Since he passed away on Sunday, tributes to George A. Romero have been pouring out like a ravenous undead horde escaping from a government research facility. The Fear NYC film festival, which will bestow its annual Legacy Honor on the director, has announced a special screening of Night of the Living Dead at the Sonnet Theater in October. In Williamsburg, Vinnie’s Pizzeria is serving up special pies like the Night of the Living Ched. Local movie houses like Syndicate, Sunshine, and Alamo have also paid their respects.
At a time like this, one is compelled to turn to Bram Stroker, who might be Romero’s only analog in history. After all, there were vampires in fiction before Stoker published Dracula in 1897, but let’s be honest— they weren’t very good.
John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) is downright medical in tone; stuffy and unapproachable. The “Varney the Vampire” series (1845-1847) is sometimes satisfyingly tawdry, but still full of pulpy flaws and confusions. And J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) somehow manages to be dreadfully tedious—even for J. Sheridan Le Fanu—despite being the world’s first lesbian vampire novel.
Lots of writers had been swinging away at the vampire before Stoker. There had even been a few base hits. But when Stoker stepped to the plate, the ball went all the way out of the park.
Readers today can be forgiven for assuming that vampires started with Bram Stoker. For so they might have. The shape-shifting. The telepathy. The ability to retract fangs. The aristocratic (or even sexual?) decadence. All of these are things we know from Stoker.
Likewise, Romero’s 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead destroyed the conception of what a zombie had been, utterly flattening the creative landscape like a bomb. Then it reassembled the zombie into something frightening, completely original, and utterly timeless. (All in a film that—it should be pointed out—never once uses the z-word.) In doing so, Romero became something like America’s Bram Stoker.
Zombies shambled into the Western consciousness in the 1800s, challenging long-held notions about suggestibility. Karel Capek would not coin the word “robot” until 1920, but already there was an interest in things that moved automatically or under a power not their own. The public was fascinated by Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) and his ilk, who could use hypnosis to create a state in which a person could be compelled to do things they might never otherwise consider. There seemed to be growing evidence that, under the right circumstances, a human mind could be taken over by an outside force. For Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this idea was at once enthralling and terrifying.
In the first zombie movie—White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi—we see the zombie portrayed as most people then conceived it. Namely, as a robotic servant magically forced to follow the direction of a Voodooist. The zombie was frightening because it could not be reasoned with. It could kill you and feel nothing. A person could become a zombie, lose all semblance of their former self, and be made to do horrible things. (And the idea that this could happen even to a white person sent chills down the spines of moviegoers of that day.)
The zombie continued to appear cinematically after White Zombie, but variations on the theme were few and far between. The 1942 film Bowery at Midnight (also starring Lugosi) imagined a criminal gang in Lower Manhattan that could use science to reanimate the dead into zombie-like servants. Yet this model was not adopted by subsequent filmmakers, and Bowery was considered a muddled disappointment. By and large, zombies were a known commodity.
Then, in 1968, an independent filmmaker with a day job on the crew of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood changed absolutely everything.
— Scott Kenemore (@ScottKenemore) July 16, 2017
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead imagined a world (or at least a Western Pennsylvania) suddenly beset by automatically ravenous human corpses. These corpses did not require the urging of a spiritual leader to eat your face off… it was just what they felt like doing! They were also seemingly impervious to pain. They were mentally and physically impaired, and without memory of their former selves. A bite from one of them could lead to infection or illness. They could not be reasoned with. They were difficult, perhaps impossible, to kill.
And what has caused these angry dead to walk among us? There were hints and clues in NOTLD, but for much of the film it, was a mystery. And that was part of it. Part of the terror.
And the world said yes. This is what zombies are now. This is a thing. Give us more, please.
So thanks to Romero, zombies were changed forever. They were divorced from—or at least not necessarily connected to—the culture and religion of the Caribbean. They were their own thing. And horror would never be the same.
The influence of NOTLD was immediate and swift. Filmmakers and writers embraced these new flesheaters wholeheartedly. Prominent zombie films immediately following NOTLD—like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) and The Grapes of Death (1978)—took on the Romero-model full bore.
Romero followed up his masterwork with Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), each building on his prior ideas and themes. These films fleshed-out the stark practicalities of living in a world in which the dead have risen. Resources would be short. Humans would turn against other humans. Governments would collapse and mankind might itself devolve. In short, these films introduced the apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) settings that contemporary zombie fans know and love. In his later zombie films—Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009)—Romero continued to explore these themes to varying degrees of success.
As someone who writes about zombies, I’m often asked when I think the zombie “trend” or “fad” will ebb. The answer is, I don’t think it ever will. Because I don’t think it’s a trend or a fad.
Vampires have been a reliable, established trope for what seems like forever—but Stoker had a 70-year head start on Romero. We might have known what vampires were back in the early-1800’s, but it took Stoker until 1897 to really make the formal introduction. We’ve known about zombies for a long time, but we didn’t really meet them until George Romero came along.
And as the zombie’s rising profile in our popular culture evinces, we are still just getting acquainted.
Scott Kenemore is the author of ten books about the undead. His newest novel—Zombie-in-Chief: Eater of the Free World—will be published by Skyhorse in August.