The American nightmare
looks at the career of moviemaker George Romero, who died July 16.
"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."
-- Karl Marx
"They're coming to get you, Barbara."
-- Johnny, Night of the Living Dead
THE "THEY" that were coming for poor Barbara--and for us in the audience--changed frequently from film to film over the course of horror-master George Romero's career. Racism, consumer culture, Reagan-era militarism, the ruling class--all were fair game for the father of the modern zombie movie, who died on July 16 after a career in film spanning nearly 40 years.
Romero's best and most-enduring film was his first--1968's Night of the Living Dead. It was made by a group of friends and shot on a shoestring budget outside of Pittsburgh in just 30 days, with the cast and crew working in 24-hour shifts. Friends played the zombies, and the meat and entrails needed for the gore were helpfully provided by a friend who was a butcher.
Night of the Living Dead tells the story of a group of survivors of a zombie outbreak seeking shelter in a farmhouse--catatonic Barbara, whose brother Johnny is killed in the opening scene, squabbling parents Harry and Helen and their young daughter Karen, young couple Tom and Judy, and protagonist Ben. [Editor's note: Spoilers abound throughout this article, but it's your fault if you haven't seen these movies already.]
The film masterfully ratchets up the tension as the survivors fall victim to the zombies, before ending on a note that is both shocking and beautifully bleak, and stands as not only a masterpiece of modern horror, but one of the starkest commentaries on racism in American film.
While zombies had been depicted in American film before Night of the Living Dead, they were, essentially, not monsters but slave labor. Romero's genius was in taking zombies and turning them into a slow, inexorable, mindless force bent only on feeding--a force that he would use as an allegorical foil in multiple films.
NIGHT OF the Living Dead was one of a number of horror movies from the late 1960s and '70s that were shaped by the massive upheavals taking place in American society.
Romero and other horror icons, like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, who emerged at the time transmitted on screen what they saw in the world: the violence of police, dogs and fire hoses being used against civil rights marchers; city streets burning in the wake of urban rebellions; body bags and the escalating horrors of Vietnam.
The monstrous was already taking place in real America every day, and making its way into living rooms on the evening news. It was only natural that this should find its way onto the big screen as well.
As Romero commented in the 2000 documentary The American Nightmare, explaining the choice to shoot his first movie in black and white, "In those days, the news was in black and white, and black and white was the medium...I thought it was great, you know, this idea of a revolution...a new society devouring the old completely and just changing everything."
"Obviously," Romero added, "what's happening in the world creeps into any work."
In contrast to the multitude of zombies in horror today--from the Walking Dead to World War Z, the endless iterations of Romero's own Living Dead series, and even a genre of "zombie romantic comedies"--Night of the Living Dead was the first time that an act of cannibalism had been portrayed on a U.S. movie screen.
The scene of a young child eating her parents was shocking for what it said about a society so at odds with itself, as evidenced by the racist violence used against civil rights activists and the increasing numbers of young men returning home from Vietnam in body bags or still alive, but profoundly changed by the horrors of war.
In fact, the look of Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead owes much to effects artist Tom Savini, who used his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam as inspiration.
While Romero didn't originally intend for Night of the Living Dead to be a commentary on race and racism, the casting of Black actor Duane Jones as protagonist Ben makes it impossible to not see the film this way. Because of Jones, scenes in the film evoke lynchings, the terror of the Klan and the civil rights movement.
That Ben is authoritative and seemingly in control throughout--slapping Barbara out of hysterics at one point and telling Harry to "Get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I'm boss up here"--only underscores the gut-punch of the casual brutality of his death. It is one of the most emotionally devastating endings in modern film, not just horror.
In a twist of fate, Romero and his collaborators finished the film and loaded it in a car trunk to take to New York to find a distributor on April 4, 1968--the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
PART OF the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead is the way it builds tension through demolishing movie conventions--the ostensible heroine becomes catatonic for virtually the entire film, only to be eaten by her brother; the young couple in love are burned alive and eaten; the nuclear family is (literally) torn apart as a zombified child chomps on her dad and then hacks mom to death with a trowel.
Just when dawn is breaking and rescue seems imminent for Ben--who has, against all odds, survived the long night of the zombie hordes--he is nonchalantly gunned down. Shot between the eyes by a white sheriff's posse, he is reduced to "another one for the fire," his body dragged away with hooks.
As Renée Graham wrote recently in the Boston Globe about seeing the film in 1968:
Everyone in the posse is white. Ben is African American. I was a child, but the message I received was depressingly clear: They killed Ben because they believed a Black man had to be a threat. A Black hero equaled a dead hero...
Already, 1968 had been a beast of a year. On an April night, as my family prepared to celebrate my father's birthday, a TV bulletin announced the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Two months later, still wearing a costume from my dance recital that evening, I stood in front of the television watching mourners wave, weep and salute as a train carried the body of Robert F. Kennedy, murdered days earlier. For months, every adult around me walked around in agony and silence.
Yet nothing that year affected me as profoundly as watching Ben die...
Night of the Living Dead made Romero a legend by expanding the audience's concept of what a horror movie could be. Its resonance for me still cuts deeper. Whatever his original intentions, Romero's classic taught me early and indelibly that the real monsters who threaten us aren't undead ghouls stalking the night.
"We always had that ending," Romero commented later. "It seemed like the only fitting end. And even though the posse goes rolling across the countryside, leaving our hero dead, we get the feeling that they are not going to win either. There's this new society coming. In the end, none of this is going to work, guys."
LATER INSTALLMENTS of Romero's Living Dead series would make the social commentary more explicit--though none to the same brilliant extent as Night.
Romero would state in one DVD commentary that while writing or making a movie, the points he would make about society were often more important to him than the characters--which led to politically interesting films, though the storytelling sometimes suffered.
Dawn of the Dead, perhaps Romero's best film outside of Night, is a satire on consumer culture. In it, survivors take refuge from zombies inside Pittsburgh's Monroeville Mall, leading to hilarious sequences of "mindless consumption"--both by human survivors and, of course, the zombies. "This was an important place in their lives," one character says in explaining why the zombies would be drawn to a shopping mall after dead.
In 1985's Day of the Dead, Reagan-era militarism comes under fire. A group of scientists and soldiers are stuck in an underground military base, coming into conflict over the macho militarism of the soldiers in charge, as well as the grisly experiments by one of the scientists, who believes that zombies can be made docile.
Of particular interest in today's current political climate, however, is Romero's 2005 Land of the Dead--an uneven, though often hilarious, entry in the Living Dead series.
A maniacal and entertainingly campy Dennis Hopper plays a character clearly modeled on our current president. In the face of societal collapse, he has convinced the super-rich to move into a self-enclosed, Trump-Tower-like, high-rise called "Fiddler's Green." The rest of the human population lives outside in squalor and fear, while Hopper's character sponsors mercenaries to go out on runs and collect supplies for the rich.
At the core of the film is the question of the allegiances of the mercenaries and the potential of a growing zombie consciousness. Led by a Black zombie mechanic, the zombies begin to communicate and organize. The climax of the film hinges on a moment of zombie-human solidarity that is both funny and deeply satisfying for socialists to watch.
As Romero once said, "The zombie for me was always the blue-collar monster. He is us."
Also well worth watching is Martin, Romero's 1978 meditation on the vampire genre--which asks what makes a monster and what kind of psychological dysfunction lurks inside the house next door.
Though uneven, the film takes joy in exploding romanticized notions about vampires--there's nary a sexy or sparkly vampire anywhere in it--to get down to brass tacks in examining what might be thought of as vampire working conditions.
"I'VE BEEN able to use genre of fantasy/horror and express my opinion, talk a little about society, do a little bit of satire," Romero once said, "and that's been great, man."
Marxist film scholar Robin Wood, a staunch defender of Romero's work into the 1980s, would go farther, claiming:
It is perhaps the lingering intellectual distrust of the horror genre that has prevented George Romero's Living Dead [series] from receiving full recognition for what it undoubtedly is: one of the most remarkable and audacious achievements of modern American cinema, and the most uncompromising critique of contemporary America (and, by extension, Western capitalist society in general) that is possible within the terms and conditions of a "popular entertainment" medium.
So in tribute to George Romero, don't wait until Halloween this year to watch his movies. With the monsters in Washington revealing their true natures every day, we should remember what Romero thought about the potential of horror:
Horror is radical. It can take you into a completely new world, new place, and just rattle your cage and say, wait a minute--look at things differently. That shock of horror is what horror's all about. But in most cases, at the end of the story, people try to bring everything back--the girl gets the guy and everything's fine and things go on just the way they were. Which is really why we are doing this in the first place. We don't want things the way they are or we wouldn't be trying to shock you into an alternative place.
So go ahead--when it comes to George Romero movies, consume away.