Cultural Relevance in the Zombie Films of George Romero

Chris Freeburn
English 333
Fall 2006

With the foundation of the horror genre set down by such great writers as Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, the monsters of old not only haunt our dreams, but also convey rich themes found deep beneath the surface. The vampire is a symbol of sophistication and seduction while Frankenstein's monster represents oppression, misunderstanding, and finally rebellion. But some of the strongest symbolism found in the standard films of the horror genre comes not from these frequently updated (and rightfully admired) relics. Utilizing horror and fear as vehicles for potent symbolism, subtext and social commentary, George A. Romero has practically created a new genre in horror, one that shines and scares just as wonderfully as the great horror classics. Romero with his breakout masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, would revolutionize the once stagnant zombie film and make it something unstoppable, even still to this day raking in millions of ticket sales at the box office while remaining strikingly culturally relevant.

George A. Romero is a writer director and actor with mixed success throughout his career. He has made lesser known films such as The Crazies and Martin, but his claim to fame lies in what is known as his Dead Series. While all of the four films are centered on an emergence of zombies taking over our world, none of them are direct sequels to one another, having no recurring characters. What makes the films of the Dead Series special is that they use the undead to reflect the world of the living, and to show us our own drawbacks and issues as a society.

With Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero created a totally new version of a dated movie monster, the zombie. Instead of a slave controlled by magic, Romero's zombies were bloodthirsty, shambling, walking corpses. They reanimated and arose shortly after death, spreading like a virus through a small Pittsburg community. The character Barbara and her wisecracking brother are assailed by the walking dead while visiting their mother's grave. Barbara flees for her life in fear as her brother is cruelly murdered by the zombies, sending her into the woods and eventually to a farmhouse where she holes up with many other terrified survivors. The film continues, developing the characters such as Ben, the strong-willed but short-tempered salesman, and his rival Cooper, a shaken, angry, and obviously disturbed family man. Throughout the night, people are burned alive, murdered by zombified family members, shot to death, and dragged out by the merciless hands of the zombie horde. Ben murders the irresponsible Cooper, whose cowardice costs the lives of others, then hides in the house basement until morning. The next day, he rushes to the window at the sound of human voices, realizing a search team has come. The bleak, dark film ends with Ben being mistaken for a zombie by the search team, and promptly shot, and dragged to a bonfire to be burned.

The revolutionary Night's greatness was not just in the way it shocked and disturbed audiences, but the symbolism of the time it was made: the late '60s. It has been debated that the tale of the flesh-eating zombies Romero crafted represented the mindless hawkish mindset a lot of America shared during the Vietnam War. In fact it is the total opposite. Romero used the zombie horde to represent the abrupt and attention-grabbing rise of the youthful hippie generation, swallowing up the classic, conservative ways of America.

I didn't think of them as zombies. It was the '60s, man; we were just smoking and talking about politics. It was about revolution. I wanted to see what happened on that first night and how people dealt with it. (Walters, "Simon Pegg interviews George Romero")
The film was shot in a black-and-white gritty style, very similar to the way the news looked in 1968, giving the film an image that looked as if it was happening, and making the other themes more up front to viewers in that day and age (Harper, "Reappraising an Undead Classic"). Cold War paranoia can be found in the piece with the feelings of isolation and alienation from the outside world turned mindless, and the theory one character has of the zombies being a product of radiation. Romero took advantage of the apocalyptic mindset of the Cold War to make the story even more relevant and chilling with many Americans already contemplating the repercussions of a nuclear arms. Also the presence of Ben, the heroic main character of the film played by a skilled African-American actor Duane Jones, adds another level of complexity. In a time of great social race-related unrest, the movie portrayed a black man as the protagonist, being the most logical and helpful of all the characters. "His grim fate had added resonance with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fresh in the minds of most Americans" (Deming). Displaying an innocent man shot, dragged, and burned on the screen not only showed audiences the disturbing image of what could be racial violence, but showed the images in a realistic and unflinching way. The ending is nihilistic and unhopeful for any future with the cause of Ben's death not being the zombies, but other men. This theme of men being the true enemy is prevalent through all of the Dead Series.

The following film, Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978, to become the best-known zombie film of them all. Roger Ebert calls it "One of the Best Horror Films Ever Made," and with rave reviews across the board, Dawn of the Dead is the best of the Dead Series. The film takes place during the same event as the first film, only with a brand new crew of characters to follow. A police officer named Peter and his friend decide to skip town after raiding a house full of reluctant immigrants and a basement packed with the undead. Joining a pilot and his girlfriend, they escape the dying city in a helicopter, spotting out a shopping mall to take refuge in. The unlikely group of protagonists make their way into the mall, fortifying it and finding the life there much more comfortable than they had ever hoped. The film has a great deal of character development, making them feel like true people instead of caricatures. As the film goes on, zombies kill off characters as they try to make the mall safer and in the end, a gang of bikers break into their home, destroying what they have salvaged and letting the undead in. Peter fights off the other men, killing their leader and retreating to the survivors' makeshift hideout with the moaning, hungry dead stumbling at his heels. Peter hardly makes it alive to the rooftop where he and the female survivor Francine lift off with little fuel, unknown of their fates.

Dawn of the Dead is one of the most entertaining and fascinating satires of a huge element of American culture: consumerism.

All the zombies are going to the mall, the centre of consumerism, they don't know why, but that's where they want to be, that's where they need to be. The mall was an important place in their lives, even though most of what is found are not necessities to human survival. (Baily)
The characters of the film retreat in the mall and end up living a sort of surreal suburban dream, with every material thing they ever wanted at their fingertips. In a time of crisis, they hold on to one of the few things we value in western culture, material possessions. In the end when the gang destroys these possessions it shows how the anarchist viewpoint is just as mindless and instinctive. They wish to destroy and rob the valuables of others and the heroes try to defend these things. The way the film treats consumerism paints a portrait not far from real life events. "Examples of this can be seen daily: the Los Angeles riots (what started as massive politically motivated protest quickly turned into banal looting and senseless violence)" (Mes).

The irony in Dawn of the Dead is that in the end, merchandise has no value without a society for it to benefit. The efforts of the human heroes and villains are useless in the end, and the zombies take over the mall.

Another more subtle comment is the way the SWAT team in the beginning of the film reacts to their situation. Sent in to rescue a building of Cuban immigrants, the scene turns into a massacre, more of the innocents dying in the gunfight than zombies. This hints at the way Americans looked at immigration during the '70s. And in the end the familiar theme of the true villains being human kind returns. The people fight over petty possessions and murder each other, not the zombies who only act according to their nature.

The third film in the Dead Series is the black sheep, Day of the Dead, and not nearly as well received by critics or fans of the first films. "The characters shout their lines from beginning to end, their temples pound with anger, and they use distracting Jamaican and Irish accents, until we are so busy listening to their endless dialogue that we lose interest in the movie they occupy," Ebert says.

Marred by production problems and under-funded, the film went through many script revisions before becoming the Day of the Dead that we know today. The plot revolves around a military complex and the people inside, years after the zombies have taken over the world. The scientists study the zombies and even successfully communicate with one of them, named Bub, attempting to train him like a dog. Tensions rise between the scientists and the military as the bodies of the dead begin to disappear. When the soldiers realize the scientists have been using the bodies of their fallen comrades to reward the zombie they've trained, conflict breaks out, resulting in many a death. The surviving scientists and soldiers battle to make it to the surface as hundreds of zombies get into the complex, making for the blood soaked climax. The heroes make it to the helicopter, while the last soldier is surprisingly injured by Bub with a pistol, and left to the hungry mouths of the zombie horde.

Day of the Dead is known to be more of a straightforward zombie film without much to say underneath the surface, but it still certainly retains its George Romero subtext. For the first time, the main protagonist of the movie is a woman, Sarah. Contrasting greatly to Night's catatonic Barbara, she shows confidence and strength that often overshadows the men around her. She even goes as far as to amputate the bitten arm of a wounded soldier to strop his infection from spreading. She is underestimated and mistreated, but strong-willed and brave. She represents how progressive ideas in western culture helped the image of women, both in life and on the screen.

Sarah is independent to the point of towering over her whining boyfriend. She is a reflection of women in the eighties. (Mes)
Ultimately, the conflict of the story is almost entirely based around the humans. The complex they live in is safe from the zombie onslaught (until they are let in) and there isn't any imminent danger from the zombies until near the end of the film. The stresses of living around the dead, being governed by others and the objectives of the two sides are what cause the death and suffering throughout the movie. "Day of the Dead also satirizes the military mindset" (Wikipedia Film). The soldiers' brutish, hawkish mindset when it comes to interacting with the scientists and solving their problems eventually turns them into the villains of the story.

The final film (thus far) in the series is Land of the Dead, released in 2005. With the largest budget Romero had yet received, he went to Canada to film Land, which has been praised by many critics, although with a rough reception from fans. Land of the Dead turns the zombie films of old on their heads, much of the movie following a group of zombies lead by a leader who incredibly, has begun to think again. They lumber towards Fiddler's Green, a fortified tower complex that houses the remaining rich and wealthy humans, while the poor live out on the streets, forced to get by on the bare minimum. Cholo, the head of a squad of raiders, saves enough money to have a living within Fiddler's Green, but is cruelly turned down by the prejudice, wealthy president of the complex. Enraged, he steals a tank-like vehicle and holds the tower for ransom. His friend, Riley is forced by the president of Fiddler's Green to find and arrest Cholo. The movie comes to its conclusion when Cholo is disarmed, but the city falls anyways due to the zombies, who find a way into the Green and destroy the materialist fortress inside.

Land of the Dead is the film with the least subtle subtext, a lot of the themes spread out on the table so that not only the careful watchers will find them. Constant references to the post 9/11 of paranoia are obvious, with Fiddler's Green being a large skyscraper. The thick security and sacrifice made for safety in the film is similar to the extremes taken by the government to prevent terrorism. "I said, 'Gee, this is even more interesting now!' To make it sort of address this new normal.... So I was a little fast and loose with some of the referencing, you know the 9/11 / post-9/11 stuff in it. But I think it makes it a little stronger," says Romero (Murray). The President, Kaufman, makes reference to Cholo being a terrorist in his act of defiance, and refuses to compromise with him. Also, the huge schism in the social classes displayed in the film seems to be an exaggerated reflection of the current state of Conservative America. Today, the social classes seem to be drifting further apart, with people like immigrants and the poor totally ignored socially. Romero represents this as the rich men living in the tower, the poor outside, and worse off, the zombies. "If Fiddler's Green is America's class disparity through Romero's satirically warped looking glass, then the zombies are the Third World scratching at the borders" (Axmaker).

All of the films of the Dead Series have a lot to offer, both as wonderfully visceral and relentless horror films, and as a time capsule to observe the issues of the past and the present. No other series of films takes what is so richly found in the world around them, and projects them on screen, using the dead to satirize the way we live. The irony of that adds a whole new level to these movies, making them treasures that have and will stand the test of time.

The culminating theme of all of these films is that no matter what horror lies under your bed or in your closet, they are not to fear, because human beings are so much more terrifying in reality. In Night, Dawn, and Day, the fates of the heroes are made grim mostly by the other characters, and not the zombies themselves. In fact in Land of the Dead, the zombies are seen even as a liberating force, destroying the power of the oppressors and returning freedom and balance to those who are held down, even if it is only a byproduct of their hunger. Man is the great enemy, and Romero has used his films time and time again to remind us that the zombies are just reflections of ourselves, and we must learn to coexist with the people around us if we want to survive this world.

"They're us. We're them, and they're us."
Night of the Living Dead

Works Cited

Axmaker, Sean. "You can't keep a good zombie movie with social commentary down." Seattle PI 24 June 2005.

Baily, Wen C. "Retrospect on Dawn of the Dead."

Deming, Mark. "Review of Night of the Living Dead."

Ebert, Roger. "Review of Dawn of the Dead."

---. "Review of Day of the Dead."

Harper, Steven. "Reappraising an Undead Classic."

Mes, Tom. "Retrospective on Dead Films." P.2)

---. "Retrospective on Dead Films." P.3)

Murray, Rebecca. "George Romero talks Land of the Dead."

Walters, Ben. "Simon Pegg interviews George Romero."


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