In George A. Romero’s zombie series, conflict is present in more than just the form of the flesh-eating walking dead that inhabit the world.
With 1968’s revolutionary and still influential Night of the Living Dead, Romero perfected a place where others had tried to go before, establishing his rightful place as champion of the zombies. His bleak, moody and hyper-realistic masterpiece, a stunning piece of social commentary and justice, set a standard few others would ever meet.
But even though Night introduces us to the world of shambling zombies quickly, it is perhaps the conflict that exists outside of humans versus zombies in Romero’s six zombie films that is most poignant and most important to the success of the series.
THEY’RE DEAD. THEY’RE ALL MESSED UP.
In Night, after Romero has established the beginnings of his zombie apocalypse and our two lead characters (Ben and Barbra) have seemingly settled in to their unfortunate but welcome new home inside the isolated rural Pennsylvania farmhouse, the filmmaker introduces important conflict from within that is responsible for a lot of the film’s claustrophobic turmoil.
Out from the basement comes Harry, the headstrong and opinionated father of a sick girl. Along with them is Harry’s wife Helen and the younger couple of Tom and Judy. In a time when the number one concern should be the fact that the dead have risen from their graves and are trying to eat humans, the arrival of these other humans presents a larger conflict and is ultimately what allows a few of them to descend into their inevitable tragedy.
Romero, who keenly and purposefully puts an African-American and woman in Night‘s unconventional lead roles, is only stirring up more trouble than some might feel is necessary when he puts Ben against Harry instead of having them work together. In a perfect world the two would be pals, they’d get along and they’d agree on a strategy. Instead, they hesitate to listen to one another, mentally battle over whether the upstairs or basement is the safest place to be and have a fight over the only gun the group has.
It all can be likened to themes and concepts the John Huston film Key Largo, which had the inside conflict of gangsters running a hotel and holding its contents hostage while a great, huge hurricane prepares to make landfall outside, presented years earlier. The two conflicts bounce together, creating one hectic, dismal and dark story that makes the humans as much responsible for their downfall as the zombies threatening their livelihood from the inside, especially given Night‘s depressing ending.
WHEN THERE’S NO MORE ROOM IN HELL…
Romero’s films, while no doubt a jumping off point for almost everyone who made a zombie film from the 1970’s and on, are best known and loved for their depth. With Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s follow-up film released 10 years later in 1978, the filmmaker reaches his peak with the greatest film he’d ever make.
On a personal note, Dawn is my favorite horror film of all time. For a long time it was my favorite film of any kind. Period. That since has been disrupted by my love for Ingmar Bergman, but Romero’s classic still ranks very near the top for me. In most cases it would be rare for a zombie film of any kind to deserve that kind of love, and that’s coming from someone who loves the genre. But Romero’s film is special. It’s special for its charm, its valuable and interesting characters and most importantly for its deep-rooting interest in our society, complete with arguments that to this day hold up as being relevant.
With Dawn, Romero does for the shopping mall what he did for the farmhouse in Night. He turns this staging ground for one small and singular battle four humans have against zombies into one of pop culture’s legendary zombie settings, and he does it with grace, thought and plenty of blood and guts.
Quickly, let’s skip the tired and obvious American consumerism commentary Romero clearly places inside this film. It’s been talked about before and isn’t really the most essential thing about this fantastic film.
What I’d rather talk about exists inside the core group of four people, Stephen, Peter, Roger and Francine, who struggle to adjust to a new lifestyle. The zombies inside and outside of the mall present a clear and massive amount of trouble for the group. But, like in Night, it is the group’s own behavior and maddening descent into cabin fever that costs them more than any flesh-eating zombie does.
Internal conflict, even within your own mind, can be as dangerous as anything else. It’s proven when Roger and Peter head out to block the mall’s entrances with nearby tractor trailers. Roger’s ego gets to him, he acts below the responsible level he should, leading to what would increasingly become his inevitable zombie-bitten fate. It’s a far cry to the outcome Peter, who behaves cool and calm, experiences.
And the sometimes subtle battle between Stephen and Francine, a couple who are dealing with an unexpected and at times seemingly unwanted pregnancy, creates a palpable tension among all four human survivors. Stephen, whose ego has been damaged by the heroic demonstrations provided by Roger and Peter earlier in their survival trip, becomes so infatuated with his own image that he risks his life and the lives of his friends when a gang of looters threaten and ransack the mall that Stephen claims is their place, the place they took and made safe. He egregiously defends the territory and puts everyone in danger. His fate, too, is an inevitable zombie-bitten affair.
Romero displays time and time again in this and other films that he likes to punish characters for their poor behavior. He has had great success dealing with flawed and faulty characters that it becomes commonplace to see these frustrating and troubled people in his films. Dawn of the Dead is perhaps the strongest example of that.
FORGET IT, BILLY BOY. IT’S A DEAD PLACE.
It’s hard to challenge Night as being the darkest and most claustrophobic film in the series, but if any of them could do it, 1985’s Day of the Dead would be the answer.
Romero tackles the government’s response to his zombie outbreak, putting a small scientific research team of obsessed doctors and frustrated technicians in an underground base with a small army of fed-up soldiers. The results? Panic, fear, hatred and anger. The depressing and disparaging emotions don’t end there.
While one team, the researchers, searches high and low for explanations, reasons and solutions, the other, the soldiers, butt heads by using their pre-ordained power that only exists because they have the guns and they have the uniform. It’s symbolism in its finest, and Romero explores how a small society might function in such an event simply because of the titles, roles and clothes you own.
In Day, somewhat similar to the previous two films, it is the poor treatment people deliver to each other that costs them everything. Sarah, the lead researcher, treats Miguel, her soldier boyfriend, in a way that embarrasses and “de-mans” him. The ongoing insults hurled at him from his fellow soldiers is enough to send him off the edge and become a threat to their survival.
And because Captain Rhodes fights every move the researchers make, which involve some pretty dangerous, sick and twisted experiments run by Dr. Logan, there’s no room or ground for understanding, agreement and sensibility. It instead becomes a battle between two groups who are sealed underground for completely different reasons. Is Romero punishing them for not being able to coexist, or is this simply one more isolated example of the punishment that the entire world has received from some other-wordly existence?
There are zombies underground, but they’re held in captivity and only used for experiments. These people are for the most part safe from their threat. But it’s their foolish conflict that causes them to become threatened. Romero shows them the way they can avoid these kinds of problems, but the characters that choose to ignore the director and go off the wayward path yet again are given the ultimate punishment. Others, who try to work through problems, survive. Romero displays a great ethical mentality inside each of his characters that shines through the zombie apocalypse as something even greater to humanity.
THE REST OF THE DEAD
It’s not secret that Romero’s three later zombie films, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, don’t even come close to the first three. That said, there’s valuable similarities to be found inside each of them. I won’t spend as much time talking about these three, but will devote a few words to each of them.
In 2005’s Land, Romero takes on class warfare. This is years after the zombie apocalypse began and small cities have started to rebuild. The thing is, only certain qualified and approved humans get to live in Dennis Hopper’s big, protected skyscraper, while the rest of the “subhumans” have to live almost literally on the streets where they don’t belong and didn’t belong before the zombies invaded.
Right from the start this presents conflict. For how long will there not be a revolt? For how long can you hold people down? For how long can you oppress human beings, even in a situation as dire as this one? The answer is apparently not that long. The trickle down effect of the rich oppressing the humans and the humans oppressing the zombies leads to a revolt of a different kind. Other than Bub in Day, this is the first time Romero really sympathizes with the zombie characters in a way that translates to the audience actually rooting for them. He creates a volatile character in Hopper and has you cheering on the zombie invasion. Land so nicely projects these conflicts in a film that is just mediocre, mostly because of the Hollywood-style feeling it creates. It’s a Romero film at heart, but at sight it looks like anyone could have directed it, what with the lack of charm and all.
Diary, which was released in 2007 and had Romero bringing the beginnings of the zombie outbreak to a new modern generation, is actually a much better film than Land. It feels more like a true Romero effort, but received some negative lashings for whatever reason. Romero will never be able to make a zombie film the way he used to, and once we can all accept that, we can move on with our lives and start enjoying the years the aged director has writing screenplays and directing film.
Diary‘s main mission is to present the zombie outbreak with technology bringing an impact to the whole situation. College students with cameras film every minute of their experience and use the Internet to share their experiences. This is a leap beyond what could have ever happened in Night and I think that’s why Romero enjoyed his time making this film. He was basically able to start over, think about how generations have changed and ask himself what would happen this time. The results are different and though not an expert film, it does have a few terrific moments and offers enough wisdom to save us all from our obsessions with Facebook, YouTube and the rest of what we’ve grown up with, while at the same time showing us the good ways to utilize what we have.
Survival, released in 2009 and the least effective film of the six, continues right where Diary leaves us, but isn’t too valuable to society. Romero has himself situated on an island off the coast of Delaware this time and watches two rival families fight against each other’s beliefs. One family, the Muldoon family, thinks the walking dead should remain walking dead and should be trained, or something. The other family, the O’Flynn family, thinks the sane thought that they should all be killed. It’s that age-old zombie discussion about how your family isn’t really your family anymore, but because of religious, moral and ethical beliefs, the one family wants to keep them alive. Things are under control from both perspectives, but once they wage war, well things get a little chaotic. Romero’s message that war, headbutting and not being able to coexist is again a huge factor in human demise.
CONCLUSION OF THE DEAD
There’s a reason as to why George A. Romero’s films gained the notoriety that they did. No, it wasn’t just the undeniably awesome zombie-filled sequences that paved his way to success, it was the unbeatable depth his films have shown. From Night to Survival, even though they all aren’t perfect or even great, Romero never forgot to take a minute from spilling blood and killing zombies to give all us humans a little bit extra, a few more lessons and a reason to fear ourselves and not just a zombie apocalypse.