**For the purposes of this blog I am only focusing on the first three films Of Romero’s Living Dead franchise. Also SPOILERS**
“You’ve got to see this film! A guy’s head gets pulled off!” This was the kind of recommendation from my older brother that lead to me watching all sorts of excellent schlocky films in the pre-DVD era, when video servings of the grotesque were like precious treasures hidden in rental shops and car boot sales. Oh the great opportunities to indulge in the muck and mire of a teenage imagination: Evil Dead 1+2 (1980, 1987), Brain Dead (1992), and the entire John carpenter oeuvre amongst others. However, There was one series of films amongst this morbid bunch that didn’t allow for the unmitigated glee that should come with violent obscenities.
George A. Romero’s Living Dead franchise (not to be mistaken for The Return of the Living Dead Franchise of course – guffaw) left me with that Sunday feeling: emotionally exhausted; in serious doubt over the ability of humanity to achieve any good in this world; and knowledge that the only thing on TV evening is Time Team with an over enthusiastic Tony Robinson. Romero provided ample levels of violence, certainly on par, if not more so than his peers. (check out Private Torez’s demise in Day of the Dead (1985)! His head gets pulled off!! Right off!!!). But the violence in Romero’s franchise sits atop a foundation of social commentary which reflects some very, very low opinions of the walking living.
Zombie films have been around for about as long as the talkie picture. White Zombie (1932) is an early contender for the first entry in the genre, which was primarily a star vehicle for Bela Lugosi as a witch doctor using Haitian Voodoo to control an army of shuffling minions. The Zombie film’s emphasis on a leading villain with a power over the walking dead wasn’t shaken off until decades later with the introduction of George A. Romero’s Living Dead Franchise. Romero dismissed the diabolical antagonist figure as a means of projecting horror onto cinema screens. Instead, he replaced it with an apocalyptic setting where zombies were serving no-one but their own appetites for human flesh. In doing so the charge of malicious intent was cut out of the picture. Why the zombies were attacking became irrelevant. Romero looked for horror elsewhere: by shrinking down American society and putting it under attack in confined under siege spaces he and removed the thin layers of civility that held the social contract together to uncover the ghoulishness of the living.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) reflects heavily on the race relations of late ’60s America. A cross-section of American society converges on a country house to seek refuge from the zombie onslaught: urban and rural, blue and white-collar, black and white. The only black character in the film (Ben, played by Duane Jones) has all the makings of a leader but his authority is consistently undermined by a white-collar Harry, who insists on staying locked in the basement with his family and refuses to aid the struggle going on upstairs. Harry puts this microcosm of American society under threat through his unwillingness to engage with a very clear and present danger, and instead puts his efforts toward ensuring that a Black minority doesn’t hold any sway over him or his family. The power struggle between Ben and Harry ultimately leads to the downfall of all of the protagonists when Harry finally gets hold of the rifle that has been in Ben’s possession throughout the film with disastrous consequences.
Throughout the film we see emergency TV broadcasts following the home guard clearing out the zombie threat. These men are presented as trigger happy hillbillies, who are taking too much satisfaction in the gun-play that the occasion warrants. When they make an appearance at the film’s conclusion they gleefully gun down the remaining zombies and shoot Ben, the remaining survivor, in the head as he peers out of the slats of a barricaded window. In startlingly reminiscent images of a lynching, the credits roll over grainy freeze frames of the home guard dragging the body of Ben with meat hooks onto a pyre of zombies. Romero has commentated that the film was built on the foundations of the social climate arising from events surrounding the civil rights movement, and has observed himself that the first he heard about the murder of Martin Luther King was over the radio as he packed the last cans of film into his car to find an investor.
With Dawn of the Dead (1978) Romero placed mass-consumerism in his sights. The film is set in a shopping mall, which was a a fairly new curiosity when the film was made. Initially identifying the Mall as an ideal point of defence, the characters begin to lock themselves into a materialistic nightmare of their own design, displaying a greed that is only matched by the gormless hunger of the zombie hordes. As the characters increasingly lose sight of their survival in the face of unadulterated consumerism, the soundtrack reflects the absurdity of the situation by juxtaposing footage of the marauding zombies with a jaunty muzak number titled The Gonk. The Director’s Cut accentuates the pointlessness of human greed by stretching out montages of the survivors searching for the perfect wardrobe, kitchen wares, guns, and DIY tools to the point of empty tedium. Their lives increasingly appear shallower throughout the film, and less worthy of saving.
Dawn… supposedly offers a happy ending: two survivors rid themselves of the mall and board a helicopter to seek pastures new. But where are they going?! This always troubled me, and left Romero slightly unsure himself. He filmed an alternative ending where one of the survivors shoots himself as the mall is overrun by zombies, and the last remaining survivor jumps up into the rotors of a helicopter (Watermelon SFX appaz). THEN, as the credits rolled the helicopter would putter out to show that they wouldn’t have had enough fuel to escape anyway.
The third installment of the franchise, Day of the Dead (1985), is a big old commentary on the militarisation of society. The film is set within a military silo staffed by a small group of soldiers and scientists, where the soldiers are most definitely the bad guys, bullying the scientists with threats of violence if they don’t find a cure quick. However, it isn’t just the scientists who are subjugated by the army. By this point in the franchise zombies are representative of a global underclass who outnumber humans four million to one, and are treated horrifically by the small minority of humans that remain.
The scientists perform grueling acts of vivisection on the zombies in an attempt to find a cure, a task which seems especially cruel in the face of its hopelessness. The cruelty aimed at the zombies is accentuated by the character of Bub (Howard Sherman), a zombie who shows signs of remembering being a human. His ability to recognise faces, appreciate music, and even attempt speech suggests at a humanity that will be gained by the zombie race whilst it is depletes amongst the dwindling race of human survivors. In the face of this the cruelty inflicted upon the zombies the inevitable zombie showdown resemble more of an uprising than an unwarranted act of violence, with the zombies identifying that they have a greater case for survival than the last remains of humanity.
Romero’s biting (you know, like a zombie? What a zombie does?) social commentaries are one of the few things that the current zombie revival has not taken up – at least not with the same zeal that it has adopted the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of slapstick violence inherent in the zombie genre. Whilst Romero’s trilogy certainly comes with a healthy smattering of violence, what makes it so distinctive are the subtexts which hide within the splatter, providing the films’ true horror. How dare he. I just wanted was to see a guy’s head get pulled off.