George A. Romero and the Birth of the Modern Zombie

by Phillip López Jiménez

It was Friday the 13, August of 1982, when this fourteen year old along with a couple of friends first went to a Midnight screening of Dawn of The Dead (1979). Though Dawn wasn’t my first exposure to Mr. Romero and his zombies (that had happened in the 70’s when I stumbled upon a showing of Night of The Living Dead on the local PBS station) it would be one of those touchstones in my life when I learned that a horror picture could do much more than provide chills and mayhem.

“They’re Coming to Get You Barbara.” The Zombie as Harbinger of Social Justice.

Romero’s pictures often commented on the socio/political state of America at the time in which the films were made. This is the setting for Night of The Living Dead: a young woman, Barbara (Judith O’ Dea) and her brother are visiting the grave of their deceased father when they are attacked by what at first seems like a crazed old man. Barbara flees to an abandoned farm house and holes up. A young man, Ben (Duane Jones) shows up and joins her. He discovers that there are more people hiding in the basement and they all proceed to fortify the house from the hoard of zombies outside, while tensions rise on the inside. It was released in 1968, the most turbulent year in American history. Through his movies Romero often brought out the issues that plagued the country, such as the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War, race riots and the deterioration of the American nuclear family. In the NTLD by hiring established black New York stage actor Duane Jones to play Ben (whose race is never explicitly mentioned in the script) he created a character that would subconsciously add a layer of dramatic tension between the living characters. Racial tension is never mentioned or even hinted at. Romero instead lets the viewer interpret it for themselves. Ben from the get go is a take charge man who keeps a cool head and barks orders at the group stuck inside the house, while the chaos outside surrounds them. This was an anomaly thrown out there for people to see and digest, perhaps go home with a seed sown in their minds.

By the end of the picture Ben ends up the lone survivor but alas, is shot dead by the local militia that mistakes him for a zombie. The end credits play over a grainy photo montage of a pile of dead zombies on top of the pile is the limp body of Ben. The militia burn the bodies much like the dehumanized victims of Hitler’s holocaust. The last half hour of NOTLD scared the bejesus out of this 10 year old. When it was over I turned the TV set off and sat there in our family den staring in silence. I had never seen anything so unforgiving and unapologetic. Romero gave me no explanation as to why the zombie plague had happened and no happy ending. I was frightened. I continued to stare at the greenish hue of my reflection in the CRT of the RCA TV in the family den much like the characters in the picture. Is this how the grown up world will be? Apparently so…

When There’s No More Room In Hell The Dead Will Walk The Earth. The Zombie as consumer.

Before the advent of Black Friday, the apocalyptic shopping day after Thanksgiving, Romero came up with a new scenario. In Dawn of The Dead (1979) Romero transports a new group of survivors, two SWAT team troopers, Peter and Roger and two news station reporters; Stephen, a helicopter pilot and his partner Fran who is in the early stages of pregnancy, to a new kind of hide out…an indoor shopping mall.

After the turmoil of the sixties America mellowed out and wanted to chill and a shopping mall was just the place. The concept of the shopping mall was created by Architect Victor Gruen as a way of bringing people to a common place. Early malls weren’t just stores but had public art, sculptures, interesting architecture, movie theaters and were a place of community. Again Romero’s zombies are the harbinger of what is to come. Romero puts his heroes into this mall and holing up inside makes sense, once they clear out the zombies and fortify the mall they’ll have everything they’ll ever need…or so it seems.

When I first saw the film the image that really resonated with me was the shot of Fran and her now fiancé Stephen, in bed motionless. At first this fourteen year old thought they had become zombies and in a way they had. Without a reason to fight and with everything at their fingertips they had become emotionless automatons. Romero, with one shot, had shown us the subtext of his picture. Again his zombies are us living or dead.

With the passing of George A. Romero, cinema has lost its one working class voice. Romero’s multi layered horror pictures, not just his zombies but his junkie as vampire film “Martin” among others, paved the way for such cerebral horror filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper. Thank you George Romero for the chills and thrills. You will not be forgotten.