July 16, 2017

George Romero (1940-2017)

I was sad to learn that George Romero died today after a short battle with lung cancer. He's no Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg, but he almost single-handedly invented the zombie genre. For me, his original Night of the Living Dead is an iconic masterpiece which excelled not in spite of its low budget, but because of its low budget. Romero was able to capture with fairly simple tools and camera tricks the figurative and literal creeping horror of the walking dead.

There are a lot of zombie movies out there that are complete crap (such as Contracted) and there are a lot of zombie movies out there that are really terrific (such as The Girl with All the Gifts), and while there are zombie movies I could name which predated Night of the Living dead (such as White Zombie), Romero was the guy who was remembered above all others for his ability to clearly capture the unsettling quality of zombies in a way that set the stage for nearly every zombie movie that followed.

But why are zombies scary? On the surface, there's not much to them. I mean that literally: there's not much to them because their skin is falling off and they're missing limbs. But look a little deeper, and they embody so much of what makes horror effective.
Here's the difference between good horror and bad horror. Bad horror is big and loud and wants to kill you. Good horror is quiet and frail. It doesn't kill you. In fact, you kill it because it disgusts you. But here's the thing about good horror. Here's the trick: it never dies.
Zombies both figuratively and literally embody the fear of mortality, the loss of intelligent thought, and the worry that we'll never accomplish anything in life because our time was taken from us. Zombies say that at the end of your life, you might be nothing more than a withered corpse incapable of making voluntary decisions and who'll leave nothing of value in the world because it was stolen from you before you could accomplish anything. The only rational response to zombies is to bludgeon them to death and turn away from the crippling horror they represent. There's no reasoning with zombies. There's nothing to be learned from them, or logic to be understood. 

Or is there? Zombies have three basic functions:
  1. They search for food.
  2. They destroy anything that stands between themselves and food.
  3. They kill living animals for food.
I suppose you could say that there's really not much difference between zombies and humans. When you get right down to it, are those three functions not so different from human existence? Comparing zombies to humans can become a disgusting reflection of similarities.

Romero captured all this so effectively in Night of the Living Dead that he set the template for everything that followed. He didn't hit home-runs with every other zombie movie he ever made, but he was an icon who'll never be replaced. Death is not the end: what is remembered, lives. Hail the undead! Hail George Romero!

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