Published on August 6th, 2014 | by gareth0
George A. Romero: The Godfather Of Splatter
Brandon Engel Submitted this great story for us, and we look forward to seeing what he has next.
Creatures evolve over time, both real and imaginary. Every now and then, a special spark along that line of evolution will illuminate a new path for the creatures to follow. Those things we call zombies are no exception, and how we see them today can be traced back to the special spark of George A. Romero.
His groundbreaking 1968 film Night of the Living Dead introduced the idea of the zombie as a flesh-eating ghoul. Pre-Romero, lore of the zombie reflected roots in the voodoo magic of Haiti. In this tradition, the bodies of the dead could walk as servants to the captor of their souls. The basic story left little room for creativity. In a way, Romero secularized zombies by changing the characteristic of the supernaturally-possessed, soulless servant to a more scientific idea of a biologically-contaminated being driven by primal instinct and repetition. The condition was spread like a disease instead of being based in spirituality or dark magic. This spark in the evolution of the creature lit the path for the modern infection film, paving the way for filmmakers like Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever). There has been a host of Dead remakes and reboots over the years too, including Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead (1990), which was shot fully in color, and is enjoying its own resurgence in popularity as websites make it viewable in high definition (more info).
With the rise of video games, the idea of the infected undead as an attacker has branched out even further from the roots of the zombie family tree. For example, the horror adventure series Resident Evil pits the player against aggressive, fast moving creatures capable of seemingly superhuman strength after being infected with a virus. Opinions differ from person to person as to whether or not these creatures should really be considered zombies, as many (including Romero) believe that the term should be reserved for the slow-moving image of an unsteady, deteriorating corpse.
Spanning several generations, Romero’s Dead series also pioneered the concept of a multi-layered zombie film. Each of these works projects an underlying reflection of society at the time of production. Night of the Living Dead touches on racism during the civil rights era by featuring a black man in a lead role as the morally upstanding group leader. It also reflects the graphic content being shown on news programs during the Vietnam war. Dawn of the Dead addresses the consumerism and obsessive materialism of the 1970s. Day of the Dead reflects America’s Cold War era paranoia and favored method of solving problems with weapons while pushing science to the back burner. This take on the concept of brains vs. brawn is displayed through the conflict between the scientists and machismo military men.
After a two decades, audiences were surprised with yet another installment of the series. Land of the Dead reflects on the xenophobia and fanatic nationalism present during the Bush presidency as chaos and hysteria are used to the advantage of the higher-ups in a discernible class system. The viewer may even sympathize with the zombies used for sport and entertainment. Their rebellion shows that even the most controlled groups are capable of basic organization. Two years later, Diary of the Dead had obvious social relevance in its references to the role of the internet in the rise of amateur journalism. Shot to appear as “authentic footage”, we see a group of college students able to observe, document, and upload anything onto the web. While this is a great development for the spread of news, we are also reminded that stories can be easily twisted through this form of mass media coverage.
The final installment, Survival of the Dead, captures society’s increasing fear of what would happen in the face of a biological or nuclear catastrophe. Groups of individuals resort to a sort of tribal clan mentality as they try and live the best lives they can in a dystopian landscape.
All of these films show commentary on interpersonal relationships by presenting individuals’ reactions in the face of crisis and limited resources. From this, we get the concept of the metaphorical zombie. Displayed particularly well in the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead, this concept is represented by Shaun’s failure to immediately notice the change in his peers from bored, under-stimulated servants trapped in routine to actual undead zombies. This horror comedy uses the idea of the metaphorical zombie to somewhat mesh the pre- and post-Romero forms of the creature.
Many sparks in the chain of zombie evolution have brought about the vast media saturation that we see today. The popularity of comics and television shows like The Walking Dead has lead the creature into new demographics. The zombie appears in several genres from comedy (Zombieland) to romance (Warm Bodies), and even as far as commercials.
All of this can be traced back to the influence of the man commonly referred to as the “Grandfather of Zombie Films”. He opened people’s eyes to just how broad the spectrum of themes featuring the “undead” really is. For this, the undeniable status of George A. Romero as a prominent horror icon is well deserved.