George A. Romero didn’t invent zombies. But everything we think we know about zombies today began with him. Romero, who died July 16 at age 77, built a career in horror films. He specialized in plots involving stumbling, once-human creatures who prey upon and consume the living, motivated by nothing but a thirst for blood and meat—and an inarticulate but rabid yearning for survival. In Romero’s movies—beginning with his astonishing 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead—the dead just want to live, and who can blame them? Romero’s movies, always built on an armature of political astuteness, are well-loved, and not just by horror aficionados. He found ways to talk about the human condition by showing what humans become when all of their politesse—and all of their feelings, including generosity and compassion—are stripped away.
Because horror movies generally contain some element of fantasy, people who don’t understand them tend to think they’re disengaged with the real world. Romero is a prime example of someone who was engaged every minute. Building on the cult success of the super-low-budget Night of the Living Dead—it wasn’t a hit when it opened, but developed a following over time—he made a series of movies that, like that initial salvo, showed us what it means to be part of a community, and to be alive to each other. The zombie action in Dawn of the Dead (1978) is set in a shopping mall, those churches of commerce in ascendance at the time. Land of the Dead (2005), in which the remaining living humans had walled themselves into their own fortified city to keep the riffraff out, was a meditation (with zombies) on gentrification as a mode of social and geographical segregation. And Romero’s 2007 Diary of the Dead was his own reflection on the found-footage genre, an entertaining B-movie exercise in which he explored the world and effectiveness of fashionably clumsy filmmaking. The picture came with a wink built in, Romero’s way of saying, “Let me show you how it’s done, kids.”
Romero made non-zombie movies too, like the 1981 fantasy Knightrider, with Ed Harris, and Martin, a 1978 thriller about a young vampire who, as the picture’s advertising material suggested, “could be the boy next door.” But his debut film was arguably his true masterpiece, a picture that, for all its low-budget tricks, is as deeply unsettling today as it was upon its release. In Night of the Living Dead, seven people huddle in the house in the country, fending off the hungry zombie hordes outside. Six of them are white. Ben (Duane Jones) is black. He’s also the voice of calm and reason in a dire situation. He tries to soothe the movie’s blonde in a trenchcoat, Babra (Judith O’Dea), as she descends into a deep state of shock. (It’s the white guys who have refused to help her.) He proactively blockades the doors and boards up the windows, though the spaces between those boards will clear the way for one of cinema’s most enduring, and frequently repeated, images: That of desperate zombie hands clawing their way into the sphere of the living, a place from which they’ve been banished.
Even though Jones’s Ben is thinking the most clearly about this unthinkable situation, almost all of his housebound compatriots look at him, at one point or another, with distrust. For Romero, the Night of the Living Dead zombies represented 1,001 indefinable anxieties tearing at the world. They personified the unrest and wariness of a not-even-close-to-being-integrated country. The assassination of a president was still not so far off in the rearview mirror. Night of the Living Dead was released in October of 1968. Martin Luther King had been murdered the previous April. Robert F. Kennedy was shot to death about eight weeks later. The world had gone mad, and Romero had made a movie about it even as it was happening.
We often like to say about any past era, “Times were simpler then.” But any era is complicated while you’re living in it. The chiaroscuro bleakness of Night of the Living Dead is just as resonant today as it was in 1968. Romero will always be remembered for making movies about the undead. They should also be remembered as messages to the living.