American dreams, American nightmares: Throughout the decades, George A. Romero has politicized his zombies: as war casualties, radiation victims, general globalization losers, his unique way of criticizing the Western World. In July, one of the most important pioneers of the horror genre died. Through his outstanding work, he continues to stay alive.
by Roland Peters
When George A. Romero and his small team were selecting the actors for his first movie, they cast a black man for the leading role. Duane Jones fled before the drudging zombies into a country house, defended it and took command over the other survivors, white survivors that is, while the despotic middle-class father holed up his wife, young daughter, and himself in the basement. Suddenly, the black man had power over the white one.
"Night of the Living Dead" turned into a cult classic of a young generation. It also became a great success: 30 million US Dollar box office takings for a film with a production budget of about 100.000 Dollars. The horror, the blood and the pictured morbidity had been an unseen distortion of every day life. Certainly, it was an obvious narration of America in the midst of the black civil rights movement and the Vietnam conflict. The casualties of war threaten the American idyll, and the black Duane Jones holds them off while risking his life - only to be killed by a bullet fired from a white man's weapon.
Later, Romero said that it was not Jones' skin color which had been the reason for his casting: He simply was the best actor. Hence the director's decision, made during the United States' Race Riots of the 1960s in Detroit, New York, Washington D.C., and other cities - in hindsight becomes even more significant.
The year 1968 marks the beginning of Romero's career as the father of zombies (called "ghouls" in the movie), and as formative figure of modern horror film. He wanted more than to purely shock. With his films he condensed and conveyed the American nightmare, he said himself, decades afterward. This is what elevates his Magnum Opus above his trashy genre colleagues. Romero's zombies always had a political dimension. Horror was his chosen vehicle, not an end in itself.
Over the course of his career Romero also worked on other films and series such as "Creepshow" with Stephen King. But the zombie was always his central figure. He reinterpreted and repositioned it over and over again, and in 1978 he hit the nerve of the Zeitgeist again, by transferring the action of "Dawn of the Dead" into a shopping mall where a group of survivors fled Armageddon.
Even in the late 1970s, the rise of these malls had changed the United States significantly already. Main street, in most smaller towns and cities the center of public everyday life, was transferred into a privately controlled environment, as the small, owner run shops went bankrupt. The former sidewalks became deserted, and having a car to reach the mall, mostly erected in the middle of nowhere, to attract consumers from several towns at once, became even more important. The social space was shifted. In Romero's film, The Living Dead straggle through the vast consumption spaces and use the escalators, as it was the most important thing they had known. Romero linked his obvious consumption critique with the classic Haunted House setting of American literature.
In the following "Day of the Dead" (1985), Romero's focus changed to world politics. The zombie suddenly gained the ability to learn. In reality, a nuclear war between the US and Russia was imminent, and Romero send its civil victims across American and international theater screens. The movie was released during the most chilling of times in the Cold War. Consciously, Romero made his undead more human. Now they looked exactly like the people dying from radiation sickness in the controversial apocalyptic TV film "The Day After".
In an underground bunker, the military-industrial complex is discussed. It directs everyone's communication. Who decides over the future of mankind? Civilians? Scientists? Or the erratic and volatile soldiers, who see themselves as protectors, but in the end are the least reliable in their struggle for power and control - and cause the eventual catastrophe. Romero later explained: "'Day of the Dead' came from this sentiment at the time, that we should give up on everything: the government, the military, the financial system. It began looking as though we were building a house of cards."
It took Romero twenty years to release the last of his masterpieces. He maintained his international perspective. "Land of the Dead" (2005) is pervaded by allusions to 9/11, the War on Terror, the Western World's arrogance in the face of victims left behind in globalization. In Pittsburgh, his hometown, there is a shiny glass tower, ruled by Dennis Hopper, a ruthless businessman. The surrounding dark lands are populated by the Living Dead. After another one of the regular human supply raids for the city, one of the zombies decides to lead the undead horde against the capitalistic castle and overrun it. Hopper, the old system's white leader, is eventually consumed in his garage by flaming petrol, together with his limousine and suitcases full of Dollar bills - ignited by the black zombie leader.
Not only this scene is loaded with metaphors, neither only his single films, it is the overarching significance as critique which makes him and his work of a lifetime outstanding. When watching Romero's most important works, what stays in mind are a lot of details. They are a running commentary of the state of politics, the agenda in the United States, and in the whole Western World. On 16 July, the world lost a great visionary in film and culture. Aged 77, George A. Romero died after a short yet grave illness.
Fairooz Aniqa contributed to the translation