George A. Romero didn’t invent the concept of zombies.
They’ve had a spot in Haitian folklore for years (as explored in older films
like White Zombie and more
contemporary films like Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the
Rainbow ). There was also the French World War I reactionary J’Accuse(1919) by Abel Gance,
which featured actual footage from the battleground. Some horror enthusiasts
might even argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.P Lovecraft’s
story Herbert West: Re-Animator were also
significant early entries in the zombie canon.
What Romero can be credited with, however, as the recent
documentary Birth of the Living Dead examines, is the
mainstream popularity of zombies. It all began when he made the film Night of the Living
Dead (1968). It features a group of wayward strangers who’ve found
themselves stuck in an old farmhouse in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. The
film is remembered for its poignant critique of the 60s, when the Vietnam war
was raging, home televisions were still new, and race relations were tenuous at
best (the film was notable for featuring African-American actor Duane Jones as
the male lead). The movie was filmed on a shoestring budget but didn’t stop it from
becoming a cult success that’s still beloved by countless legions of dedicated
A decade later, he came back and made Dawn of the Dead in 1978. It had a
similarly modest budget as his first movie. This film takes place during a
zombie outbreak and centers on a group of survivors who’ve taken up shelter in
the town’s shopping mall. Like the first, it’s full of a ton of symbolism and
was a timely commentary on the day’s rampant consumerism. Despite its highly
graphic content, it became a humongous success both financially and critically,
as it’s almost universally praised by all major movie critics, and it saw its
own re-make in 2004.
Day of the Dead came seven years
later in 1985 and featured a battle between the United States military and a
horde of zombies. Viewers weren’t sure exactly which side to take, as this
installment was pretty ambiguous and caused some watchers to root for the
zombies rather than their very military. Unfortunately, this wasn’t as big of a
commercial success as Dawn was, but it’s a much beloved cult film that
has become a staple of “Grindhouse
Fridays” on El Rey Network, is streamable through some websites, and not only was it remade a few
decades later on, but there is yet another remake in the works.
The trilogy garnered a humongous fan base and inspired many
subsequent movies, but George Romero himself kept quiet on the zombie front for
the rest of the 80s and all throughout the 90s. It was a bit of shock when he
released another zombie flick in the 2000s.
Land of the Dead was released in 2005
in the midst of the Bush administration and featured an opportunistic
politician who tries to use the zombie crisis outlined in the movie as a means
to achieve his own agenda. It was a modern day commentary on war and
xenophobia. Land of the Dead became a great success and grossed over
$46,000,000. It wasn’t considered as good as the movies Night or Dawn, but
critics thought it was an overall decent addition to the Romero library.
Diary of the Dead was the next step
for Romero in 2007. It’s a fictional documentary similar to other cult-hits
like Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch
Project. The film was made to look like amateur footage and makes liberal
use of the shaky-cam technique. This movie strayed rather far from the original
trilogy through its heavy use of CGI but still enjoyed some positive reviews,
although it wasn’t quite as well received as Land.
The final Romero zombie-film was Survival of the
Dead, released in 2010. It took place on a zombie-infested island just
off the coast of North America. This film was both a box-office bust and a
critical failure. It was panned by critics and hardcore Romero fans alike as
being stale and an overall disappointment. This movie alone has likely caused Romero
to lose any future financial investments for a new zombie film down the road,
but luckily it wasn’t bad enough to tarnish the reputation that Romero gained
for his work in the original trilogy.
Apart from his own directorial work, Romero has had a positive and
lasting impact on today’s culture and has inspired a new generation of
directors and filmmakers who grow up enchanted by his work. Zombies have
infected every level of pop-culture from books, to television shows, to movies,
to art, and even to real world events like zombie walks and horror conventions.
He’s inspired many directors to create their own vision of the zombie
apocalypse in new and interesting ways. Danny Boyle, the creator of 28 Days Later, is one of the most
critically acclaimed new director of zombie flicks, and there have been a ton
of other successful zombie stories made that have spanned multiple genres and
George Romero is very much like a modern day Bram Stoker, who took
the old myth of vampires and turned it into a modern day cultural success, and,
like Stoker, his legacy will live on as his movies continues to inspire legions
of fans and newer work based on his original films.