Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lord of the Dead: George Romero
[February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017]

George Romero, the man who brought the Dead to life, has passed on.

Prior to Romero, zombies were an aspect of Caribbean voodoo, and stories involving them largely revolved around a white woman falling under the spell of this clandestine African import. The stories spoke as much to the casual racism and xenophobia of American culture in the early 20th century as any fear of the supernatural.

But today's cross-platform multi-billion dollar zombie entertainment industry - as it runs amok through video games, television, films (both big budget and no budget), and yes, the heaviest of metals - owes its existence to Romero's Dead films. Borrowing story elements and the apocalyptic setting from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Romero imbued zombies with a new menace, one that reflected the paranoia and anxieties of the latter half of the 20th Century. In Night of the Living Dead, he created an entire genre of horror with just one line: "It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder."

And with that, Romero established the guidelines of the zombie outbreak: The dead return to life, with a hunger for human flesh; anyone bit by them will be infected, and eventually turn to zombies themselves; the only way to stop them is a devastating injury to the head. Future directors would tweak these concepts - most notably, Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright - but most stayed faithful to the tropes Romero established. For as much fun as Zombieland had with creating rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse, the actual whys and wherefores of zombies didn't need explaining to a modern film audience; they had filtered down through pop culture from Romero's original film and became canon.

Romero's influence can be felt throughout the horror world; the possessed Deadites of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, the infected suburbanites of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, and the mutated sewer dwellers of CHUD all bear more than a passing resemblance to Romero's lumbering Dead, and follow many of the same tropes. Even vampires, from Salem's Lot to 30 Days of Night, began taking their cues more from George Romero than Bram Stoker.

But Romero's films were never just about the horror of the dead coming back to life. As they progressed, the Dead films increasingly became a platform to comment on cold war paranoia, mindless consumerism, and the arrogance of the military-industrial complex. [In fact, when I needed a metaphor for bandwagon-hopping as it related to the cassette tape revival, I couldn't find a better metaphor than Romero's zombies.] In Romero's films, humanity's survival is continually undermined by its own myopia and self-interest, and the people with whom you huddled for safety were every bit as dangerous as the Dead swarming outside.

Romero even seemed to redress zombie horror's racist roots - the heroes of the Dead films were often African American (notably Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, and Ken Foree in its sequel). Though usually, if their courage and resourcefulness allowed them to best the Dead, it wasn't enough to overcome the prejudices of their white companions.

Outside of the Dead series, Romero's work was hit or miss. With The Crazies, he explored the growing distrust in the American government that followed Watergate and the Vietnam War. The film resonated enough to spawn a solid if largely forgotten remake. He collaborated with Stephen King on a number of adaptations (including two Creepshow anthologies and The Dark Half) which are viewed fondly by this horror fan, if not the wider public. But his most divisive film may well be Monkey Shines, in which a paraplegic battles a helper monkey that decidedly isn't helping. The movie has both its defenders and its braying detractors.

If Romero is remembered for anything, it'll be for taking a concept rooted in Western condescension and fear of African culture, reviving it for a modern audience, and thus infecting all of pop culture in the process. He gave the zombie new life; today, because of him, they are inescapable.