By David Young October 3, 2022
There’s something about zombie movies that speaks to us on a subconscious level. There’s a multi-faceted message that exists there, whether it’s the stupidity of the monsters or the “Us vs. Them” conflict that forms within each of them. These messages, coupled with a horror that has poisoned our minds for decades, were best brought to light by filmmaker George Romero.
Known as the godfather of the zombie movie, his deadly touch has also brought us poignant and weaponized social commentary in each of his horror films – a trait that revolutionized the genre as we know it. To better understand his impact, take a look at the zombie films he used to tell the world to audiences.
As always, you can expect spoilers when you learn what makes a story tick – even a monster movie. Do not hesitate to read the scripts before if you want to be surprised!
Scripts in this article
It is well known that this 1968 film introduced us to the creatures that will soon be called “zombies”. For anyone familiar with his monsters, the word “zombie” isn’t quite accurate – and even Romero himself refers to the creatures as “ghouls” since they eat human flesh. Still, call them what you will, these creatures have become iconic to horror movies ever since that most famous iteration.
But night of the living dead accomplished more than just setting trends in the monster space. Inspired by the vampire-like creatures in the book I’m a legend, this film acts as an experimental reproduction of certain social issues. Notably, the cannibalistic creatures in this film have been seen as symbols of capitalism, representing those who have fallen victim to it — and those who continue to spread this particular cultural disease. There is also a poignant parallel between the insane mobs of ghouls and the repression of certain countercultures of the time, the civil rights movement in the lead.
The conscious link with consumerism is made complete in dawn of the dead, where Romero shows mall-related zombie creatures flocking in droves for no reason. On the screen, he walked away from chiaroscuro lighting – but in the script, it doubles down on the symbolism representing a broken and sick society. From police brutality and racism to obsessive statements about everything in the mall, certain symptoms show up time and time again. There are even connections to the socioeconomic issues that many black and brown communities faced, as evidenced by the way urban populations struggled tremendously with the growing infection.
But there’s something special about the script that the film doesn’t do: it establishes a certain fate for the remaining characters. Fran and Peter are scripted to bring about their own deaths, something that really drives home the sense of doom that often accompanies criticism of material life. Yet the film changes the ending by injecting the unknown. Which best matches what George Romero was trying to say? It’s probably up to the reader – or the viewer.
There is something so much more thoughtful The day of the Deadinsistence on isolation. When you think about it, you know that your own humanity depends in part on the people you surround yourself with. It’s part of what keeps us “sane”, for lack of a better term. This very idea is explored at length through The day of the Deadwhere George Romero provided a scathing insight into the nature of humanity as a whole.
The decisions made, the rising temperatures and the pressures that rise underground with the characters make it an inescapable question: what makes a society? This question permeates the many times when progress and security are hoped for, but not yet achieved. As people break away from functioning society, they begin to experience breakdowns: Dr. Logan’s experiments, Miguel’s inner struggles, and Captain Rhodes’ vengeful actions all demonstrate this breakdown.
The undead in this film serve more as instruments, extensions of a character’s agenda, as Dr. Logan attempts to showcase the rewards of “civility.” As seen throughout the story, the communication breakdown is the real villain, the real nightmare scenario. It is through this collapse, and the subsequent symptoms of a broken society, that collapses. The zombies of The day of the Dead act as a personification of that, rather than the catalyst and cause.
This James Gunn revisit of Romero’s 1978 script recalls some of the same imagery, including the mall as the hub of life. However, this Zack Snyder-directed version also pushed for different situations, including the value of life. This can be seen in the way Frank eliminates his isolation and in the emotions leading up to and surrounding the birth of Luda’s baby zombie. Gunn himself admits to seeing the story in a different light than Romero’s original film, calling it a “redemptive” story.
The narrative focuses on who people are after the disappearance of their past lives – and that focus brings the audience close enough to intimately investigate, whether it’s the friendships or the romances that form when the group is forced to reuniting or CJ’s heroic suicide. The dreams they had were suddenly replaced by the motives of the ‘now’: to bond and to survive. While the ending wavers in its description of the group’s fate, the message of the new dawn of the dead is clear: “What matters in life is what you do with it now.”
The secret of humanity is our ability to adapt. We evolve in a way that goes beyond the physical, through reasoning and tools. It also became our fall in land of the dead, Romero’s portrayal of a normalized future following an undead disaster. The resulting society bears the scars of the harsh survivalist world they endured: scars like cruelty and an oppressive class system.
In light of this grim “new normal” comes the disruption of the status quo: zombies that have also evolved. This symbolic horror flick takes note of tyranny and rebellion and allows them to provoke audiences into a new context – one that makes good use of Romero’s iconic affinity for bloody, troubled psyches.
If you want to know how important George Romero was to the horror genre, take a look at how horror filmmakers reacted after his death in 2017. With him behind the wheel, it’s never “just a zombie movie.”
There are names and faces to the enemies his films build behind these senseless mafia monsters: racism, counter-culture oppression, feudalism, and the weight of the past, to name a few. The 1960s became a time when horrors and thrillers took over – to highlight the dangers of society as we knew it. Of blurred area and sure, there was room for this social commentary to flourish, and on the big screen, Romero accomplished just that!
Read George Romero’s screenplays to familiarize himself with how he used and established the horror tropes within the scope of this commentary.