George Romero reimagined the zombie movie when he co-wrote and directed Night of the Living Dead (1968). This was certainly not the first movie about zombies. Earlier examples include Hollywood classics White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) as well as American B-movies such as Revolt of the Zombies (Victor Halperin, 1936) and Revenge of the Zombies (Steve Sekely, 1943). Romero, however, drew his inspiration for Night of the Living Dead from a different type of post-mortem mob – the plague-induced vampires of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend – and initially named his living cadavres “ghouls.”1 The unexpected commercial and critical success of the low-budget Night of the Living Dead enabled Romero to write and direct five sequels and narrative variations: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). These ghouls propel the films forward and offer a social critique reflective of their historical moments. Moreover, while other directors would later change the rules that Romero had created in Night of the Living Dead, such as introducing “fast zombies” in place of the tireless “shambling” of Romero’s creatures, Romero’s zombie protocol was largely consistent. The undead moved slowly in herd-like formation, with an insatiable need to devour human flesh and a singular vulnerability around the cranium. It takes several days for those bitten by zombies to die and then become reanimated.
Night of the Living Dead introduces these rules. It opens with random shots of a car’s leisurely advance up a series of switchbacks to a nondescript, country road and a tattered “cemetery entrance” sign. As the car turns into that cemetery, an American flag prominently flies under the “Directed by George A. Romero” credit. The movie begins as a horror movie – a rural cemetery at dusk, distant thunder, odd camera angles and eerie music. The farmhouse in which the terrified Barbra (Judith O’Dea) soon seeks refuge is filled with references to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho (1960) – stuffed animals hanging from walls, rooms cluttered with ordinary, household objects and a skeleton in the cellar. The film’s characters are, of course, ignorant of the rules of this new genre. Johnny (Russell Streiner) foolishly teases his sister at the cemetery when he sees a man (Bill Hinzman) shambling towards them. “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” he intones. Unexpectedly, the ghoul attacks Barbra. Johnny, defending his sister, falls and hits his head on a gravestone. Only the main protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), who is Black and without family connection, seems at times to know the new rules, smashing the heads of the undead. He soon assumes leadership over the few farmhouse survivors. Yet Ben, too, is often ignorant, occasionally shooting a ghoul in the torso and speculating about “who knows what kind of disease these things carry.” It’s only through news reports broadcast over the radio and on television that the rules for these “flesh eating ghouls” are slowly revealed.
Yet these farmhouse survivors are defeated as much by American social traditions as by the ghouls themselves. The most obvious example is Ben. While Romero claimed that the race of the role had nothing to do with casting, the scene in which Ben is introduced – the unexpected glare of headlights in the night and the sudden appearance of a Black man in the context of a lone, hysterical white woman – belies the claim that race was not relevant to his character.2 Ben alone survives the “night of the living dead,” but white racists kill him the next morning. The images of the closing scenes – the dogs on leashes, the redneck sheriff (George Kosana) and his deputies, and the shooting from afar of Ben who is supposedly mistaken for a ghoul – plainly evoke the images of the South widely published in newspapers and broadcast on TV during the 1960s. Notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) Ben’s independence and competence, the sheriff’s deputy not only shoots Ben in the head but also tosses his body on a burning pile of ghouls.
Traditional family and gender roles defeat the other characters. These families – Barbra and Johnny, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), and Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Keith Wayne) – often literally devour one another. Johnny and Barbra find themselves at the cemetery, where the ghoul attacks them, only because their mother insists that the two of them must drive six-hours each year to place a wreath on the grave of their father. Barbra, who plays the helpless, hysterical sister and is catatonically silent throughout the movie, unexpectedly tries to save Mrs. Cooper from a crowd of ghouls but is absorbed into that crowd by her brother Johnny, who has become one of them. The Coopers, an older, married couple, tend to their ill daughter (Kyra Schon) in the farmhouse cellar, notwithstanding that she’s been bitten by one of the ghouls. Later reanimated, she slaughters her disbelieving mother (who has been the passive, child-focused wife) and eats her father (a domineering, abusive husband, who repeatedly insists to all that “he’s the boss” in the cellar). The ever-resourceful Ben, too, is no less a domineering male and insists that he’s “the boss” upstairs, though he ironically only finds shelter at night in the basement. Tom and Judy are the stereotypical, young, clean cut, heterosexual couple in love. Judy clings to Tom, irrationally refusing to be left behind and insisting that he take her with him when he tries to secure gasoline. They become trapped together in their truck and are then roasted alive and eaten by the ghouls.
Yet while critiquing America’s traditional social roles, the movie also reimagines a possible future through documenting the daily life of its characters. While Mr. Cooper insists that the cellar is the only “safe place” and Ben argues that they’ll be safer by boarding up the farmhouse, the film suggests that neither view is accurate. There is no “safe place” from the ghouls. Reinventing a new form of the horror movie, Night of the Living Dead documents its events, including the barren, rural landscape, the lumbering gait of the partially naked ghouls who casually devour raw flesh, the scattered objects cluttering the crowded space of the family farmhouse and the casual banter between news reporter (Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille) and sheriff. Romero’s documentary-like recording results in a sense of immediacy so that, for example, the final scenes simultaneously evoke both horror and history in the casual shooting of the ghouls in the daylight of broad country fields, including the “mistaken” shooting of Ben “right between the eyes.” The film depicts Ben’s body burned on a bonfire through a collage of still photographs with a soundtrack of fragmented sounds, including men talking, an airplane, and eerie, horror music. Night of the Living Dead reanimates the zombie genre to document the social disease that’s infecting American culture. Romero depicts, however, not only the horror of 1968 in America but also its possible reimaging in our awareness of the daily, often unnoticed events that compel his characters. His film rejects the traditional views of family, gender and race even as it imagines a reanimation of the human species in the context of our experiencing the ambiguously titled “night of the living dead.”
Romero followed Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget movie that was an unexpected success, with an odd assortment of equally low-budget, largely overlooked films. Their subject matter included romance (There’s Always Vanilla, 1971), witchcraft (Season of the Witch, 1972), a military biological accident (Crazies, 1973), ageism (Amusement Park, 1974) and vampirism (Martin, 1977). In 1978, however, Romero returned to a story about ghouls. Now named zombies, the larger budget in-colour feature Dawn of the Dead opens with scenes of chaos. A Philadelphia newsroom studio soon shuts down after announcing that rescue centers are no longer operational. Cut to a public housing complex where national guardsmen and SWAT teams are shooting zombies, as well as Black and Latino residents. A makeshift television broadcast soon underscores the scientific community’s ignorance about the disease as well as the US government’s powerlessness in the face of the growing social chaos. While Dawn of the Dead depicts a divide between urban America, which is overrun by zombies, and rural America, where rednecks enjoy shooting zombies, it is apparent that the zombies are overwhelming all of America. As TV broadcaster Dr. Millard Rausch warns, “This isn’t the Republicans versus the Democrats… This is more crucial than that. There can be no more divisions among the living.” No one follows his advice and TV broadcasts devolve into arguments about coping strategies. Since containment is no longer possible, the only option is individual flight and finding safety.
Where Night of the Living Dead depicts a group of random survivors in a rural farmhouse, Dawn of the Dead focuses on a community bunkering down in a large suburban mall and comprised of two SWAT team members, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), and two TV staff members, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge). Peter and Roger are the stereotypical Black and white cop buddies, while Fran and Stephen are unmarried lovers with Fran several months pregnant. The mall serves as an attraction for both the living and the dead. Peering down from the mall’s roof, the group observes casually dressed zombies wandering aimlessly in the mall’s parking lot while within the mall they meander from store to store like undecided shoppers. The mall also offers a wealth of consumer goods for the living. While initially grabbing only what they need, Peter, Roger, Fran and Stephen soon settle within the mall, systematically killing off, storing in a freezer or locking outside the zombies. “Let’s go shopping!” Peter enthuses to Roger, and they frolic together in a giant clothing store. Stephen convinces Fran not to flee for Canada, as they had originally intended. “You always wanted to play house, remember?” he condescendingly asks. The men take pleasure in the weaponry at the gun store, where the sounds of wild animals are heard over the loudspeaker. Muzak is later heard over the mall’s main loudspeaker and a voice announces the day’s special offers, “Attention all shoppers. If you have a sweet tooth, we have a special treat for you.” Together and alone the survivors engage in a wild shopping spree – taking cash from a local bank, playing dress ups and video games, nibbling gourmet foods and gleefully observing price tags. “This is great stuff!” Stephen again enthuses.
Satirizing American consumerism, the film soon depicts how the characters’ collective fantasy spirals out of control. Roger becomes overconfident and smug, yelping like a cowboy, taking pleasure in killing the undead, but losing control when blood spatters on his face. He is soon bitten by a zombie and Peter shoots him in the head as he transforms into a zombie. As though commenting on the survivors’ behavior, Dr. Rausch observes, “We’ve got to remain logical. There’s no choice. It has to be that. It’s that or the end.” Fran and Stephen seemingly respond by practicing shooting weapons and Peter serves them a candlelight dinner. It’s a quiet moment that ironically underscores the illusoriness of the mall’s pleasures and the characters’ misplaced comforts. Evoking the traditional, marital convention, Stephen offers an engagement ring to Fran. She rejects, however, his fanciful offer. “We can’t, Steve, not now,” she replies, “It wouldn’t be real.” The two are then shown lying in bed together, each staring vacantly into space.
The passage of time offers no respite. Dawn rises over the mall roof, and Fran is visibly pregnant. While the characters’ suite of rooms beneath the mall roof is well furnished, the TV screen is now blank. Fran dresses up like a doll similar to nearby clothing mannequins. Peter ceaselessly plays racquetball on the roof. The zombies continue shambling in the parking lot. It’s almost a relief when a group of roving bikers enters the mall. They, too, want to enjoy the pleasures of the mall’s consumer goods. There’s comic relief as they grab stuff from retail stores and throw pies in the faces of the hundreds of zombies whom they have carelessly allowed to enter the mall. Stephen, however, has become possessive of the mall. “It’s ours. We took it.” He initiates an inevitably failed battle against the bikers so that the zombies overrun the mall, overwhelm the bikers and infect Stephen who instinctively reveals the hidden residence of Fran and Peter to the zombies.
There is no difference between the living and the undead in Dawn of the Dead. Both are hypnotized by consumer goods. Early in the movie, after clearing the mall of zombies, the four survivors stand behind a giant JC Penney’s sign and peer down at the cleared mall as well as at the zombies outside. While Stephen claims to Fran that the zombies continue to wander in the parking lot, because they know that “we’re still here,” Peter, the film’s spokesperson, believes otherwise. “They’re after the place. They don’t know why. They just remember.” He adds, “They’re us. That’s all.” And then alluding to the stories of his grandfather, a “priest in Trinidad,” he concludes, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” If zombies display “pure motorized instinct,” as Dr. Rausch claims, then the living, too, display that same instinct as a result of their cultural traditions. While Peter and Fran escape from the overrun mall by flying off together at dawn in the helicopter, it’s a bleak ending. They don’t have much fuel so that it’s doubtful that they’ll reach Canada. Of course, too, Fran is pregnant, which offers hope for a new future. Romero documents in Dawn of the Dead the materialism of a consumer culture that increasingly threatens to tear apart its inhabitants, and the movie offers only the limited hope of a new beginning for its two survivors.
Dawn of the Dead, too, was a commercial and critical success. Nevertheless, Romero continued to write and direct idiosyncratic independent films – Knightriders (1981 ), a portrait of the contemporary artist as an idealistic King Arthur, and Creep Show (1982), a horror comedy anthology of tales in homage to the 1950s EC Comics. In 1985, however, he again returned to zombies with Day of the Dead, whose title plainly suggests a continuation of his earlier two zombie movies. With a far lower than anticipated budget, the result is a more personal zombie movie.3 The zombies in Day of the Dead have overrun civilization, with 400 000 zombies to each human survivor. The movie focuses on a small group of scientists who are seeking a cure for the disease and are in the meantime protected by a diminishing number of military personnel in an underground facility in the Florida Everglades. Day of the Dead opens with a shot of Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) in a cinderblock room staring at the October page of a calendar on which each of the days has been crossed off. As Sarah approaches the calendar, dozens of arms suddenly protrude from the wall trying to grab her. It’s a bad dream from which she suddenly awakens. She’s in a helicopter that is descending to the city below to find any survivors. The helicopter has a crew of three – her suicidal, stressed-out lover, Pvt. Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo, Jr.), the radio operator, Bill McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), who’s unable to reach anyone on the radio, and the Black pilot, John (Terry Alexander), who threatens to leave anyone behind at the first sign of trouble. Sarah finds upon landing only crowds of zombies in a decayed city. Day of the Dead depicts Sarah’s journey from her opening nightmare to an ending in which she again awakens from a nightmare but is able to turn the calendar page.
The film critiques the rigidity of the military. Its leader, Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), is egotistical, slow witted and unhinged. His two enlisted soldiers, Pvts. Steel (Gary Howard Klar) and Rickles (Ralph Marrero), are “goons” (Sarah’s term) and buffoons. The film also critiques the scientific method. Dr. Mathew Logan (Richard Liberty), the chief scientist whom everyone calls Dr. Frankenstein, is psychotically obsessive. He dissects the zombies like a butcher to investigate how they function. Imitating the teachings of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, he tries through positive reinforcement to socialize them. Parodying Descartes’ mind-body dualism, Logan literally severs a zombie’s head from its body, resulting in a separate, seemingly conscious mind. “They are us,” he tells Sarah. Like human children, they can be tricked into being “good little girls and boys.” He succeeds in teaching one zombie, whom he’s named Bub (Sherman Howard), to utter a few words. Logan claims to Rhodes, “Civil behavior is what distinguishes us from the lower forms. It’s what enables us to communicate. To go about things in an orderly fashion without attacking each other like beasts in the wild. Civility must be rewarded, Captain.”
Sarah, the “good” scientist, tries to mediate between Rhodes and Logan who dispute the latter’s progress. “Maybe if we tried working together,” she admonishes them, “we could ease some of the tensions. We’re all pulling in different directions.” Her efforts come to naught. Rhodes kills Logan when he discovers that the “civilized” Logan has been using the cadavers of soldiers in experiments. Logan, in turn, avenges himself through Bub who then shoots Rhodes. The film rejects Sarah’s proposed mediation. Jean Renoir, dramatised through the character Octave, had famously observed in La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.” John, the Black pilot with a Caribbean accent, similarly observes, “That’s the trouble with the world, Sarah darlin’. People got different ideas concernin’ what they want out of life.”
While Sarah obsessively, too, tries to find a cure, John and Bill relax like movie stars. Their home, a trailer located in a distant part of the underground facility, is called “The Ritz” and filled with framed pictures, candles and flowers. There’s a makeshift backyard including yard furniture, coloured lights and the painted image of a white, sandy beach with palm trees. “Welcome to civilization, Sarah!” John greets the surprised Sarah in a magical moment. While Sarah chastises John and Bill for not helping others, John speaks out against contemporary institutions and technological progress. He scorns the obsessive cataloguing and record keeping – “the Defense Department budget, negatives for all your favourite movies, tax returns, immigration records, census reports.” He rejects the view that wisdom results from enlightened reason. “You ain’t never gonna figure it out, just like they never figured out why the stars are where they’re at,” he tells Sarah. “It ain’t mankind’s job to figure that stuff out. So, what you’re doing is a waste of time, Sarah. And time is all we got left, you know.” When Sarah continues to insist on the importance of her work, John in a lengthy monologue advocates the importance of simply living each day. “There’s plenty to do,” he tells her. “We could start over, start fresh, get some babies and teach ’em.” He also explains, “We’re bein’ punished by the Creator…so that man could look at what Hell was like.”
When zombies overrun the facility, Bill symbolically cries out to John, “Come on, Johnny! We’re countin’ on ya’ to fly us to the Promised Land!” Sarah, John and Bill will escape together but, as Sarah boards the helicopter, zombie arms again reach out and grab her. She screams and then awakens from this second nightmare. She finds herself on a long, white sandy beach, evoking the painted image in the makeshift backyard, and watches in the distance John fishing and Bill sitting on a blanket with seagulls circling overhead. Sitting next to the helicopter, she pulls out a calendar and crosses out the 4th day of November. “I’ve got an alternative,” John had earlier said to Sarah. “Let’s get in that old whirlybird there, find us an island someplace, get juiced up, spend what time we got left soaking up some sunshine. How’s that? I could do that even if all of this wasn’t going on.” Romero’s Day of the Dead envisions an island paradise in which humans are reanimated and live apart from the civilization that has socialized them into becoming zombies.
While Romero continued to direct independently financed movies that were filled with violence, terror or both – Monkey Shines (1988), Two Evil Eyes (1990), The Dark Half (1993), and Bruiser (2000), he returned twenty years later to write, direct and conclude his career with three movies about zombies – Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). The first of these, Land of the Dead, focuses on class, in particular, the divide in America between the white, male 1% and the rest of the population. Humans have barricaded themselves within a few fortified cities, such as Pittsburgh. While most of the Pittsburgh population barely survives in poor, overcrowded neighborhoods, a small, wealthy minority resides in a glass, high rise tower named Fiddler’s Green, where the higher floors consist of luxurious apartments and the bottom floors offer conspicuous consumption shopping. The movie’s villain is the extraordinarily wealthy Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Kaufman maintains control over the population through games and vices as well as his skinhead police force. He is the quintessential capitalist.
The plot focuses, however, on Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) and Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), both of whom are tasked by Kaufman with leading a crew outside the city each night to find food, medicine and other supplies for the city’s population. They rely upon an enormous armored personnel carrier named Dead Reckoning, designed by Riley. While Riley, who commands the crew, is empathetic toward the city’s population, Cholo is out for himself, observing that Riley reminds him of his “old man,” a “nice guy” who never had anything. Wanting to become a member of the 1%, Cholo attends to Kaufman’s dirty deeds, throwing out as trash those whom Kaufman has had killed and retrieving for him liquor and cigars. Cholo cynically observes, “That’s life bro. Whole lot of trash. Trick is not to get into it.” Cholo, of course, fails to heed Riley’s advice that Riley will never let Cholo into Fiddler’s Green, because he, like Riley, is “the wrong kind.” Later bitten and with nothing to lose, Cholo belatedly confronts Kaufman, “the man,” when Kaufman is fleeing the city. Kaufman shoots Cholo, a “spic bastard,” only to observe that he’s dead and then realize in horror. “You are dead!”
In contrast, Riley, like the pilot John in Day of the Dead, represents a desire to escape from civilization. Riley refuses the urgings of Mulligan (Bruce McFee), the labor leader of the city’s population, to join the fight against the 1%. Land of the Dead’s ending instead shows Riley with a few friends escaping to Canada in Dead Reckoning. Nevertheless, as Riley’s two friends Charlie (Robert Joy) and Slack (Asia Argento) observe, “Riley likes to be alone.” His supposed friendship consists of a “fair trade” business arrangement. Slack, whom Riley had rescued from zombies, is more of a buddy than a love interest. Later, Riley again refuses to join Mulligan after the city has been overrun by the zombies. “Stick around,” Mulligan encourages him. “Turn this place into what we always wanted it to be.” Riley is unwilling, however, to take a chance. “Maybe,” he noncommittally responds. “Then what will we turn into?“ “We’ll see, won’t we?” replies Mulligan. Riley’s last words are to Pretty Boy (Joanne Boland), the driver of Dead Reckoning – “Take us north.” We watch the vehicle from behind with “sky flowers” above, the firecrackers which Charlie innocently viewed as “way up in heaven.” Riley finds peace only alone in his own private heaven.
Land of the Dead identifies with the zombies (or “walkers”, as they are often called), not its humans, and the film’s hero is Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a Black zombie whom Riley first observes through his binoculars instinctively servicing a gas station. Riley’s musing on how these zombies are “learning to be us again” suggests how little separates zombies and humans. If they’re pretending to be alive, Riley observes, “isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?” The film depicts Big Daddy’s evolution from walker to self-awareness. Beginning as a gas station attendant, he gradually learns to communicate, use objects as tools and adapt to his environment. Breaking the panels of glass that separate the zombies from the consumer mall, he overthrows his masters. Big Daddy combines Riley’s empathy with Mulligan’s activism. He expresses empathy for the zombie whose head is gratuitously shot off and for the zombie whose body is torched. He expresses rage at human indifference and violence. The many scenes of zombies pulling apart human flesh reflects this rage, an emotion which Riley is unable to express. While Riley tells Charlie that “shit happens” but only if you let it happen, Riley chooses to escape to Canada. The melancholic scene in which Riley decimates a field of zombies devouring a crowd of humans reflects not only the rage of flesh-eating zombies but also the passivity of the humans themselves. Slack’s observation to Riley that “you saved them,” as another crowd of humans emerges from the shadows, plays awkwardly and is unconvincing as a heroic gesture. Peering yet again at Big Daddy through a pair of binoculars, Riley instructs that Dead Reckoning’s rockets not be turned on Big Daddy and the other zombies. “They’re just looking for a place to go. Same as us,” he observes. In contrast, however, to Riley, who escapes to Canada, Big Daddy leads in the founding of a new community, notwithstanding its risks and uncertainties.
Romero’s next film, Diary of the Dead, is a “found footage” film. Popularized by the low-budget The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez,1999), this subgenre offers a supposedly authentic narrative based on the convention that the audience is watching footage that another filmmaker chanced upon and has edited for dramatic purposes. In Diary of the Dead film students from the University of Pittsburgh, who were making a mummy horror movie on the night of the “real” world zombie apocalypse, have created such footage. Debra (Michelle Morgan), one of these students, narrates Diary of the Dead even as she claims that she’s completing the documentary of another student, Jason (Joshua Close), who had been directing the student horror movie. During Romero’s movie she and the other students, along with their film professor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), drive home in a van not knowing what’s happening. It’s the most self-conscious of Romero’s zombie films. For example, student-director Jason chastises Ridley (Philip Riccio) who plays a mummy chasing after a scantily clad student, “How many times have I told you? Dead things don’t move fast. You’re a corpse for Christ’s sakes!” Insisting instead that a mummy must “shamble.” Jason plainly reflects Romero’s view on the “fast zombies” recently introduced by other directors.4
Professor Maxwell, while disparaging the student production as a “stupid fucking mummy movie,” notes that it possesses “an underlying threat of social satire.” Diary of the Dead, too, socially critiques American culture. For example, commenting on America’s racial politics, the film depicts a group of Black national guardsmen who have stockpiled food and other supplies in a warehouse. Their leader boasts to Debra, “For the first time in our lives, we got the power ’cause everybody else left. All the folks without suntans.” The movie likewise critiques the insularity of the American family. A white, elderly couple hide in their apartment with their undead family members. Those undead then attack and kill one of the national guardsmen trying to rid the area of zombies. The guardsmen avenge themselves by killing the couple but not shooting them in the head. When the students arrive at Ridley’s home, it’s an enormous mansion. Professor Maxwell perceptively observes, “It’s like what god might have built if only he had the money.”
Diary of the Dead, however, also remakes and updates the narrative of The Night of the Living Dead. It revisits Romero’s recreation of the genre by depicting the beginning of the pandemic when no one yet knew its source and ends on the same bleak image, substituting for a white redneck shooting a Black man in the head a hunting party of white men shooting a zombie woman hung by her hair from a tree branch. Where, however, Night of the Living Dead redeemed its horror by documenting the mundane, everyday events, Diary of the Dead identifies filmmaking and other forms of communication as the source of the cultural infection, underscored by the continual pun on the word “shoot.” Thus, Maxwell uses a handgun to kill a student, who has become a zombie, and then hands over the weapon to another student, observing that “it’s too easy to shoot.” Likewise, Debra records with a camera a student suffering from a bite and then hands it over to Maxwell, observing that it’s “too easy to use.” Shooting empowers the shooter. Evoking the Black national guardsman’s observation about how his group for the first time has the power, Maxwell instructs Jason, “Don’t try to speak, just shoot. Shoot your picture. Shoot for as long as your hard drive holds out. As long as you have power.” Within the context of such empowerment, however, Diary of the Dead repeatedly distracts its audience and offers no redemptive hope. It opens with a single, hand-held shot of a carnage recorded, including an off-angled shot of the scene when the cameraman is himself attacked. That recording is later replayed in the background on a laptop in Debra’s dorm room and then still later foregrounded in a re-edited version in which the soundtrack has been changed so as to impose an authoritative framework. In place of the recording of a nondescript road in long shot, Romero substitutes in Diary of the Dead the recording, replaying and reediting of what might otherwise have been a significant, singular event.
Debra completes Jason’s film, which he has touted as capturing “the truth” with “no fakeness” but instead everything “really raw, really real.” A skeptical Debra, however, not only wonders why her boyfriend “has a camera plastered to his face” when she wants only to get home but is also incredulous at his obsession with achieving through his uploaded footage millions of hits on the internet. Jason’s film footage of “the truth” recalls the vast records to which Sarah in Day of the Dead contributed but which John condemned as inhuman. Maxwell appropriately characterizes Jason’s filming as “a diary of cruelty.” If language defines the limits of our world, as Wittgenstein observed, then Diary of the Dead critiques contemporary language as condemning the human species to incomprehension and aloneness.5 As Debra pointedly observes to Jason, “If it didn’t happen on camera, it’s like it didn’t happen, right?” Trapped within their own perspectives and unable to empathize with that which is outside themselves, the living experience instead a “chemical dependency.” As Debra also observes, “What is it? What gets into our heads when we see something horrible?…Something holds us. But we don’t stop to help. We stop to look.” Diary of the Dead offers no alternative to or escape from this addiction. Its characters confuse the recording with the recorded. Jason mistakenly believes that he is independently documenting truth from afar, god-like, but, in fact, he ends by filming himself in the process of dying.
The result is a fragmentation of the human species. Over a random collage of shots depicting places, crowds, events, cameras, computer screens and keyboards, mouths, geometric patterns, all of which disappear into a white screen, Debra observes, “Technology is terrific except when it doesn’t work…The mainstream had vanished with all its power and money. Now it was just us – bloggers, hackers, kids. The more voices there are, the more spin there is. The truth becomes that much harder to find. In the end it’s all just noise.” Each social group, too, in Romero’s words, is merely a different “tribe” – “Blacks, Latinos, women, Catholics” – as a consequence of the “new media, new technology.”6 Racial or gender empowerment results simply in the disadvantaging of other, culturally defined groups. Thus, the Black guardsman, whom the credits identify only as the Stranger, observes of Debra, a white woman, that “you’re a lot like me.” He admires how she has successfully called his bluff about the supplies. Yet national guard soldiers in the next scene steal these same supplies from Debra and the students. While the groups may change, a shift in power results in simply another disenfranchisement. As Debra observes upon encountering Stranger’s collection of supplies, “It’s called looting.” “No, ma’am. It’s called doing what you gotta do,” Stranger replies. While couched in terms of survival, his is a Darwinian view, resulting in a cultural fragmentation which contemporary capitalism fosters with its advocacy of the interchangeability of people as commodities and the primacy of the self in a wholly material world. Debra self-consciously seeks to awaken her audience by completing Jason’s documentary, which is ironically titled The Death of Death. “You see,” she narrates, “in addition to trying to tell you the truth, I am hoping to scare you so that maybe you’ll wake up. Maybe you won’t make any of the mistakes that we made.” If Romero’s Diary of the Dead also seeks to awaken its audience, it also documents its distance from Night of the Living Dead in 1968 when America glimpsed, if briefly, but then failed to achieve a revolutionary vision.
Two years later in 2009 Romero wrote and directed his last movie, Survival of the Dead, the least commercially successful of his zombie movies. It tells of how the undead have overrun America with 53 million dying per year, 150 000 dying per day and 107 dying per minute. It focuses on the longstanding feud between two warring families on Plum Island off the coast of Delaware, the O’Flynns, who insist on killing off all of the zombies (now called “deadheads”), and the Muldoons, who insist on chaining them in the ostensible hope that a cure will eventually be found. A small group of national guards find themselves caught between these two families. This group consists of the classical Hollywood mix of soldiers – Sarge (Alan van Sprang), who in Diary of the Dead had robbed Debra and the other students of their supplies, Kenny (Eric Woolfe), a nice guy, second-in-command who would take a bullet for Sarge but for whom the Sarge takes a bullet, Francisco (Stefano Di Matteo), a religiously observant Hispanic, and Tomboy (Athena Karkanis), a woman who’s far more capable than the other members of the group.
The movie encapsulates Romero’s distaste for America, including the roles of family, religion and other forms of tribalism. It critiques those who would torture the “deadheads,” such other soldiers who enjoy severing and placing the heads of the deadheads on sticks so that the heads may scream during the night. It critiques the bigoted patriarch Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) who, under the guise of not wanting to kill family but rather follow the ways of God and teach the deadheads, chains them so that they engage mindlessly in the activities of traditional life in America – delivering mail, plowing a field, chopping wood or, in the case of Seamus’ wife, cooking dinner. Seamus, who insists that women and children must follow their traditional roles and kills those from the mainland, because they are “strangers, no kin of mine,” represents fragmented, American individualism. He un-self-consciously boasts how his ranch benefits everyone and justifies himself by observing that “we got an obligation to protect ourselves. And what’s ours.”
Survival of the Dead is especially bleak in that Plum Island, the site of this long standing feud between families, is a pastoral land with rolling hills of gold and green foliage and across which Patrick O’Flynn’s (Kenneth Welsh) daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe), often gallops by horseback. The movie parodies that paradisiacal vision when Janet’s identical twin sister, Jane, who has become a deadhead, is later seen repeatedly riding horseback over that same countryside. Not surprisingly, Jane later savagely bites Janet whom she recognizes as her sister. Muldoon’s chief ranch hand, Chuck (Joris Jarsky), who dresses as a classic Western cowboy, in turn, lassos the deadhead Jane for whom he was once “sweet”. A former convict and desperate to leave Seamus Muldoon’s employ, he eventually tries to join Sarge, but Muldoon unexpectedly shoots him in the back. Recalling the dying figure of Pvt. Salazar from Day of the Dead, Chuck, the all-American cowboy, frees the corralled deadheads, taunting Seamus by asking, “Guess who’s coming to dinner, Muldoon?”7 The deadheads devour the living, including Chuck.
Like Diary of the Dead, there are occasional moments of dark humor – the late night, humorous TV show that Kenny watches on his computer or the comic death of the Asian fisherman who catches a deadhead on his line and then tumbles off the roof and into the water as Patrick O’Flynn asks what that was. Yet if O’Flynn is perceptive enough to understand how he and Sarge are on the same side, he’s not sufficiently wise to acknowledge that there’s no gain in the tribalism of his historical grudge match with the Muldoons. Sarge succinctly delivers the movie’s lesson.
In an us-versus-them world, someone puts up a flag, another person tears it down and puts up his own. Pretty soon no one remembers what started the war in the first place and the fighting becomes all about those stupid flags.
Sarge, who survives along with Tomboy and Boy (Devon Bostick), the group’s mascot, observes that small towns give birth to small people. Yet for all of the pain expressed by many for loved ones lost to the deadheads, small people are still everywhere, and the film underscores how ordinary people, such as Sarge, are unable to find peace anywhere. Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead end on the survivors’ escape – like Huck Finn in the American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1884) who “light[s] out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” If in contrast Diary of the Dead ends with the survivors entombing themselves in a “safe room,” Survivors of the Dead instead depicts its three survivors fleeing the idyllic Plum Island and wandering across a desolate American landscape of deadheads. Moreover, evoking imagery from the fantasy movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), the film ends on a long shot of Muldoon and O’Flynn, now deadheads, standing on a dark horizon against a giant moon repeatedly and mindlessly shooting at one another.
Romero’s zombie movies reflect the arc of American cultural history. A few months after the release of Dawn of the Dead President Jimmy Carter observed in his nationally televised “crisis of confidence” speech on the energy crisis how America was at an historical “turning point” – the need to choose between, on the one hand, an America “proud of hard work, strong families, close knit communities and our faith in God” and, on the other, the “worship [of] self-indulgence and consumption,” resulting in “fragmentation and self-interest.”8Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the next year’s presidential election and soon implemented a neoliberal agenda. America failed to address its energy crisis, resulting in climate change. The American communications network continues to cause fragmentation of “common purpose.” Romero directed his movies outside of Hollywood’s mainstream, notwithstanding his commercial successes, and his Dead-titled movies about zombies document the spreading infection across America even as its inhabitants amass more goods. Romero’s story begins in a small farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead and ends decades later in the rolling hills and fields of Plum Island in Survivors of the Dead. If each movie title is easily mistaken for the next, all of the films depict the same illness that’s attacking the living, resulting in the growing numbers of what have historically been known as zombies, initially became ghouls under Romero’s direction, and eventually deadheads. Romero’s movies reflect the disappearance of a common humanity and the fragmentation of America into conflicting, calcified interests of different families, races, classes and genders. That fragmentation is destroying America in Romero’s movies, notwithstanding America’s self-image as a brave new world or new Eden. The disease of Romero’s undead is all the more horrifying in that Romero identifies no source for its origin. It comes from nowhere but from within, and Romero offers no painless vaccine or cure for what ails contemporary America.
- Christopher M. Moreman, “Let this Hell be Our Heaven: Richard Matheson’s Spirituality and Its Hollywood Distortions,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2012, p. 144, citing John Russo, The complete night of the living dead filmbook. (NY: Harmony Books, 1985). ↩
- George Romero’s commentary to the Elite Entertainment DVD of Night of the Living Dead; and Alan Jones, A Rough Guide to Horror Movies (London: Rough Guides Ltd., 2005), p. 118. ↩
- The lowered budget resulted from a dispute over the MPAA rating that would be given to the film. Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 131. ↩
- 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) and Resident Evil (Paul W. S. Anderson, 2002) were the model for movies depicting “fast zombies”. Later zombie movies, such as Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), World War Z (Mark Forster, 2013) and Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016), routinely depict “fast zombies.” ↩
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,”, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, C .K. Ogden, trans (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1922), 5.6, p. 74. ↩
- George Romero’s commentary to the Dimension Extreme DVD of The Diary of the Dead. ↩
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967) was a comedy-drama about an interracial marriage starring Sidney Poitier as a Black doctor who wishes to marry the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. ↩
- The immediate cause for President Carter’s speech delivered on July 16, 1979, was the energy crisis in America as reflected in long lines at gas service stations. The text of his speech may be found at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/carter-crisis/. ↩