the cellar,
refusing to let the others back down to safety.
characters are always smart—a rare thing in
modern horror. There are no half-witted villains or
irrelevant sex, just intelligent people navigating
high-stress situations. As viewers, we constantly
switch alliances between characters. In Night,
it's Harry the asshole who is posthumously proven
correct—as he continually insists, the basement
is the safest place! Night also deflates
every cliché it throws up on the screen—the
hero does everything right to no avail; the woman,
once struck catatonic, remains that way throughout
the picture; the black man is the "city folk,"
the white kids are the "country folk" ("I know
how to handle that truck," insists Tom, "Ben
doesn't know anything about that kind of stuff.")
character of Ben—a smart, tough black man who
has no trouble slapping white women or shooting down
white men—was only one of the elements that
made Night such a tough sell (it eventually
sold to Walter Reade's Continental Films for a song).
The film, coming smack in the middle
of the Vietnam War, yet still one critical year before
the MPAA ratings board began hobbling the industry,
reflected an America distressed over its own capacity
for violence. Even the film's opening credit "Directed
by George A. Romero"—superimposed above
a waving American flag—feels heavy with incensed
like the Vietnam conflict both at war and at home,
was man versus man, and the figure of the zombie was
the perfect, unmarked, allegorical figure—moving
in from all sides, in untold numbers...and looking
suspiciously similar to YOU. Just as in the war, there
was no time to wonder WHY (Romero wisely never lets
the "why" of the zombies interfere with the far
richer social and philosophical possibilities of the
situation), you simply had to learn the rules of warfare,
accept them and then fight to live within that twisted
logic. The pervading horror of 1968 was similar to
the impending threat of the zombies—hyper-present,
informing everything, almost spectral.
1968, there were no longer clear divisions between
good and bad, and Night was an extension
of this cultural confusion. The film took traditional
domestic symbols like doors, dinner tables and ironing
boards and literally (and symbolically) ripped them
to pieces, using them as scraps to board up the windows
and keep out the new threat. Likewise, social taboos
(interracial relationships, matricide, cannibalism)
are chomped up and spit out with equal impunity. A
heavy undercurrent of incest exists all throughout
the film—Barbara is originally attacked by a
man Jonnie jokes is their "Grandpa," and when
she later recounts the attack, it is related as an
extremely violent rape. Directly after this "ripping,
tearing at me" account, Ben punches the hysterical
Barbara out (!), places her limp body on the sofa
and unbuttons her coat.
scene alone was more threatening to the public than
a million zombie invaders would ever be.
the end of the film, the Living Dead—who could
easily be Romero's manifestation of the hundreds of
thousands killed in the war—pour back into the
farmhouse through busted-out doors and smashed windows,
like furious wraiths mournfully reclaiming their battered
world. Of course, the final injustice—the mistaking
of Ben as a zombie and his subsequent assassination—is
the ultimate casualty of war, butchering somebody
simply because of his or her apparent surface similarity
to the "enemy." Ben's death, like so many others,
is never mourned; he is stuck with hooks, pitched
into a pile of similar corpses and ignited.
foresight is what is most impressive. It suggests
a future that—turned upside down by the dead
becoming the living—regresses to one of dumb,
simple savagery. It is a world we will see two films
later, in Day of the Dead.
U.S. National Film Registry, a division of the Library
of Congress that chooses 25 films each year which
"reflect American film heritage," inducted Night
of the Living Dead on November 16, 1999,
alongside other new inductees Do the Right Thing,
Gunga Din and The Ten Commandments.
The film was colorized in the late '80s and re-made
for $4.2 million in 1990. In 1999, for its 30th Anniversary
Edition, original co-writer John Russo shot several
pointless new scenes and inserted them into the original
film, deservedly drawing the boos of fans, independent
filmmakers and scholars across the globe.
of the performers in the film never acted again. Duane
Jones, who played Ben, died of a heart attack in 1988.
And Keith Wayne, who played Tom, committed suicide
film, however, continues to walk the Earth.
line of dialogue from Dawn of the Dead (1979)
awakens from a bad dream to find herself still working
at a Pittsburgh TV station (W-GON, if you can believe
it) in the thick of the zombie explosion. The station
is falling apart, so Franny takes off with her boyfriend
Stephen in his helicopter. They're joined by two defecting
SWAT team members, Roger and Peter. To take a rest,
they land atop a shopping mall. Once inside, they
decide to stay awhile. Then they kill all the zombies
inside the mall and block off the entrances with semi
the escapade, Roger is bitten by a zombie and begins
to grow ill. With the zombie threat gone, the four
begin a life of insulated indulgence, shopping, eating
and idling their time away. Roger dies, then returns
as a zombie and is killed by Peter. Then, a rogue
biker gang descends upon the mall and breaks in, letting
in a flood of zombies. The zombies devour the bikers
and Stephen. Peter and Franny make it to the helicopter
and fly away.
Dawn was made for 10 times the budget
of Night ($1.5 million) and was hugely
influential and successful ($40 million in the bank
and dozens of international impersonators), it should
nonetheless be considered almost as low-budget as
Night—for Dawn is
a bona fide epic of almost Shakespearean proportions,
a 2 & 1/2 hour "rise and fall of" odyssey that
follows four protagonists from their terrified beginnings
to their spoiled, protected existence to their sudden,
bloody descent. At the same time, it is a chronicle
of a country being eaten alive by its past mistakes.
again, Romero has cast a black man and a white woman
as his leads, and his racial card is more definitively
played. In the opening SWAT storm upon an inner-city
housing project, minorities and zombies are mowed
down with equal aplomb. This is contrasted with a
group of good ol' boys out hunting zombies for fun,
taking snapshots, drinking beer and looking disturbingly
like a sort of drunken lynch mob.
very quietly, Romero nudges us to consider his zombies
as the ultimate underclass and the zombie revolution
as the ultimate coup. Yes, the zombies are faceless
and nameless, but no more so than the third world
insurgencies we watch over our TV dinners with only
the mildest of concern.
of the worst things about zombies is that they STAGGER—they're
like sick people, or old people, both of whom crave
the almost carnal satisfaction of contact with young
a zombie is like coming face-to-face with our own
demise, and—despite the "bright white light"
reassurances we've repeatedly been given—death
is not pretty, it's UGLY. It's an excruciating purgatory
that makes a perverse mockery out of our 20th Century
lives—an awkward, sickly afterlife of bloody
cardigan sweaters, lacerated silk ties, sinew-splattered
bathrobes and torn, battered loafers.
though, the "sickness" is consumerism—we
stumble around shopping malls like zombies, eyes glazed
and set upon some irrelevant prize. Almost thankfully,
the Living Dead tear down the protagonists' mall paradise,
reminding us that the human experience is one of flesh
and blood, adrenaline and pain—not of dacron
and fiberglass, vinyl and 100% cotton.
as a sort of modern-day retelling of Louis XVI, our
heroes represent the privileged class living within
their protected castle walls ("Keys to the kingdom,"
Roger dubs the mall key-ring).
Peter even admits early on that they're not
"heroes" at all: "Wake up, sucker. We're thieves
and bad guys." And, to be sure, there is something
deeply unsettling about watching hundreds of dead
shoppers trying to pound their way into a department
store, while the four people inside goad them on,
whooping it up and having a ball.
four survivors have created a sheltered utopia with
no risk of death or pain, but is a life of luxury
worth it if it's predicated on the assumption that
the oppressed masses will not wake up?
As they become more and more inert in their
lives of useless extravagance (stealing worthless
money from the mall bank, dressing lavishly, boozing
it up), Romero shoots their scenes in weird, static
shots of dull, aristocratic malaise—sipping
brandy, playing cards and idly crossing the days off
Roger plays a driving video game and crashes, it doesn't
matter because, as the king of his castle, he can't
"die"—there's no one else in line—so
he just plays until he wins. This overindulgence culminates
with Roger's worsening condition, which grows to be
a rather messy blemish on the lives of the others,
an unsavory reminder of a life filled with uncertainty
and pain. When Roger finally dies, he is almost
immediately replaced by a nice bedroom set.
Romero allows his zombies to become all the more human,
at turns seeming scary, funny or sympathetic. Romero
deftly moves between dark irony and a dead severity—as
soon as Roger starts to ENJOY killing the zombies,
he receives his mortal wound.
whipped 'em and we got it ALL!" screams Roger
from his stinking, sweaty deathbed, illustrating exactly
what "it all" means when you come right down
to it. When you die, you die alone.
the biker gang enters the plot as the force which
upsets the privileged/underprivileged balance, Dawn
becomes a strange property battle of who stole what
from whom first. It becomes, like the cellar/upstairs
quarrel in Night, a territorial ground-war
of man versus man. "I can't believe they didn't ORGANIZE,"
remarks Stephen ruefully about the nation as a whole.
Yet, he is guilty of exactly the same thing—material,
proprietorial greed. Peter says, "[The zombies] have
one big advantage over us. They don't think."
As Stanley Kubrick posited with 2001: A Space Odyssey,
Romero suggests that knowledge, particularly knowledge
in connection with ownership and technology, leads
to evil. In the final chapter, Day of the Dead,
one character insists that the key to starting over
is to bury the records of the past and never, ever
dig them up.
closing credits roll over a wide, interior shot of
the mall, where zombies stumble around, shopping for
bargain deals and human flesh for eternity—not
for gain, not for status, just to keep doing what
they (and we) love to do—consume, that is.
power's off in the mainland...and all the shopping
malls are closed."
Day of the Dead (1985)
in an America where zombies now outnumber humans 400,000
to 1, an underground bunker in Florida houses what
might as well be the last 12 people on Earth, a group
of research scientists who receive zombie test subjects
by an increasingly uncooperative band of military
more soldiers die trying to bring in these samples,
tensions rise between the scientist/military liaison
Sarah, the rabidly impatient Captain Rhodes and the
eccentric Dr. Logan.
Rhodes finds that Dr. Logan has been feeding Bub,
his star zombie pupil, the remains of the soldiers,
Rhodes kills Logan and several other scientists and
then drops Sarah, helicopter pilot John and radio
technician William into the zombie pit. Meanwhile,
aboveground zombie hordes burst into the compound,
overrun the soldiers and eat them. Bub, who has learned
how to shoot a gun, mourns over Dr. Logan's death
and shoots Rhodes. Sarah, John and William reach the
helicopter and escape to a desert island, where, assumedly,
they begin a new life.
has always been one of the first commercial artists
to spot unsettling generational trends. Night
was about seeing the enemy in ourselves, Dawn
was about a decade of people wasting their vitality
on empty consumer culture and Day—made
in the mid-'80s—mirrors a society where people
are becoming increasingly isolated from each other,
and mis-(or non-) communication reigns.
Day's introduction of a scientific viewpoint,
Romero treats the zombie epidemic like a viral one—much
like a disease, the zombies eat and grow stronger,
simply because it is in their nature to do so. And
as with a viral disease, it's not the death that is
horrifying, it's the TRANSFORMATION.
single most pessimistic gesture about Night of
the Living Dead was Romero's creation of
a sequel; for, at the conclusion of Night,
authorities are predicting that the situation will
be under control within 24 hours. Years later, in
Day, Dr. Logan laments, "We should've
shot them in the heads at the beginning," which
implies a period of time, presumably between Night
and Dawn, when they WEREN'T shooting
zombies in the head and there was some sort of attempt
to "domesticate" the zombie, put it to practical
use. It is in this missing chunk of time where possibly
the only large-scale display of "mercy" occurred.
pretend that the zombie "virus" is a blood-carried
disease, like AIDS. We would certainly never wipe
out all of those afflicted, even if it meant finally
eliminating the disease. It's our mercy that makes
us "human," but it is also mercy that makes us
vulnerable and, perhaps, ultimately
doomed. The alternative to this doom, of course, is
the law of the Zombie Nation—survival, survival,
survival. As Dr. Logan puts it, the zombies are "the
same as us, but functioning less perfectly."
Or—if mercy is indeed a regrettably species-ending
is the struggle present throughout all three Dead
films—maintaining a degree of civilization within
the emerging code of savagery. The makeshift mansion
the four survivors create in Dawn is
much like the mobile home paradise ("The Ritz")
that John and William have created within the dirty
cement walls of the underground bunker. (The irony
that the "chosen few" of the world now live in
trailer homes is not lost on Romero, either.) Romero
realizes that the comfort given by life's meaningless
minutiae—coat racks, oven mitts, a dinner table
arrangement of plastic flowers—reaches almost
spiritual proportions. Given the aggression of the
modern world, this accumulated, soothing nothingness
can ascend to a near-talismanic scope.
only is the zombie's eradication of America genuinely
cathartic to watch, it's an attractively anarchistic
point-of-view to consider. For example, the resolutely
"good" scientist, Dr. Logan, always takes the
clear-headed, logical, pragmatic approach. Yet, even
he reaches a point where we want to cry foul: Logan
strips one soldier's head down to a quivering brain
stem. Although the soldier is technically still the
same person, we are dimly aware of how much our bodies
inform our selves. This, in fact, is the inherent
threat of the zombie—our beloved bodies gone
horribly, horribly wrong.
presents for us a world wherein everyone is becoming
fundamentally the same. Humans grow older, inching
closer to becoming zombies, while the current walking
dead are frozen in time exactly as they died—a
ballerina, football player, old, young, naked, clothed—waiting,
ever patiently, for the rest of us to catch up.
than anything, Day is morally confusing,
which may account for it being somewhat less commercially
successful than the first two films. It is impossible
to find a character who is doing the right thing.
The closest we come is the Jamaican helicopter pilot,
John, who calmly and persuasively suggests that he
and Sarah just fly away to a deserted island, start
over, have some babies and let the world swallow itself
in peace. On the one hand, it seems the most barbaric
of solutions; on the other hand, it's one giant mercy
concludes with a massive feast that is easily the
goriest scene Romero has ever directed. Intestines,
stomachs, cartilage and innards of all sorts are ripped
apart, slurped down and gnashed in gruesome detail.
This is what is finally left of Romero's America—not
just destroyed, not just wiped out, but DESECRATED,
almost blasphemed. It comes off like a continuation
of the godlessness of Dawn where—amongst
the many false idols of the suburban America shopping
center—Peter looks down upon the zombie masses
still trying to pound their way in, and whispers:
grandfather always said that when there's no more
room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth."
Romero is saying is that perhaps the Dead are already
here...and the Dead are us.