How zombies lost their meaning

Zombies were once a commentary on everything from civil rights to the Vietnam War.

Dec 26, 2017
Dawn of The Dead Dead

A scene from George A. Romero’s “Dawn of The Dead Dead.”

The first time I saw iconic horror movie filmmaker George Romero in-person was at a convention in Toronto, FanExpo, during a joint panel with fellow filmmaker Dario Argento. Argento, an Italian director whose ‘giallo’ films are often decadent and oversaturated, wasn’t known for making these public appearances. At the far end of a Canadian convention hall, Argento preferred to squirrel himself under the table. Romero, dressed in his signature style as a fisherman, chuckled and apologized for his nervous friend and asked if anyone had any more questions he could tackle.

“Why did you set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall?” asked one fan. Zack Snyder’s remake had recently released. While it’s an uncommon question, each of Romero’s answers was always candid and amusing. He said his first thought upon stepping into a shopping mall was “this place is already creepy.”

George A. Romero, who passed away this July, was a zombie film revolutionary in what is fast becoming a schlock genre. With little more than advertisements and an episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood to his name, he directed the legendary Night of the Living Dead (1968), a haunting classic about perfect strangers trapped in a farmhouse by flesh-eating ghouls. Romero would revisit zombies repeatedly in his career, but they were often little more than a catalyst for truer horrors. For Romero, it wasn’t the decay of flesh that scared him as much as the decay of community.

Romero liked his zombies slow, lurching. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), the undead barely look out of place on the linoleum floors of the shopping center. The gags are the only giveaway, zombies bailing on the escalator or tumbling into fountains. “This was an important place in their lives,” said Stephen Andrews, a helicopter pilot, as the survivors arrive. “Some kind of instinct [or] memory of what they used to do.”

A response to consumerism’s rise in the mid-70s in the face of a declining labour market, Dawn of the Dead sees four survivors, two TV-station workers and two deserting SWAT members attempt to turn the shopping mall into a new home. Fortifying the plaza and clearing out the zombies have their challenges, but what eventually drains them is the shallow existence. Living in the artificial environment—a castle of stores and goods—takes its toll on the survivors. It’s easily brought to ruin when a gang of bikers treat the place exactly for what it is: a building full of stuff.

Zack Snyder’s 2005 version of the film has always been telling. Romero had little to do with the remake, and in the years since Snyder’s worship of financial powers has only grown more obvious (see his worship of an especially crypto-fascist Batman and utter disdain for Superman). Snyder’s version is enjoyable, but a popcorn affair about survivalists in a mall with little criticism of the environment, which by 2005 had been around for generations. His film opens with an apocalypse unraveling around Sarah Polley in the suburbs. Romero’s film opens with a raid on lower-income housing, where police seem to hesitate to shoot the dead more than the living.

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A scene from George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”

The original Night of the Living Dead was created with the Civil Rights Movement in the background. With a shoestring budget and little interfering production powers, there were few filters between that societal turmoil and Romero’s apocalyptic vision. One defining aspect of Romero’s style is that it has the look of newsreels and riot footage. Night of the Living Dead ends with its lead character, a black man, surviving the monsters only to be killed by a callous posse of hunters. 

“This was not Transylvania, but Pennsylvania,” wrote critic Elliott Stein, “this was Middle America at war, and the zombie carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam. In this first-ever subversive horror movie (Night), the resourceful black hero survives the zombies only to be killed by a redneck posse, and a young girl nibbles ravenously on her father’s severed arm—disillusionment with government and patriarchal nuclear family is total.”

The core of Romero’s work has nothing to do with zombies, and arguably nothing to do with the supernatural. A pseudo-vampire gothic, Martin (1978), is stuck right in the middle of Pittsburgh, the New York of Romero’s horror universe. The city feels abandoned. Not because of corpses rising from their grave, it’s just rusting. Jobs and hope are draining, and those that hang around lack purpose. In absence of structure and something to look forward to, fantasy and paranoia brew. Martin, with no substantial evidence, believes himself to be a vampire and to make matters worse his granduncle believes himself to be a vampire slayer.

We can see this fantastical scenario play out internationally. A culture with withering hope and growing frustration, where consumer goods and entertainment are used as a substitute for an actual sense of community. Consequently, we’ve found ourselves in a cycle of conspiracy and nonsense. The nonsense goo is not always vampires and zombies, but it’s not always that far off.

Romero lived out the last chapter of his life in Toronto. He’s buried there. I had the opportunity to attend his public memorial at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. On display were childhood drawings of Donald Duck and lobby cards for The Ten Commandments. Awards and honours from major institutions sat next to the fan-made trophies and puppets. Paul Simon’s Boy In The Bubble played. The Misfit’s sent a floral arrangement shaped like their Fiend logo, and I wondered who you can call to get that last minute.  

Romero’s family took handshakes, hugs and condolences, recognizing many people in the community and thanking them for stopping by. It rained, but in the parking lot were fans and amateur makeup artists gearing up to send off the godfather of zombies. It was, after all, a rare tasteful opportunity to dress up like the undead in a cemetery. It’s peaceful to know that the nightmare Romero portrayed in his films, a world of hateful strangers close to a great downfall, was not the place he lived in.

Dec 26, 2017