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Depth of Field: George A. Romero's Legacy of the Dead

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Sunday, Oct 8, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, George A. Romero’s redefinition of the zombie movie.


He didn’t invent the zombie movie, but his entries in the genre have clearly defined and mythologized it. Some would even say that he is the only undead auteur that understands the cinematic category. As important to horror as any filmmaker before or since, advertising executive turned director George Romero single-handled lifted the living dead film from its voodoo roots and reconfigured it as a stunning social comment on the shifting state of America. From 1968 until now, the Pittsburgh icon has forged a unique career, mixing styles and subject matter to touch on almost every aspect of the macabre. He’s taken on vampirism (Martin), madness (The Crazies)  - even a tribute to one of the founding facets of post-modern horror, EC Comics (Creepshow).


Yet it’s his regular return to the flesh eater film that remains a constant in the mind of his followers. Such substantive acclaim – all four Dead films have met with varying degrees of adoration – makes Romero that rarity in the realm of the reanimated human. Naturally, this begs the question, what is it about his approach to the cannibal corpse that makes it so powerful, and why can’t others match his legitimate legacy as a formidable fright filmmaker? It’s a quandary that has sparked hundreds of overheated debates.


It was clear from his first installment of what is now a quartet of quintessential efforts that Romero wasn’t using the classic concept of horror to formulate the fear in Night of the Living Dead. Classic terror, usually defined around the Universal ideal of Gothic monster movies made during the ‘30s and ‘40s, argued against a clear reality as the backdrop to fear. Instead, everything was hyperstylized, from the setting and situations to the players taking part in the terror. From Romero’s point of view, the growing aesthetic advances made during the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the medium mutating French New Wave to the cinema vérité documentaries sweeping the circuit, allowed the introduction of truth and authenticity into motion picture macabre.


Night‘s story was deceptively simple. A brother and sister, visiting a relatives grave, are attacked by what appears to be a madman. It soon turns out that the dead have come back to life, and are killing and consuming the living. Finding a seemingly abandoned farmhouse to hide in, Barbara soon meets up with Ben, a fellow refugee that just so happens to be black. As they try to secure their position, they discover a family in the basement, along with a teenage couple. All are hiding and less than excited about helping. Soon, everyone is working together to battle the growing menace outside. News reports witnessed over the television indicate a situation slowly winding out of control. Even though the reports seem positive, there’s a growing sense that all is lost. All these people can do is hope for the best, and fight to survive.


With this one monochrome masterwork, Romero reconfigured the elements of fright, using recognizable individual types and understandable circumstances to elevate his shocking supernatural splatter. Night invested the scary movie with a new sense of immediacy, its narrative almost unrelenting in the way it paces its zombie attacks. Just enough time passes for the television to deliver another set of sinister warnings before the next deluge of the dead occurs. This then gave the terror that much more relevancy to an audience used to the hustle and bustle of life. The situation therefore didn’t require such a massive suspension of disbelief.


All pointed political grousing aside (each one of his films have a sound social stance at their center), the real advance Romero championed was indeed to connect horror to the everyday life of the audience. Few were familiar with haunted castles, grave robbing, and blood drinking Counts. But show them a mob of viscous, mindless killers pounding at the door, looking for flesh to consume, and suddenly the security of existence seems a little shaky. Toss in a touch of racism, matricide, and a lot of unanswered questions about human foibles and frailties, and you have a major shift in the fright film language.


It continued on a decade later with Romero’s return to the series, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Now capable of tapping into elements unavailable to him at the time of Night‘s creation (color film, advanced F/X and make-up work) and using a far more recognizable space as his frame of everyday reference – the shopping mall – this filmmaker fashioned his new slaughter spectacle as an apocalyptic look at the disintegration of infrastructure and the completely plausible ‘us vs. them’ mentality that arrives whenever an unfathomable act of evil confronts our sensibilities. In this case, a group of professionals (two TV reporters, two government soldiers) hole up in a local shopping center, clearing out the zombies and protecting themselves from the monstrous mob outside to try and recreate their once semi-privileged lives.


All throughout the course of the film’s opening act, we see the foursome battle to reach their consumer sanctuary, fending off all manner of undead obstacles. Once safely inside, they begin to plot. Zombies are destroyed, doors blocked off. A perfect asylum from the atrocities around them allows the group to gorge on the many materialistic pleasures available. We see our heroes hording food, glutting themselves on fancy meals and overindulging in items of extravagance. By the time some like-minded outsiders arrive – in the guise of marauding bikers – our clique has become covetous of their self-made retreat. By contrasting the death of one social structure with the attempted birth of another, Romero made all his points about class and equality. But buried in the heart of the political science was really just an examination of the human desire for comfort and security.


In many ways, Dawn represented the end of the reality-based Romero horror film. His next two efforts in the Dead series would remove most of the recognizable pragmatic aspects of the situation (real world places, interpersonal human interaction) with outrageous scenarios and even odder zombie circumstances. As a result, the director continued to polish his approach, picking and choosing the aspects he really wanted to explore. His follow up, 1986’s Day of the Dead - considered by many to be the lesser of all four films (it’s a highly debatable delineation) - argues from the beginning that the real world is long dead. In a stellar opening setpiece, a lone band of governmental scientists and soldiers try to drum up anything “living” in what appears to be an abandoned town. The minute their presence is known, however, hordes of ravenous zombies begin literally crawling out of the woodwork. As the streets fill with thousands of flesh craving fiends, we see the end of human civilization, reconfigured in the stammering, shuffling walk of a reanimated corpse.


This doesn’t mean that Romero totally avoids reality in this glorious cinematic gross out. Instead of focusing on the social, or the political, the director focuses his attention on personality. We see the simmering divides between people, the hatred the military has for the scientists and visa versa. Both are forced to live and interact with each other, but with their individual purposes being crossed and contradictory, they can literally never see eye to eye on anything. This means the real horror is personal, not apocalyptic. As the world decays outside, humanity’s lost hope are arguing in a bunker over sexual favors, the rounding up of additional zombies for experimentation, and what they will do should the need arise to escape from their underground bunker.


This makes Day a very dark film indeed, the kind of exploration of the fragile human soul that many don’t imagine they’ll ever want to witness. Unrelenting in its horror, featuring the perfect contextual juxtaposition of Tom Savini’s ultra realistic autopsy like effects, it remains a movie arguing that the only way to recapture the purity of existence is a kind of total rejection of the past. Toward the end, when things are going decidedly deranged, the Jamaican helicopter pilot argues for everyone to simply drop their duty and fly off to a deserted island somewhere. There, some manner of life can be restarted, one without the constant threat of the living dead causing chaos and the amplification of human faults. The idea is not so much rejected as reconfigured by many of the things we see later. When a “trained” zombie named Bub proves that he can respond with thought, no matter how simplistic, ‘it’ dooms everything around it. The notion that these “things” can actually reason refutes the feeling that they’re just obstacles to overcome. Instead, they become opponents in a battle for the rest of the planet. 


With such a solid third installment, it’s odd then that it took 20 years for Romero to revisit his zombie mythos. He has been quoted as saying that the failure to fully realize his ideas for Day of the Dead (his original script featured zombie armies, trained by the government, waging all out war against their fellow flesheaters in massive battle scenes) plus the rather uninteresting political landscape left him lost for a way back into his series. Oddly enough, when Land of the Dead finally arrived, it was amazingly well received. Considered a return to form and a furthering of his agenda-based fright facets, the truth is far more complex. In essence, Land is a distillation of all three previous Dead films. It offers Night‘s home as hospice, Dawn‘s man-made oasis, and Day‘s military inspired sense of security. It also illustrates the corruptibility of all three, how each one is a fool’s paradise built on bricks and the backs of those dumb enough to try and fend for themselves.


In Land, years have passed, and zombies now live in quasi-communal packs, easily preyed upon by scavengers looking for goods to barter with in the new quarantined city of Fiddler’s Green. This sectioned off society has a typical structure – fat cats at the top, middle class barely making ends meet, underclass doing all the grunt work – and it reflects the way in which the living dead also organize themselves. When they finally decide to attack the humans, they place the lesser corpses up front, fodder for protecting the so-called “smarter” ones following up behind. The purpose is simple – confront the living on their own terms. The concept is clear – as a repressed majority, they will no longer sit by and let the Establishment minority ignore their existence.


Again, the political ramifications are intense. The zombie leader is a big, beefy black man who was obviously once a gas station attendant. Similarly, the humans capable of defending the Green are all members of the mitigated lower class. Together, they form a conspiratorial element that is destined to topple any arrogant hierarchy. But the main theme of Land of the Dead is the shredding and selling of hope. In a world which seems sorely lacking in any kind of recognizable trust, Romero reiterates that belief in something beyond oneself is only fated to fail. By using the individual instinct to survive, and marrying that with the intelligence to find an escape, the results are either prophetic or predetermined. Land ends on a note of vigilante vindication as well as a possibility of survival. It has de-evolved the genre into a simple screed on Darwin’s ‘only the completely capable endure’ ideal.


Romero will always be remembered for reinstating terror back into the horror movie mix. Where once outrageousness and the fear of the unknown seemed like reason enough to keep the macabre minions at bay, he amplified the angst by directly linking his dread to the things in life that people can instantly identify with. They say that the number one and two fears that most individuals have are their own death, and the death of a loved one. Romero rewired this trepidation into a meditation on mortality, an argument against an afterlife and an easily recognizable relationship between living humans and undead corpses. Keeping the connection physical – via eating – was the final major masterstroke. It gave his Dead films a visceral edge that most fright films just couldn’t compete with. It’s why these four films remain classics of the creature feature genre. It’s why George Romero’s legacy as a fright icon is already secured.

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