As a kid, I used to watch horror movies with my dad, typically on Friday evenings, rented from Blockbuster. One of his favorites was Night of the Living Dead, and I credit that initial viewing experience for getting me into horror. There was so much about the movie that I loved and still love, especially the opening, when Barbara (Judith O’Dea) stumbles around the graveyard and encounters the film’s first zombie. Of course, there is also that famous “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” line, one of the most classic quotes in any horror movie. After seeing that movie as a boy, I was hooked.
Romero’s work resonated with me a lot more when I grew older. Upon first viewing, I didn’t realize the significance of Romero choosing a black male lead, Duane Jones, for Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960s, or the significance of that final shot, when Ben is shot in the head by redneck vigilantes and then his body is burned. In college, I hung a poster on my dorm room wall of the young zombie girl who killed her parents in the film. Imagine a movie with that type of scene hitting in the 1960s!
I didn’t see Dawn of the Dead until college, but I was struck by its campiness and cartoonishness (the blue zombie make-up and bright red blood) coupled with the not-so-subtle commentary on consumerism. However, my favorite installments in Romero’s zombie legacy may be Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. The zombies are a lot scarier, smarter, and angrier, for one, but the social commentary pushes deeper and really makes us think about ways in which human beings are worse than the monster/other. Day of the Dead raises the question whether or not human beings would be able to survive an apocalypse-like scenario without killing each other or resorting to militarism or fascism, and Land of the Dead railed against the 1 percenters before Occupy Wall Streeters ever pitched tens in Zuccotti Park. It was one of the perfect films for the Bush age, shortly before the economic crash and bailout. Diary of the Dead is worth watching, too, and I only wish that we could witness a final installment in Romero’s zombie canon, especially in the Trump-age.
Romero is part of an important wave of American horror movie filmmakers from the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of which also included Wes Craven, Tobe Hopper, John Carpenter, among others, who realized, as Mary Shelley did while penning Frankenstein, that horror is a wonderful vehicle for exploring social commentary. As I noted in another blog post, horror is undergoing a wonderful revival now, and it is mostly thanks to independent filmmakers and indie studios like A24. However, if it wasn’t for films like Night of the Living Dead, shot in Western, PA. on a shoestring budget, with no household names, the horror films generating buzz today probably wouldn’t have been possible. Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and other small-budget films from that time caused studios to take risks and made them realize there is an audience out there for smart, boundary-pushing horror movies.
I’ll forever be grateful to my dad for getting me into horror, specifically through Romero’s work. A few months ago, Gravel published a poem I wrote about Night of the Living Dead. In honor of the filmmaker, I’ll share it again. Check it out here.