Illustration by Thomas Durham.
Ah October, the month when horror is under the spotlight and everyone is searching for something scary to watch. This October however, is a little more special, marking the 50th anniversary of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. So much more than just another movie anniversary, this film is a landmark in the industry for popularising one of the most iconic horror creatures: the zombie.
Yes those flesh hanging, shambling corpses first iconically rose from their graves back in 1968. Though zombies “existed” beforehand, Romero helped them become mainstream, not only creating the look of zombies, but also the mythos and genre that would stay in the public mind thereafter. Ask anyone nowadays how to kill a zombie and almost everyone will say shoot them in the head, that’s thanks to Romero. But with everyone interpreting Romero’s original creation, how is it that the genre hasn’t rotted like creatures themselves?
Like zombie apocalypse survivors themselves, the genre has ironically taken the same steps – adapt and survive. Compare Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and modern zombie film World War Z; the two are nothing alike, yet people nowadays still crave seeing the dead rise on the big screen. Romero’s original style took much more of a slow burning approach. His zombies were slow and more aggressive as they closed in on their prey. Back then the genre was so new that as the film’s protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) first learns that zombies can be hurt through destroying the brain or hurting them with fire, so did the public.
While the use of fire didn’t stick around for long throughout the rest of the genre, brains became not only the key to killing zombies – but also they were after. While Romero never actually had any of his zombies eating brains in the “Dead” series, it quickly became one of the many tropes people would associate with them. What Romero did contribute through his other films is what a zombie stereotypically looks like. Pale grey skin, blood pouring out their mouths, broken bones and cuts across their bodies are all iconic in Romero’s later works, and with Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead his iconic zombies were now in colour.
From here on out everyone knew how to create the iconic creatures onscreen and suddenly they began to be seen all across film and other forms of media. Films that didn’t necessarily have to do with the walking dead began to have creatures and monsters reminiscent of them. Films like The Evil Dead started to copy the look and make them their own. Zombies even invaded video games though Resident Evil and The House of Dead, giving players the ability and fun of gunning down the iconic creatures themselves.
Then came the 2000’s. A new era, landscape for film and a new kind of zombie. At this point, zombies were no longer just slow walking corpses that fell further apart with each step. Films like 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake brought on the era of sprinting zombies. These zombies would generally seem slow at first, but the second a noise was made not even Usain Bolt could get away. These films even began to root themselves in reality, imploring the idea of a viral source turning humans into zombies instead of the dead rising inexplicably from their graves.
Oddly enough, comedy was the next genre zombies would find themselves in and these films often poked fun at the genre as a whole. Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland not only had funny moments, but even took the time to explore survival rules and gave some solid commentary on being a survivor in the zombie apocalypse. Showing how important cardio and using practical weapons are to survival seems simple, but adding themes of isolation and orphanhood in Zombieland really added some nice depth.
Other films, like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and 2015 comedy Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse also brought some fun moments to the genre. Wright poked fun at the emotionless face of the zombie and had his characters impersonating them to escape. Scout’s Guide took more of an unexpected turn with both male and female zombie genitalia on full-display for laughs throughout the film.
However, while more comedic takes on the undead and action-heavy fast zombies were fine, many fans, including Romero himself, wanted zombies to have a return to form. When discussing Marc Foster and Brad Pitt’s World War Z, Romero talked about how much he hated what the landscape of the zombie horror genre had become. Even though writer Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) brought back slower zombies on the small screen, Romero still felt that it was just mindless action and even said that it was more like “a soap-opera with a zombie occasionally.”
Thankfully though, other filmmakers shared Romero’s ideals. ParaNorman not only kept the dead walking, but gave children a way to experience classic zombies as directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler did everything in their power to capture Romero’s initial concept by recreating them in Claymation. Game developer Pop Cap also brought zombies to an even younger audience through hit game Plants vs. Zombies, not only creating an iconic franchise but also bringing zombies to the mainstream youth just like Romero did back in 1968.
It has been quite the fifty-year journey and this article doesn’t nearly cover the cultural impact that both zombies and George Romero have had. There’s t-shirts, conventions all over the world and constant debate amongst friends about how long they’d survive a zombie apocalypse. Romero not only sparked the creation of a new genre but has affected pop culture forever. Zombies won’t be the same without Romero since his passing in 2017, but the effects of his work will undoubtedly inspire others to keep the undead, well, undead.