George A. Romero - The Neglected Director of the Dead
George A. Romero – The Neglected Director of the Dead
By Rouven Lin
“A theme that I’ve always used is […] just this idea that we don’t talk to each other. I mean, this complete lack of communication that we have and the willingness to adopt a position”
-George A. Romero
The film he saw began quite interesting and suspenseful. A woman was chased by a zombie, a man her brother had made fun of when they had been at the cemetery before this creature started attacking them. Now, with her brother unconscious or dead she ran away from the monster who slowly chased after her, into a field and into an abandoned farmhouse. Yes, there was violence; the dead woman on the top of the stairs was gruesome but in the end this was just another horror movie, something to give you the chills while you can drink your coke and munch your popcorn.
Then the movie changes. These things start eating...other humans. The couple that just tried to escape, now horribly burned in what remains of their car. These things, they eat them, slowly, expressionless, methodically.
While Roger Ebert was still watching the film, with the horrific images unfolding on the screen in front of him, he was also aware of the audience. Since he watched a matinee of Night of the Living Dead most of the audience members were quite young, for example a young girl sitting across the aisle from him who started to silently cry as the horror of the Night of the Living Dead continued finding its climax in what might just be one of the most devastating ending sequences of American horror cinema. Ebert wrote: “I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.”
While Ebert's review might be viewed as a nostalgic artifact, especially nowadays with horror features crossing boundaries on a regular basis it shows the impact of George A. Romero's film, the work of a director who had been working on commercials as well as short features for over 15 years by the time Night of the Living Dead was released. His film, along with other features such as Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes as well as Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre marked the ending of the calming mantra “It's only a movie” (something Craven's Last House on the Left mocked in its advertising campaign). Horror was no longer something which took place in Victorian buildings, castles in Transylvania, or the workshop of a mad scientist. It was right around the corner or, in the case of Night of the Living Dead, right in the American heartland as the American flag at the beginning of the film makes absolutely clear.
In a country that had just been through some of the most violent years of its history it was only logical American audiences and culture would change too. After the assassination of John F. and Robert Kennedy as well as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the brutal shootings at Kent State and the ongoing war in Vietnam which had seemingly reached its bloody climax with the massacre of My Lai, Night of the Living Dead was a film which reflected the anger and frustration of those involved in its production. Even though Romero has been famous for downplaying the notion of his films having a political and/or social relevance he has also stressed the idea of them being mirrors of contemporary fears. Thus, his body of work, one of the most interesting in the genre, features works which offer a chronology of American fears over the years starting from the social and political upheavals of the 1960's, consumer society (Dawn of the Dead), the fear of teenagers (Martin), the fear of the government losing control (The Crazies), and the threat of nuclear war (Day of the Dead). Even in his later, much maligned film such as Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead Romero never gave up on the reflecting social or political concerns of the times ranging from the fear of terrorism to YouTube-culture.
Apart from stressing how horror can be more than just mere thrills and gore, Romero is hugely important for adding another feature to the genre which at the time, was unthinkable: humor. Having been raised on the forbidden pleasures of E.C. Comics Romero adopted the idea of black humor in his films, be it the idea of living off each other or the idea of us becoming more and more like zombies in our role as consumers or victims of our own ignorance. Especially Dawn of the Dead, a film which ran into huge obstacles in Europe due to its depiction of violence, which has so many funny elements such as if one compares the images of shoppers fighting for the latest bargains to the images of zombies fighting for bits and pieces of their latest victim. Filmmakers such as Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and their films have repeatedly paid homage to the uniqueness of Romero's definition of the zombie and the horror film in general.
In the end, as Romero has stressed through his characters, the zombies are us. Even in his films that are not about the undead, humans always prey on humans by exploiting or oppressing them like the wandering group of entertainers in one of Romero's most hidden gems Knightriders. However, the image of the zombie remains the most horrible and creative invention of his and the picture of the shuffling undead mob is uniquely Romero's gift to the current zombie fever that grips the large and small screen. Because they are so defenseless and relatively slow one wonders how they manage to cause this amount of mayhem and death within human society. Author Kim Paffenroth explains: “Zombies possess none of the supernatural qualities other […] monsters: they cannot fly; they cannot turn into a vapor, bat, or wolf; they are not possessed of superhuman strength; they don’t have fangs. As one critic has put it, this means that we do not have “admiration” for them we do often do for more powerful, superhuman monsters. While this makes zombies less formidable as opponents, it makes them rather more fully and disconcertingly human.”
But considering they are also “pure instinct” as Ken Foree's character in Dawn of the Dead puts it, they have become savages demanding their opponent, the remaining humans, to turn into savages themselves. In the end, humans succeed in being the far superior barbarians as the images of hunting parties in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the white-suited scientists in The Crazies and the characters of Rhodes and Dr Logan in Day of the Dead show. As another character says in Dawn of the Dead it is time to stop the killing if the dead walk the earth, it is time to find new solutions.
After a brief but aggressive case of lung cancer George A. Romero died on 16 July 2017 leaving behind a wife and a daughter. For many, Romero's work has been and still is as important to the foundation of an entire genre, a genre he among many others stressed in terms of its relevance as a socio-political mirror, as artistic expression, and after all a source of humor (even though it was always black as morning coffee). While many will undoubtedly grieve at his death there is small comfort in the saying he will live on, as his most famous creature will shuffle along screen, small and big, for years and years to come.
1) http://youtube.com/watch?v=bnCWKc8e9Js (accessed on: 03/27/2008)
2) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-night-of-the-living-dead-1968 (accessed on: 07/17/2017)
3) Hoberman, James & Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1983) Midnight Movies. New York: Da Capo Press
4) Andrew Tudor, Why horror? The peculiar pleasures of a popular genre
In: Jancovich, Mark (ed.) (2002) Horror. The Film Reader. London: Routledge
5) Paffenroth, Kim (2006) Gospel of the living dead. George Romero’s vision of hell on earth. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press
6) https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonthompson/2017/07/16/night-of-the-living-dead-creator-george-a-romero-dies-aged-77/#3980512232e3 (accessed on: 07/17/2017)