Thursday, August 14, 2014

George A. Romero: Film Legend and Social Commentator

Filmmaker George A. Romero will forever be remembered as the man who made zombies a part of daily conversation. In 1968 he released the seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD which has since become a horror classic. Despite the fact that it was a low-budget exploitation film, it is now even listed on the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. On the surface, the movie was about a group of people attempting to survive a siege of the undead. Underneath, it was a social commentary about fear, confusion, distrust, and humanity’s inability to cooperate in the face of adversity. It also established many of the ground rules for future zombie movies, and demonstrated that zombie films can provide an excellent lens for social commentary and exploration.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was divisive, with some viewers of the time being turned off by the unprecedented violence and gore, and others heralding the film as groundbreaking. Original fans praised its gritty realism, which was parallel with the increased violence and gore televised during the ongoing war in Vietnam, and at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the film was one of the first to feature an African-American actor (Duane Jones) as a main character. Despite initial ambivalence from some critics, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a financial success and allowed George Romero to continue his path as a filmmaker. According to his biography on the Internet Movie Database, Romero was only 28 years old when he made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and his meager $100,000 budget had been cobbled together by members of his production company, Image Ten Productions.

A decade later, Romero released DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). Offering more blatant social commentary, the protagonists were trapped by the undead in a shopping mall, again dealing with fear, confusion, and distrust, but also issues of materialism. This film spawned the "zombie apocalypse" genre, with the scale of the undead being far wider, especially urban, and exploring concepts like mass panic, infrastructural strengths and weaknesses, and urban warfare. Trapped in a shopping mall, which they have fortified to keep out the zombies, the protagonists must struggle between living in imprisoned luxury, brutal death always trying to get in, or trying to escape to a place of freedom and peace.

DAWN OF THE DEAD has become a horror staple and set the stage for countless films, including a 2004 remake, featuring the fast zombies of films like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER (2002).

DAY OF THE DEAD, released in 1985, featured powerful new themes to the zombie genre. Set after the nation, and possibly the world, has been overrun by the undead, a group of military and civilian survivors work in an underground bunker to discover a cure. Exploring the divide between military and civilian, the film focused on power dynamics in a confined space. And while DAY's box-office performance paled in comparison to earlier installments of Romero’s series, it is perhaps now, the Dead film which feels the most relevant to our time. The film itself is getting  a lot of airplay on TV thanks to screenings on EL Rey Network, which is itself getting picked up by more and more major cable providers (more details on that here), but the themes of DAY also have been explored in more modern fare. For example, 28 DAYS LATER also featured a military versus civilian subplot, and so has the popular television series The Walking Dead. The concept of finding a cure for the plague of the undead has also inspired more recent zombie films, beginning with RESIDENT EVIL and 28 DAYS LATER, when a virus was asserted to turn people into zombies.

The idea of zombies as people who have been infected by a fast-developing disease has given rise to the exploration of infection, pandemic, social proximity, and relationships in horror films. How many people can an infected person infect? How do you cope when a loved one becomes infected?

Though Romero's zombie fare took a hiatus after DAY OF THE DEAD, there was a dramatic rise of big-budget, mainstream zombie movie in the early 2000s, which typically featured themes around unethical scientific experimentation, viral plagues and contagions, and fast-moving infected, essentially "upping the ante," brought Romero back to the forefront with LAND OF THE DEAD in 2005. This film featured much more direct social commentary and examined class structures through the lens of a city of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The city offered different roles and lifestyles for different classes of survivors, with the wealthy living in luxury and the poor struggling in dangerous and dirty conditions. Poor people could risk their lives scavenging for supplies outside the safety of the city in hope of being allowed to join the ranks of the wealthy and privileged.

Romero has continued to explore social commentary with subsequent films, including DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007) and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), with the latter focusing on the concept of relationships and grudges persisting into death and beyond.

The popularity of zombie films, begun by Romero's work in the 1960s and 1970s, has eventually spawned big-budget parodies and comedies about zombies and zombie apocalypses, including direct spoof SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and ZOMBIELAND (2009), which took a humorous look at surviving a zombie epidemic. The recent comedy WARM BODIES (2013) looks at zombie evolution and relationships with humans from a zombie perspective, switching the usual paradigm. In 1968, who could have predicted that Romero's first movie would spawn all this?

Written By: Brandon Engel