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Zompocalypse Now: Re-Examining George Romero’s Legacy as Horror Movie Icon!

By Brandon Engel

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If it wasn’t for George A. Romero, we wouldn’t have shows like The Walking Dead or ammunition companies selling bullets branded for the zombie apocalypse. Romero didn’t create zombies per se, but we can safely credit him with setting the groundwork for the modern zombie mythos.

Best known for his Dead series, Romero specialized in blending nightmarish visions with critical social commentary. The first installment of this series was Night of the Living Dead (1968) brought zombies to feed with a backdrop commentary on global social injustices and the degree to which media outlets themselves act as purveyors of grotesque imagery. The film tells the story of a group of strangers who are forced to cooperate in an abandoned house. Filmed in black and white, this film created a sub-genre of horror films that spawned modern zombie films and shows, such as The Walking Dead, parodies including Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Warm Bodies can all thank their existence to the influence of Mr. Romero’s 1968 cult classic.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) continued Romero’s use of social commentary. A group of journalists and a specialized military unit seek refuge in a shopping mall with zombies waiting around every corner waiting to eat them. The movie is not simply about the friends’ struggle against the zombies, but also explores the rampant greed and consumerism that characterized much of the seventies. Part of what makes the film brilliant is that it also explores the disparity between the quality of life between the have and have nots. We not only have formerly affluent zombies puttering around the shopping mall, but we also see impoverished communities ravaged by the zombie pandemic in the housing projects. The film was also a notable collaboration between Romero and Italian horror icon Dario Argento, who assisted with the script, and some versions of the film also feature a score by the band Goblin, who scored most of Argento’s best known works.

Romero’s “Dead” anthology continued in the classic 1985 Day of the Dead. In this installment, Romero turns his attention to the United States military. The film takes place in a bunker full of military officials who, together with some scientists, are trying to survive while the world above them is taken over by zombies. When we look at the bizarre (and often cruel) experiments that are being performed on the zombies (which could easily be read as a nod to medical war crimes committed during the holocaust) viewers might find themselves shifting their loyalties from the humans to the zombies. This film didn’t perform as well at the box office as its predecessors, but it has performed well in the home viewing markets, and it’s becoming more familiar to young audiences now thanks to frequent showings on El Rey Network that DirecTV offers to its subscribers.

After two decades had passed, Romero returned a new zombie film for the eager viewing public with Land of the Dead (2005). The movie also returned the social commentary from his early films, with a critique of class warfare within American capitalism. The movie’s characters exist in a post-apocalyptic world, and features a notable performance from Dennis Hopper as a corrupt politician. Like Dawn, Land also examines class warfare: the poor live on the streets of the city, and the wealthy, who sequester themselves high above in an area called “Fiddler’s Green.” As tensions within the city grow, the zombies that have taken over the world outside its walls become increasingly intelligent, learning to communicate with one another as they begin trying to breach the walls.

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A short time later, Romero returned with Diary of the Dead (2007), in which a group of college students camping in the woods encounter zombies after the first outbreaks. The film is replete with gore, and what sets the film apart from its predecessors stylistically is that the entire story is told from the perspective of one of the student’s camera lens as he films constantly throughout. He insists he keeps filming even as his friends die around them because he believes that mass media representations can’t be trusted. The message behind this offering seems to be the problems we come up against living in a society in which we have information overload. We are unable to trust what we read or see in news media.

Then, there was the regrettable Survival of the Dead (2009), Romero’s most recent entry in the Dead anthology, brought rampant criticism. Fans expressed dismay at what they perceived as a muddled message. Romero attempts to discuss the increase in apathy in modern life through this horror offering, but his subtle (if not conceptually underdeveloped) message is eclipsed by the gore itself. The film was such a disappointment at the box office, that Romero has struggled to gain financing for another Dead film.

George A. Romero’s influence on the horror film industry is undeniable. As the inventor of the modern zombie, his work has inspired and spawned a cultural obsession with all things zombie. Thanks to his genius, horror films will never be the same.

 

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