Nick Buggey looks back at the profoundly political zombie cinema of George A. Romero.
“I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead.”
On July 16, 2017, veteran filmmaker George Andrew Romero died, aged 77. With his passing, it is more important than ever to assess and praise his legacy in harnessing the social functionality of horror cinema.
Much has been written in the time since Romero’s death about the influence his films have had on the formal progression of the genre, not least the ingeniously gory use of prosthetics facilitated by Romero’s long-term collaborator, make-up extraordinaire Tom Savini. In essence, Romero created a sub-genre with its own set of tropes and narrative structures, reinventing the idea of the zombie, which had hitherto appeared only as subservient beings in 40s and 50s B-movies tinged with a very dubious fetishization of Caribbean mysticism. The impact Romero’s vision has had on pop culture cannot be underestimated, extending as it has to the world of video games, graphic novels and, indeed, long running, prestigious TV series like The Walking Dead.
The politics of Romero’s films have also been covered at length, but largely in such a way as to suggest that Romero represented a peculiar anomaly in this regard. Paradoxically, the praise for his characteristically caustic amalgamation of politics and horror cinema misses a vital point: that it represents not a quirk in the sensibilities of just one director, but the huge potential of the horror genre as a whole for political and social commentary. Perhaps the reason that this potential has been so dismissed is that other so-called auteurs of horror today have not done justice to Romero’s example.
The notion of fear of the ‘other’ and humanity’s reciprocity with this otherness built into the horror film as an entity is inherently political; the flaws of the status quo are revealed in a vision of its self-destruction. Compromising the dichotomy of ‘the same’ and ‘the other’ becomes an opportunity to challenge, subvert and dissect our assumptions of normality and the validity of tradition, societal modes and ideological constructs. All that Romero really did was to understand this, embracing the allegorical and metaphorical heart of horror, and relay it emphatically – zombies being his significant Other, so to speak – with lots of blood. “I always thought of the zombies as being about revolution, one generation consuming the next,” he said of his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.
Made as the Summer of Love was dying, with Vietnam and the Civil Rights struggle consuming the zeitgeist, the living dead in that ropey, low-budget debut represent the disaffected masses and are a means for an exploration of an all-too-human conflict. It is clear from the off that Romero is not concerned with the incongruity of the notion of zombies, but rather with the allegorical possibilities of their uncanniness; throughout the film, he treats the contagion with a matter-of-factness that belies an investigation into the paranormal. He would later comment: “My stories are about people, and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly”. What little exposition is given in the film as to the cause of the undead plague is delivered in preposterous television broadcasts by bickering experts and military figures. Instead the focus is on a group of characters who are a microcosm of American society, a bunch of strangers sequestered in a farmhouse hiding from the hungry hordes, with the African-American Ben (Duane Jones) being the central player. On a purely representational level, a heroic but humanly flawed black protagonist outside the realm of underground social-realism was rare in the US of 1968, even in independent cinema; the elegance of Sidney Poitier was still the acceptable face of ‘blackness’ to white America. What is more, race here is not a principal issue in the plot: Ben’s colour isn’t a factor beyond tacit understandings of character dynamics and broader implications of representation; he is just a person, and his goodness is never reducible to a patronising stereotype of black virtue. Nonetheless, it is notable that Ben emerges as the voice of reason in the farmhouse, surrounded by a cast of hysterical, suspicious white people – some of them young and naïve; others, brusquely patriarchal and reactionary; and all of them bent on self-preservation. Ben’s unhappy end, as he is mistaken for a zombie at a distance by a posse of gun-toting rednecks coming to the farmhouse’s rescue, feels sadly inevitable in this cultural landscape and would have with viewers still grieving from the loss of both Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King a few months prior to the film’s release. Romero was very clearly aware of the nihilism within this set-up, commenting: “My zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they’re where the trouble lies… I’m pointing the finger at us, not the zombies.”
Heading into the 70s and the “Hollywood Renaissance”, where other directors such as Wes Craven and John Carpenter explored the political side of genre film, only to graduate to more self-reflexive, less overtly polemical fare (Carpenter’s goofy but satirical 1988 They Live a notable exception), Romero remained consistent.
Racial representation would be a central positive feature of Romero’s films, though this was not always executed perfectly. The character who commands the most respect in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead is Peter (Ken Foree), a complex, at times brooding, at others vociferous black man. Peter is no jive-talking Blaxploitation caricature of the kind redolent of the era, and aside from a passing comment where it is learned that his grandfather was a Trinidadian voodoo priest, his characterisation is devoid of stereotypes. Day of the Dead’s (1985) valiant helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander), however, does embody a worn-out paradigm, that of the superstitious, philosophising black man, his performance hampered by a forced and imprecise Caribbean accent.
Dawn of the Dead itself stands as perhaps Romero’s most perfect synthesis of biting sociopolitical satire and sheer intestine-spilling nastiness. Broadly speaking, the target is consumerism, the previous film’s farmhouse being replaced here with a shopping mall, but the film manages to skewer numerous other phenomena simultaneously. Romero reminds us of the bloodlust and indifference to human suffering of American militarism, touching upon police violence in the process. Martial law has been imposed and we are subject to a savage SWAT raid of a tenement building in the Projects where residents have hidden their dead in the basement, attempting to spare them the indignity of being turned over to the state. There are also fairly obvious parallels with the brutalisation of peasants in Vietnam as the film moves from the city across a landscape of decaying and diseased Americana where soldiers delight in picking off the slow-moving zombies lumbering through the fields.
Once in the mall, the four protagonists take to the environment like children; it becomes their capitalist haven, a shelter and comfort, the best home they’ve ever had. They have fur coats, arcade games and gradually create a penthouse fortress for themselves, gleefully eradicating the shuffling dead from their surroundings, gentrifying their small island amid the pervasive horror.
The idea of zombies in a mall is a very direct metaphor and could have descended into triteness very quickly, but Romero keeps the focus on the human characters. The zombies essentially fade into the background, becoming nothing more than an inconvenience for a large bulk of the film, serving as target practice to satiate the men’s primal bloodlust and as a reminder of social reality – capitalism’s violence incarnate, clawing at the glass doors.
Dawn of the Dead is also notable for the reversion, or attempted reversion to a patriarchal state between its main players. The pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross) rejects the classification of “den mother”, insists that she learn how to fly the group’s helicopter and takes her partner to task for discussing an abortion behind her back, shouting: “Nobody cares about my vote!” Ultimately, she and Peter are the film’s only survivors, fatalistically heading into the skies as the marginalised heroes – the final people.
Romero continued this feminist attitude into Day of the Dead, wherein Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) is the arbiter of sanity between misogynist military malfeasance and an amoral scientist trying to tame, or ‘domesticate’, the zombies. Set in an underground military bunker somewhere in Florida, the film has a less certain thesis than Romero’s magnum opus. Ambiguity reigns supreme, with the remnants of American power segregated in a tomb of hubris and in-fighting, as the zombies slowly begin to rediscover their residual humanity.
Jumping forward to 2005, Romero’s strangely prophetic Land of the Dead, while not his most accomplished film, certainly today feels like his most directly relevant. The post-apocalyptic setting finds the U.S. having regressed to a feudal state, where Pittsburgh is ruled by Dennis Hopper’s Paul Kaufman. Evidently Kaufman is meant to reflect a George W. Bush-esque persona, an autocrat capriciously toying with lives of the poor; at one point, he even says that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”. However, as we see Kaufman presiding over the city’s slums from his massive luxury tower, cigar and whiskey in his (albeit regular-sized) hand, another figure also comes to mind.
Romero’s tone could never be mistaken for realism – if a style could be definitively assigned to him, it would be ‘ironic comic-book’. His films always purposefully walk the fine line between the absurd and the farcical, the gruesome and the humorous. This comic book aesthetic is at its most visible in the 1982 anthology film Creepshow, written by Stephen King. Each segment juxtaposes knowing stylisation with an increasing nastiness to undermine situations of abused privilege. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Romero’s opinion of popular TV series The Walking Dead, itself based upon a graphic novel series, was less than positive: “Basically it’s just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally. I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism and I find that missing in what’s happening now.”
While Romero was not a political activist outside of movies, his films were his means of protest and were demonstrably leftist in the perspectives they expressed. He was certainly aware of how these resonances were received, commenting: “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 and that’s been great… I joke and say maybe I’m the Michael Moore of horror but it’s wonderful to have that ability. It’s sort of my niche.”
Humble as Romero may have been, his awareness of the agency his films had, and of his own auteurism, is telling, in that even he saw himself as somewhat alone in the genre and at odds with mainstream culture’s relationship with the figure of the zombie. He expressed a deep distaste for the brief but widespread ‘torture porn’ sub-genre of horror. He was also critical of the 2013 recent zombie-action flick World War Z taking issue with the apparent need for spectacle and stars to drive the film. “The moment you mention the word ‘zombie’, he moaned, “it’s got to be, ‘Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.’”
Looking back at his films today, it is striking how modern horror film, rather than reflecting on Romero’s work, has descended into what Mark Kermode has called a “cattle-prod cinema”. This is quite a reactionary use of film as an art form: scares for the sake of scares. Most of Romero’s films have been remade, their substance drained in favour of slick cinematics, falling right into the pattern of early-21st-century insipid re-hashes (other example being Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street and Last House on the Left). Many directors, ostensibly offering original content, prefer to mine the superficial effects of the cinema of fear rather than engage with the genre on any meaningful level.
With a few notable exceptions, such as Anna Biller’s wonderfully wry The Love Witch, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night, there is still little to suggest a widespread repoliticization of the horror genre. We can only hope that the passing of a master might shake today’s filmmakers out of their apathetic complacency!
Red Wedge has also posted an interview with Tony Williams author of ‘Knight of the Living Dead’, that looks at Romero’s contribution to radical independent film making: