George A. Romero’s Vital Role in Paving the Road for Today’s Zombie Film

zombiesThe first feature length film to employ zombies as a vehicle for social commentary was Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919), which is also memorable for featuring authentic footage from the battlefields of the first World War. In the 1930’s, many zombie films were inspired by mostly misinterpreted Haitian mythology. Today, zombie film and culture now permeate virtually all mass media, everything from video games, to TV shows, to graphic novels. Zombies are used as a narrative device to discuss any number of issues, from oppressive, military states, to contagions and pandemics, to xenophobia and social stigma. We owe most of this to George A. Romero.

Zombie films, and indeed exploitation films in general, would not exist as we know them today if not for Romero’s influence. From his early work with the groundbreaking films Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) that set the zombie genre in motion to his recent works like Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2010) Romero set the standard for the zombie movie in ways that changed how we watch the genre entirely.

Night of the Living Dead, although black and white and also shot on a shoestring budget, has a depth that was surprising for the time. Although the film didn’t shy away from explicit onscreen violence, it wasn’t the blood and guts alone that made this film revolutionary. After all, by 1968, exploitation filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis had already been churning out over-the-top gory films like Blood Feast (1963) for a few years. What distinguished Romero’s film was that it didn’t rely exclusively on sensational gimmicks, but it endeavored to tell a meaningful story with characters that elicited emotional responses from viewers. The film focused more on the human relationships during the post apocalyptic backdrop, and it offered poignant commentary about humanity’s inability to reconcile conflicting self-interests in crisis situations. The film is also notable for featuring a black actor (Duane Jones) as its male lead. What’s more, the film had the audacity to have its main character killed off — and what’s more, the black male lead is shot by a white militia. Bear in mind that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated around the time of the film’s release, and Malcolm X had been assassinated a mere three years prior.

His next installment in the Dead saga was Dawn of the Dead (1978), which mostly takes place inside an overrun shopping mall and also focuses on the survivors of a zombie outbreak. We are told that the zombies flock to the mall because they have vague memories of the site holding personal significance for them. It’s Romero’s stab at consumer culture, and the unhealthy degree of importance assigned to material wealth.

In 1985’s Day of the Dead Romero envisions an underground military base where zombies have been kept for experimentation. It evokes sympathy for the zombies, and vilifies the power-crazed military officials (especially the psychopathic Captain Rhodes, who meets an especially gruesome end). Day, with it’s scaything criticism of governmental abuse of power and ethical issues surrounding military service, is perhaps the most socially relevant of all the Dead films. Not only is it attracting fresh attention because of regular screenings on TV, particularly the new grindhouse/horror-oriented El Rey cable network (more info here), but the film also laid the groundwork for modern zombie productions like The Walking Dead, and 28 Days Later. And moreover, his films have been remade and adapted, proving that they are still as relevant as ever to a modern day audience.

While his film Land of the Dead (2005) did offer unique criticism of the Bush administration, his follow-ups, Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2010) failed to gain widespread attention like his earlier works did but they still prove to be potent additions to the zombie film genre catalog. His most recent outings lack the potency as the earlier films. However, these movies were not totally without merit and, in fact, only upheld the idea that Romero is an incredibly important figure in the zombie genre who had an integral role shaping what it is today.

In more recent, unrelated works like The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later, the very ideas those films were founded upon are the same ideas that Romero laid out in his earlier works and upheld in his later films. Surely, if not for Romero’s works and contributions, the zombie genre that we know and love to today would seem infinitely less-thrilling, and considerably less relevant, than  it is today.