Tuesday, January 10, 2006

George Romero did not "invent" the zombie genre.

Note: Since this is part two of a sort of trilogy of Zombie articles that I'm writing, I'm going to ease up on the linking of films and people I have already covered this go around.

Though many Romero fans have for years given him credit as the creator of the zombie genre, this movement really geared up when trying to sell the latest installment of his series, Land of The Dead. In a sense it was true. The zombie revival consisted entirely of films influenced by his work. Many even reused concepts from his films besides the basic zombie rules. 28 Days Later may not have been a "true zombie film" seeing as it dealt with an epidemic of a disease that caused savage rage and not the undead, but Romero used a similar theme in his follow up to Night of The Living Dead, The Crazies (1973). Also, 28 Days borrowed greatly from the original dead trilogy. Best example being the tensions at the military base and the captured zombie that they feed. These feel like the screenwriter must have left Day of the Dead on in the background while writing. Even the train wreck House of the Dead tried to buy itself fan-cred by featuring a Randy exposition to give praise to the "Holy Trinity." The least Romero-based zombie movie of the new wave is Undead. The mild success of that movie was not because of quality, but because of zombie fans support for the independent underdog, and an exceptional level of originality in concept that was missing from its peers. Still even Undead bows to its roots with headshots to kill zombies among other more subtle nods.

Still, Romero did not invent the genre. Zombie movies predate his by decades. Among the essential classics are White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Romero's Night of the Living Dead was only made in 1968. These earlier zombie films commonly dealt with more traditional zombies, as in those made by the practice of voodoo. (Plan 9 being an exception with its alien involvement, which may have been an influence on Undead.) It should also be pointed out that Romero's original never used the word "zombie." He has pointed out himself that had set out to make a film about a kind of undead ghouls. It was not until the indirect sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), that the Z word got dropped. Night offered no definite explanation for why the dead were rising, and Romero had intended more possible explanations besides the mysterious comet tail's radiation. Dawn of the Dead was the first time voodoo was a suggested possibility in his series.

Along with many previous films existing there is the fact that Night was not particularly original in some respects. He has cited the vampire classic I Am Legend as a major influence, but I have never (perhaps for good reason) heard any comment made about the far too under-appreciated adaptation of the novel starring Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth (1964). Though this film is supposed to be about vampires, they bare a strong resemblance to Romero's brand of zombies. For one, they are a mass epidemic started by air-born virus. Before it eventually takes over civilization, the bodies of the infected are incinerated. All the classic vampire weapons (garlic, crucifixes, mirrors, sunlight and stakes) are used, but the trade make lumbering of Romero's zombies is totally there. The scenes of them pounding against the walls of the house, trying to get to the narrator (Price) are the most obvious element borrowed by Romero. Even the twist ending evokes similar reactions.


At the end of Last Man on Earth we discover that the vampires have actually made a kind of organized underground civilization and that the narrator is considered a savage butcher for hunting them. Incidentally, we discover that the reason has survived the plague is because he is immune. Unfortunately he is killed before you can cure them. At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the only survivor of the original group (a black man in the 60s) is seen through a window by a zombie hunting party and shot dead, mistaken for one of them. As the credits rise we see photos of the undead being burned and meat hooks that evoke a question of humanity that is further questioned throughout the series. In his latest sequel, Land of the Dead goes so far as to suggest that maybe we are the problem, not them.


Throughout the late 50s into the 60s there was a growing movement towards films where the monster was not a single beast but masses of people or humanoid vessels under the control of a force. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) used this theme best to convey a feeling of alienation. The protagonist is pursued as an outsider, a rebel, by the legions of zombie like pod people. This use of horror as a medium for subtle cultural satire is very present in Night and is often looked at as Romero's calling card that separates him from the other zombie filmmakers, the idea that you can visually express a feeling that will resonate with the audience without making a grand statement. When that feeling is a fear or anxiety, you're dealing with the essence of great horror. His masterpiece of this form was Dawn, with its masses of zombies ambling around in a super mall. His style of substance over cheap scares has best been mirrored recently with the homage Shaun of the Dead and more seriously in the French film They Came Back.

I mean no disrespect to Romero with all of this, nor do I mean to lessen his importance as a figure in horror and the zombie sub-genre. He is hands-down the most important zombie filmmaker out there. His early films had substance that is seldom seen in similar exploitative horror. He is the most imitated director of the sub-genre. Rare is the zombie film that does not steal from him. The only pure film I can think of is West Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) (Craven's most underrated if not best film), which returned to the roots of zombie horror in Haiti and looked at the actual art of voodoo zombification as Wade Davis described it in his book of the same name.

I feel the best way to look at Romero's role is to compare him to George Waggner and Curt Siodmak, the director and writer of The Wolf Man (1941). There were many films about werewolves made prior to the Lon Chaney Jr. lead classic, but it was this film that set the rules that are now household knowledge. The Wolf Man was the film to stress silver as the way to kill a werewolf, to make presence of gypsies such a common theme. It is the film that has most shaped the genre over the years and been borrowed from, but it's not the first. Romero has done the same thing, he has made the classic zombie film. Nothing before had perhaps been so dark and violent in the genre as when we first saw the little girl in Night of the Living Dead stabbing her mother with a spade and the ghouls devouring the remains of two victims pulled from a car accident. He pushed the gore to European levels, and shaped the zombie into a man-eater that spreads its plague by bite and can only be killed by trauma to the brain.

I feel it is a disservice to underrate a great filmmaker, but also, I feel it is a great disservice to overrate one and that that disservice is actually to the filmmaker.


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