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George A. Romero was a politically committed filmmaker who just happened to have a knack for monsters. He didn’t invent the zombie movie, although a lot of people think he did. Rather he made horror movies a culturally relevant, political force that could change the way you thought about yourself, your neighbors, and your world. In 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he did this by casting a black man, Duane Jones, as his hero, then allowing that hero to be executed by a posse of vigilantes who mistake him for a monster—in a sequence that strongly evokes U.S. lynching photos. Zombies set the stage for this shocking conclusion, but they’re hardly relevant to it, because they’re not the real enemies in Night of the Living Dead … or any other Romero “zombie movie.” It’s human nature we should be afraid of.
Romero didn’t set out to become a horror auteur. He made Night of the Living Dead as part of a filmmaking collective, Image Ten. Each member contributed $600 toward a feature that would help them launch careers as filmmakers. Located in Pittsburgh, Image Ten was indie all the way. The group made a horror movie only because the genre was cheap to produce and easy to sell. Romero was chosen to direct because of his prior experience in television (including Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), but it’s important to remember that Night of the Living Dead was a communal production. It’s a product of the ’60s and not just in its allegorical critique of U.S. race relations. The movie draws on Hollywood history and blends genres to catch its viewers’ attention. For instance, Romero based his lighting design on Orson Welles’ Othello, a virtuosic (if racially insensitive) adaption that uses dramatic shadows to convey Othello’s shattered world. He and co-writer John Russo also made their ghouls slow, like the stars of classic monster movies such as 1931’s Dracula, 1931’s Frankenstein, 1932’s The The Mummy, and even 1958’s The Blob. The threats in these movies aren’t based on speed or surprise but the horror of death’s creeping inevitability. Russo and Romero’s monsters were also distinctly American—the folks next door, not the zombies of Haitian Creole culture or movies inspired by it, such as 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie. So the slow “everyman” zombie that became Romero’s signature wasn’t his alone, and it wasn’t the defining factor of his filmmaking, either.
What Romero really cared about was social justice. All of his films use satire and allegory to critique the ruling class. He made films about the women’s movement (and witches) and biological warfare (and a psychosis-inducing virus). These movies—1972’s Season of the Witch and 1973’s The Crazies—led the way for the horror renaissance of the 1970s by showing that horror movies could have subtler meanings, just like the new serious dramas by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese (both of whom got their start in horror and exploitation films, by the way). Unlike his contemporaries, though, Romero couldn’t shake his association with the genre, and in 1978 he returned to zombies with Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead uses the “everyman” zombie to indict America’s descent into consumer culture. Set a few days into the apocalypse, it features hordes of zombies doing what they loved most while alive: hanging out at the mall. The human protagonists dispatch these ghouls pretty quickly, though. What does the living in, instead, is resource-hoarding. After kicking the zombies out of the mall, our heroes feel like they own it … and they don’t want to share it. The survival of the species is undermined by its own selfishness, a trend that continues in Day of the Dead, Romero’s scathing parody of Cold War militarism. His critique is just as incisive in his second zombie trilogy—2005’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and 2009’s Survival of the Dead—not to mention his DC comic book miniseries, The Death of Death (2004–05), which borrows its dark irreverence from 1950s horror comics.
Many consider Dawn of the Dead to be Romero’s masterpiece—and it is brilliant work—but the film that best encapsulates his unique contributions to film history is Martin. Almost a neo-realist monster movie, the 1978 film follows a mentally ill young man as he struggles with his conviction that he is a vampire. Martin possesses no supernatural abilities, yet both he and the granduncle with whom he lives believe that he is one of the legendary undead. Romero punctuates the film with black-and-white vignettes of Martin’s fantasies of himself as a charismatic vampire lover, but the reality is much grimmer. He has to sedate his victims before slitting their wrists with a razor blade. Worse yet, he has to clean up after himself when the ritual is complete. Martin’s floundering is mirrored in the film’s setting: Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town crumbling in the wake of deindustrialization. There is no romance, mystery, or hope left to sustain this society. The malaise of the disintegrating economy infuses Martin’s character, who crucially is not just some aristocrat come to suck the blood of the working class. The metaphor’s not that simple. Rather, Martin’s mental illness is symptomatic of a larger social problem, of a society living on myths and legends because it has no more fulfilling way to sustain itself.
People are going to remember George Romero for his zombies, with their lumbering gate, their funny costumes, and their savage hunger for human viscera. But we should also remember his movies for their innovative blend of genre pleasures and subversive politics, of commercial entertainment and artistic purpose. That is, after all, what American cinema does best. It’s what Truffaut, Godard, and the rest of the postwar French cinephilic elite loved about Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. It’s what we loved about Coppola and Spielberg in the 1970s and still love directors such as Kathryn Bigelow and J.J. Abrams today. Horror directors rarely get the same critical recognition, though. It’s like we don’t believe they or their movies are capable of more. Which is ironic, since Romero’s main thesis was that it’s our beliefs that get us into trouble.