Zombies seem to be everywhere recently don’t they? It’s okay, I did not mean it literally, you can remove the locks of the door now! No, what I meant was that in the last few years the zombie mythology has become firmly embedded in pop culture. With The Walking Dead bringing in huge ratings numbers and zombie films with a heart like Shaun of the Dead, it seems you cannot walk down the street without some form of zombie merchandise in your way. Now zombies have been in cinema for a long time now. Their origins lie in Haitian folklore and they were originally slaves to their voodoo masters. The zombies we know and love, the ones that will munch down your entrails rather than look at you, came into being because of one man. That man is George A. Romero. The comedy spectacled legend has been recognized as the father of the modern zombie, he has even appeared in a video game where he comes face to face with his creations (Call of duty : Black Ops expansion pack). If you truly love zombies, you need to look at what this man has given us, and he has given us a lot.
With Night of the Living Dead, George created a template not just for zombies, but for the zombie movie itself. You will be hard pressed to find a zombie film now days that does not have one of the following
- Solo character fighting against a zombie near the start.
- Getting a group of people together and letting them rant and rave at each other, then slowly killing them off one by one.
- Close ups of zombies ripping pieces of flesh off people.
- Strong minority characters.
- Stupid government types.
All of these came from Romero, most from this one movie. With Night he created not only a new version of a zombie, but also their need for flesh. He gave us a strong black character (which was controversial at the time), but the main thing he gave us was shock. In Romero’s films you never know who is going to survive. Take Night for example. If you have not seen Night of the Living Dead yet (I know it’s a long shot but still if you have not), then this will spoil the end! With Ben returning from the cellar only to be shot by some red necks and loose cannon cops, because his eyes were glazed over from been in the dark to long, just shows that no person is safe. Another thing this movie gave us was a human hero. What I mean by this is the hero is flawed, they just want to live and sometimes they mess up big style. In this movie Ben makes the wrong choice in the end and pretty much every one dies because of it. This is not his fault and you kind of empathize with him, because how the hell would you act in the face of the undead? On a side note Romero also gave us the first naked zombie so whoo hoo for that to.
With Dawn of the Dead, Romero continues to break ground by giving us the now complete zombie look. Those dead eyes staring back at you while they writhe and waddle towards you; with their blue make up faces with blood and gore smashed all over them is the look that most people of a certain era will associate with the Romero zombie. The introduction of a biker gang who just kill zombies (and humans) for kicks is now a staple of modern zombie flicks, but it all came from here. We also see the start of gore effects coming into play. Sure the zombie who gets his head chopped off by the helicopter has a massive head, but boy is it fun to watch that head been whipped off! Tom Savini was a big part in these movies and his calibrations have given us some zombie gems. Romero has always had an interest in social commentary and it comes to the fore front here, with the survivors in the mall slowly becoming dead inside, while the zombies on the ground floor going about their daily shopping sprees like nothing has happened to them. It’s quite a funny and powerful image to see these undead things pick up jewellery and try it on with a shocked expression on their faces, while the survivors upstairs slowly look more like the zombies they are trying to fight against. Romero does write characters that are not always fleshed out so well, but do have an impact when they are killed or worse turned. This for me is the most shocking of all Romero’s films, with two iconic scenes involving main characters returning from the dead, each one been more horrific than the next.
Day of the Dead takes a slightly different approach and moves straight into the humans trapped in one place fighting routine. Only this time it is a war between the military grunts and everyone else with zombies mixed in for good measure. Most of the army types are utter scum bags that get joy out of teasing the humans they work with, just as much as the zombies they grab for scientific experiments. It’s kind of fun to hate them to be honest, but their deaths are still some of the most brutal and chilling ever to be seen in a zombie movie. While Dawn scared you, this when freaks you the hell out! We also have the first intelligent zombie Bub, who likes to bop out to his stereo. He also understands feelings and seeks revenge, firing a gun at the man who murdered his carer. Films like Fido and I, Zombie all use the human zombie elements seen with Bub here. He just looks pretty awesome to, like he would be your best friend (if you kept him fed!).
These three films are the ones where most of Romero’s groundbreaker work is seen, but his other movies also have plenty to offer. Even though it was made mainly to make back money they lost working on the original, the first re make of Night of the Living Dead is fun in its own right and has the great twists with a strong Ripley style Barbara and a great zombified Ben. It is not a patch on the original, but boy it’s great to watch with the lights out! Land of the Dead has Dennis Hopper off his face again (surely reason enough to watch it), but it also gives us the first zombie since Bub with intelligent thought and not just that an almost hive mind, that he spreads to the rest of the zombies to make semi intelligent beings. A new race of zombies that have evolved and can think for themselves is pretty freaky, when you know they can now figure out how to open your door to get in! Diary of the Dead brings the zombies into the shaky cam era, a new concept for zombie flicks but not for the general public as this was becoming old hat even then. Still there is a strange fright to be had with a zombie walking up to a discarded camera as if it is coming straight for you. Survival of the Dead has been his last one so far and though it is the weakest of the lot, we finally see zombies actually eating animals rather than people. We also get our first zombie horse and zombie rider. I’ll admit not so scary but a great zombie first!
Zombies are awesome, that goes without saying. But its thanks to the ground breaking work that George did that have helped zombies get to where they are today, standing toe to toe with Jason, Freddy and Michael. He created an entire genre on his own. Without him we would have had no Shaun of the Dead, a film that helped to explode zombies into the mainstream. Though not all of his zombie films are winners, they all have something unique about them, something only Romero can bring. He is a creator of fear and let’s hope he never changes that.
For more on Romero, Check out these links…
- Random-Ass Movie Reviews: CREEPSHOW (1982)
- Call of Duty: Escalation (Starring Trejo, Rooker, George A. Romero, Freddy Kruger, & Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
- #30 – Countdown to Halloween: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
- #21 – Countdown to Halloween: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
- #21b – Countdown to Halloween: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
- The Best of the Genre (By Decade): Top 30 “70s Horror Movies”
Keep an eye out as another character on the Countdown will be revealed every night for the rest of the month. You’ll also be able to find them HERE.