Years ago, a co-worker was raving to me about television series The Walking Dead. As I had a bit of spare time I watched a few episodes, maybe even the first season. I remember thinking that it was quite good, but that fans who found it so original must have never seen a George Romero film.
Romero will always be linked to his Living Dead series. It seems lazy to reduce his work to those handful of films, but it’s hard to ignore that a cheap, black and white film changed American culture and fifty years later his ideas are more influential than ever. Everyone loves zombies. No one knows Romero.
Romero created the idea of the modern zombie, a relentless, often disfigured figure that exists only to hunt and eat. In the horror genre, the individual antagonist is often a larger than life figure with an outsized presence and personality, and often supernatural durability.
Romero’s zombies were the direct opposite, shambling, weakened and often ineffective, and therein laid their danger. Because they were so easily overcome, it was easy for characters to become overconfident when facing them, only for some critical factor to go wrong and now you were faced with a terrible death, or a loathsome disease. Romero’s zombies were deadly because they were endless. They could make a thousand mistakes. You could only make one.
Over time as others interpreted his ideas, the ghouls became more grisly, and the action became more frenetic and the spectacle became more over the top. Romero was neatly excised from his own creation, his last two films Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead were budgeted at $2 million dollars and $4 million dollars respectively, while The Walking Dead found it nearly impossible to make an hour-long television episode at $2.7 million a show. Often, the soul of his work was lost.
Why does this exist?
Great artists ask themselves this question all the time. Obviously entertainment is a business and the motive is profit, but an artist always has something to communicate, something that distinguishes their work from everyone else. Romero wasn’t satisfied with splatter, his work looked at humanity and found it lacking. His magnum opus Dawn of the Dead provides context for the entire series, the zombie plague is presented almost as punishment for the carnal nature of our existence. They are us, stripped of any illusion or pretense, just a raw desire to consume even if eating doesn’t seem particularly nourishing. Tellingly, the zombie still retains the basic desire for the trappings of its former lifestyle even if it doesn’t know why, or what it’s supposed to do once it gets there. We can laugh at the zombies wandering the mall, completely perplexed as to why they can’t leave, but eventually we have to face what force makes us want the latest phone, fashion, or car. The protagonists find themselves in the same situation. In one of my favorite shots, Gaylen Ross’s character sits in front of a mirror, wearing the finest clothes, the best makeup, and looking absolutely radiant – and she is utterly miserable.
In this moment, Romero tells us that our possessions are meaningless without feedback from that society, and it’s the interaction with people that means everything. In his next couple films of the series he explores an even darker idea, that the zombies are regaining their humanity as we lose ours, with their ignorance of class, race or any social hierarchy. They are not the deterioration of life as we know it, they are the evolution.
That idea has not gone over well. Audiences have preferred more vacuous zombie films. In another cruel injustice, Romero’s entire oeuvre has been reduced to his dead trilogy when he was capable of so much more.
Season of the Witch revealed that he was capable of a completely different sort of pacing, while The Crazies is a hidden gem of paranoia and tension that brings to mind Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Martin, a film about a misanthrope that is convinced he is a vampire, is thought by many to be his greatest film, and to be honest, it may be his most genuinely frightening work, while Creepshow is an explosion of color and playfulness that hadn’t been seen previously. His next few films were more mainstream but still had his trademark depth as he explored themes of internal conflict. He also brought fans much beloved series Tales from the Darkside.
It is regrettable that when it comes to art, most work doesn’t get the praise it should until the artist passes away and we re-examine it. George Romero deserved more fame, and attention and praise than he got, and he certainly never made the money he should have. He did not get the ability to make the films that he wanted to, or was capable of, and now it’s too late to fix it.
I never met George Romero, but I spent a lot of time with him, hiding his video tapes and sneaking them in the basement when my parents weren’t around. It’s impossible to know how he influenced what I do or what I prefer to see. So in a very communal way, I will miss him. But the hardest pill to swallow is that more people won’t. They’ll see headline about the guy who directed Night of the Living Dead. They’ll make some sort of noise. And then they’ll move on.
It’s just not fair.