|IN DEFENSE OF ZOMBIES : THE FILMS OF GEORGE ROMERO
We can't discuss zombie movies without bringing up George Romero.
George Andrew Romero, also known among horror fans as “the Godfather of the Dead”, is a renowned filmmaker popular for his work
related to the zombie apocalypse, including the highly acclaimed 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead”.
Of immigrant origins, he was born in The Bronx, New York, on February 4, 1940. His father, a Spanish-Cuban immigrant married a
George’s Lithuanian-American mother. He lived a modest life while growing up in the Bronx, where he developed his first interest and
approach to the filmmaking industry. He has said in several interviews how he used to ride the subway all the way to Manhattan in order to
rent film reels that he could project at his house.
In an interview conceded to Robert K. Elder for the filmography “The Film that Changed my Life: 30 Directors on their Epiphanies in the
Dark”, Romero stated that the 1951 film adaptation of Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffman” was his main reason to get into films.
The opulent, visually stimulating film was described by Romero as “really a movie” giving him “an early appreciation for the power of visual
He lived in New York and finished high-school in the Bronx. After his senior year, he got accepted in the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon
University based in Pirttsburgh, Pennsylvania. He completed his college studies successfully and started right away his shooting, directing
and producing career. At the beginning, he started with short films for TV and commercials, not being particularly attracted to horror until a
few years later when the genre really captivated him.
Later on, in the late 1960s, he gathered nine of his friends and founded “Image Ten Productions”. This would be the company responsible
of the production of the earliest Romero hits.
Night of the Living Dead and the birth of the zombie sub-genre.
Produced in an independent fashion by Romero’s friends Russell W. Streiner and Karl Hardman, classic horror film “Night of the Living
Dead” is now an icon not only to the horror genre, but to the filmmaking industry in general.
Released in 1968, the film’s original plot was just as innovative and groundbreaking like the rest of the elements of the movie. A brother
and sister, Barbra and Johnny, were visiting their father’s tomb when they encounter a herd of undead ghouls. After a series of events,
Barbra runs away from the zombie and meets up with Ben (portrayed by Duane Jones) who then hide in a farmhouse alongside the
Cooper family consisting of Harry, Hellen and their daughter Karen.
Karen Cooper had been bitten by one of the zombies and she requires medical help. Ben, who by this moment was already portrayed as
the film’s hero, starts a plan to help out Karen.
The following scenes feature a bunch of gruesome deaths, zombies feeding themselves off human corpses, and a general psychological
drama accompanied by the spooky soundtrack crafted by William Loose and Fred Steiner.
Ultimately, sweet Karen Cooper is shown eating her father’s corpse after turning into yet another zombie, stabbing her mother to death.
Barbra, who was one of the first characters appearing on screen, is finally devoured by the zombies of which her brother Johnny was a
part of. The corpses of Harry and Hellen Cooper come back to life and main character Ben has no choice but to shoot them both, hours
before being shot to death himself by a human that mistakes him for a zombie.
No hope, no joy and no happy ending, this was the first film to feature the traditional zombie representation as a neither living nor dead
persona. As such, it marked the beginning of the zombie sub-genre and the apocalyptic narrative that consequentially came with it.
“Night of the Living Dead” was revolutionary in many ways related both to the film industry and the social environment in which the film
was produced. For instance, it was the first time a black character was portrayed both as a protagonist and a hero, having many
conservative eyebrows raised by the moment of its release.
Furthermore, the film was one of the earliest references of the dramatic and tragic plot-twist featuring the main character dying before the
end of the film. At this point, most film narratives focused on the hero-villain dichotomy, having the hero protagonist winning most battles
and leaving the ground victorious. However, film’s hero Ben grew fonder and fonder with the audience as the one and only savior, only to
be killed minutes before the film’s ending.
This movie was released prior to the MPAA film rating system, allowing even the youngest children to view the film both in theaters and via
TV broadcast. Film critic Roger Ebert stated that the movie attracted mainly pre-teens and adolescents and that “Night of the Living
Dead” had such an impact in them that it “had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly
ALL YOU ZOMBIE MOVIE
Critics were very reluctant to recognize how visually and narratively rich this movie was. Major film magazine Variety judged “Night of the
Living Dead” as an “unrelieved orgy of sadism”, while Vincent Canby from the New York Times stated it was a “junk movie”.
However, many other critics such as Elliot Stein and Mark Deming considered “Night of the Living Dead” to be not only a classic for the
film industry, but also a powerful and subversive critic to the post-war American society. In many ways, this film has been analyzed by
both film critics and historians and found as one remarkable piece of aesthetic, narrative and political discourse.
The total budget for the movie consisted in $114,000, with a box-office total revenue of $30 million to the date. In the words of Almar
Hafliadson of the BBC, “Night of the Living Dead” was a “new dawn in the horror film-making”.
ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, HAUNTED HOUSE AND ROMANCE
After his box-office success, Romero continued his filmmaking career in the 1970s experimenting with different genres and plotlines. For
instance, “There’s Always Vanilla”, his 1971 romantic comedy, was produced under the premise of care-free love and romance featuring
a twist of humor. Romero has stated repeatedly that he dislikes this production, considering it “a total mess”. The reasons for the genre
leap have been attributed to a lack of funding, and Romero’s need to produce box-office revenue in order to make ends meet.
Next was “Season of the Witch”, initially released in 1973 under the title “Jack’s Wife”. This movie is not considered to be a real horror
movie, and instead it resonates among different audiences as a drama involving witchcraft and the occult, with a heavy dose of sexuality
involved. It has been criticized because of its low quality both because of the quality of the production and the non-impressive plot.
In that same year, Romero released a film titled “The Crazies”, featuring a biological epidemic inducing reckless murderous behaviors
among citizens. Although the production for this one was of a higher quality when compared to his two previous movies, The Crazies was
not particularly a box-office success. Many critics have found the narrative to be solid, interesting and very similar to that of Night of the
Living Dead –mainly because of the “us” versus “them” premise- but it did not have a good general reception neither among critics, nor
among the general audience.
The return to the zombie genre.
After his short period of experimentation, George Romero returned to his original genre and produced what would become the second
element of his Dead Trilogy: “Dawn of the Dead”.
Released in 1978 and starred by David Emge and Ken Foree, this movie would become a classic horror movie reference, as well as one
of the Best 500 Movies of All Time, according to the 2008 list made by Empire Magazine.
In this opportunity, the local pandemic in the Night of the Dead film grew bigger and the zombies have taken over the entire United States.
The military, the SWAT team and rural farmers are in charge of making the zombie epidemic stop.
Dawn of the Dead was a complete success both in terms of box-office revenue and among critics. This movie was particularly well
advertised and there was a lot of money invested in order to publicize it well, but word-of-mouth campaigning was also successful. The
zombie genre was back and Dawn of the Dead looked even more promising than its predecessor.
By that time, critics were still resisting to give good grades to gore-presented films. However, “Dawn of the Dead” received acclaim since
day one. Famous film-critic Roger Ebert stated it was “one of the best horror films ever made” and referred to the gruesome graphics
saying “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste”.
The performance of the actors was also highly praised, with Steve Biodrowski from Cinefantastique saying that “the acting performances
are uniformly strong; and the script develops its themes more explicitly”. And Biodrowski was not the only one. The acting chops of all
involved in the movie have been recognized by many experts and film industry connoisseurs.
“Knightriders” was a film written and directed by George Romero and released in 1981. This film featured yet another twist for Romero’s
career, a bikers drama merged with renaissance and medieval storytelling elements. The plot revolved around a travelling motorcycle gang
participating in renaissance fairs, and it has received fairly good critic reception despite its unique, not to say rare, plot and screenplay.
“Creepshow” followed. In 1982 Romero released this black comedy horror anthology film, having renowned novelist Stephen King as his
screenwriter. This duo would work together repeatedly in the future, building also a close friendship between these two masters of horror.
The plot of this film consisted in a young boy named Billy and his strict parents forbidding him from reading the Creepshow horror comic,
where five stories are found and brought to the screen by both King and Romero. As an anthology, neither of the films are related to the
next, having only Billy and The Creep as the common element between tales.
This film was received by critics such as Roger Ebert with a good, yet very critical response. For instance, Ebert said “Romero and King
have approached this movie with humor and affection, as well as with an appreciation of the macabre”. Vincent Canby wrote for The New
York Times that “the best things about Creepshow are its carefully simulated comic-book tackiness and the gusto with which some good
actors assume silly positions”.
Jay Scott wrote wrote in his review for The Globe and Mail that “The Romero-King collaboration has softened both the horror and the
cynicism, but not by enough to betray the sources – Creepshow is almost as funny and as horrible as the filmmakers would clearly love it
Creepshow has become a cult horror classic for fans all over the world, and the cockroach scene was featured among “The 100 Scariest
Movie Moments” list by Bravo.
The end of the Dead Trilogy.
In 1985 the Dead Trilogy came to an end with the release of Day of the Dead. This film followed the concept established by the two
previous films. The zombie apocalypse was already there, with most of the United States territory sieged by cannibalistic zombies. The
remains of the civilization were held safe in military fortress, where a set of scientists are working to find a solution for the zombie pandemic.
This film did not perform as well as the previous, being criticized mostly because of the acting. For critics like Ebert and Phipps, the actors
were clumsy and their performances was somehow seen as “over-acting” which led to the movie losing a lot of substance.
Despite the criticism and reluctant appreciation by both fans and critics, “Day of the Dead” has been the “Dead” film with the biggest
number of pop culture references. From the Resident Evil movie released in the early 2000s, all the way to music bands like Gorillaz and
Panzer AG, there are several elements of this movie –mostly from the dialogues- included in many audiovisual productions as a clear wink
to Romero’s work and authority in the zombie genre.
At the end of the Dead Trilogy, many critics and film analysts agreed that all three films had an implicit social criticism underneath. While
“Night of the Living Dead” addressed the racial and social issues that took place in the chaotic 60s, “Dawn of the Dead” was very critical
to consumerism as a social leitmotif. “Day of the Dead”, on the other hand, was viewed as a hard criticism towards political and military
policies in terms of science, its uses and its distribution.
All three films are usually viewed as classic and cult movies around the world, and despite having two later films following the same Dead
plotline, these three movies are perceived as the original trilogy and a must-watch for every horror fan. The Dead Series would continue,
but the early trilogy cannot seem to be overlooked.
Romero’s latest work and the rest of the Dead series.
After the release of Day of the Dead, Romero continued to release films whilst collaborating with other directors and producers. In 1988
he released “Monkey Shines”, a movie about the helper monkey of an athlete being left quadriplegic after an accident. Both the ape and
the athlete establish a deep emotional bond, but the story takes a dark twist after the monkey would seemingly become a telepathic vessel
to the athletes’ anger, resentment and thirst for vengeance, giving way to several murders involving those related to the athlete’s accident.
This was Romero’s first studio film and it was poorly received by critics and the general audience, although it has become a popular culture
icon in many respects because of the original plot.
Two years later, Romero collaborated with iconic Italian giallo director Dario Argento in the direction of “Two Evil Eyes” (Ital: Due occhi
diabolici) consisting in a film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” as well as Argento’s early film “The
Black Cat”. The film is a classic for horror fans all over the world, with an elegant presentation on the screen and an impeccable script.
Argento and Romero have stated to be friends with one another, and each of them being a loyal fan of the work of the other.
Romero then worked again with his friend and novelist Stephen King, releasing “The Dark Half” in 1993. The film, which is a strict
adaptation of King’s homonymous novel, had Timothy Hutton and Amy Madigan as leading actors. It was a box-office success, with over
$10 million in gross income. The critics, however, were not particularly enthusiastic about the film, receiving critics such as that given by
Roger Ebert saying that the movie failed to “develop its preternatural opening theme” without a clear and eloquent explanation about the
existence of Stark. Horror fans all over the world, especially those fans of both men, were lukewarm about the results.
In 1990, Romero worked on the original screenplay of “Night of the Living Dead”, participating as an executive producer in the new
version of the film directed by Tom Savini, who had been until then the responsible for makeup and special effects featured in all Romero
zombie movies. This film did not receive as good criticism as its predecessor, but mainly because it was considered by many critics such as
Roger Ebert and Caryn James as an unnecessary remake, due to its almost identical script and screenplay.
In 2004 Romero released a miniseries titled “The Death of Death”. The plot revolved around a zombie from Romero’s universe called
Damien, who is perfectly aware of his zombie condition, remembering his human life and the episode that turned him into an undead, all
while suffering from the psychological damages of his conditions. This miniseries featured a lot of gruesome violence on screen, and also
the social critique taking the form of a satire against corporate greed.
Later that year, the “Land of the Dead” film followed, being the fourth Dead movie by this director. The movie had an excellent reception
among critics and fans, especially because of the social content of the film referring to class conflicts in the modern American society. It
was the highest box-office hit of the Dead series, grossing over $40 million upon its release after an initial budget of $19 million.
Romero went back to independent production of films with the 2008 film “Diary of the Dead”, giving the zombie apocalypse a different
approach focused on the zombie experience rather than the human one.
Next, in 2009, the film “Survival of the Dead” was released at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the Venice Film Festival,
the Fantastic Fest in Austin, and the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal. The film did not enjoy a friendly welcoming among critics,
considered by Lesli Felperin “stepped in fan-pleasing gore but woefully thin on ideas, originality or directorial flair”. Brad Miska kept his
critic in a more formal, academic tone, saying that the film “lacks a clear protagonist, antagonist and theme”. However, a few other critics
did like it. Ray Bennett, for instance, stated that “Survival of the Dead” was a “polished, fast-moving, entertaining picture”.
Future Dead films.
Romero has been a rather acclaimed director inside and outside of the horror genre. His movies are a mandatory milestone for all horror
fans, and every audiovisual content related to the undead and zombies has paid homage in one way or another to Romero’s work. From
Resident Evil to The Walking Dead, this zombie apocalypse concept that is so normative and clear today could’ve not been possible if it
wasn’t for Romero’s creative mind.
He has stated in numerous interviews both in television and in print that he does plan to write and direct further Dead series films. He wants
to keep the continuity of the previous films that, although seemingly individual, have a common storyline in terms of social development and
added elements of the zombie apocalypse narrative.
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