George A. Romero's three decades of cultural cannibalism
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 2000


"Do you really think you're going to 'blow the piss out of them'? ALL of them?"
—Professor Logan, Day of the Dead (1985)

A "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.

The 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.

And everyone knows that they keep on coming.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

"Everything is being done that can be done."
—A politician, Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Barbara 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.

Soon, 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.

Hearing 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.

Made 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 handling 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.

So 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 are Due 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.

Romero's 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.")

The 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 sarcasm.

Night, 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.

By 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.

This scene alone was more threatening to the public than a million zombie invaders would ever be.

Near 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.

Night's 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.

The 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.

Most 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 in 1995.

Their film, however, continues to walk the Earth.

"I'm still dreaming."
—First line of dialogue from Dawn of the Dead (1979)

Franny 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 trucks.

During 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.

Although 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.

Once 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.

Thus, 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.

One 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 flesh.  Confronting 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.

Here, 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.

Taken 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.

The 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 the calendar.

When 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

"We 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.

When 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.

Dawn's 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.

"The power's off in the mainland...and all the shopping malls are closed."
—William, Day of the Dead (1985)

Set 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 men.  As 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.

When 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.

Romero 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.

With 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.

The 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.

Let's 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 trait—MORE perfectly.

This 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.

Not 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.

Day 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.

More 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 killing.

Day 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:

"My grandfather always said that when there's no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth."

What Romero is saying is that perhaps the Dead are already here...and the Dead are us.