The living dread

By Noel Vera

Often called the “Father of the Zombie Film,” George Romero died in his sleep on July 16 following a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer.”

LOOKING at George Romero’s first feature film you can’t help but feel: this is a nightmare.

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Probably wasn’t meant that way at first. Mr. Romero used black-and-white to save on cost; the film as a result acquired all the power and testimonial authority of newsreel footage.

Today with most films in color and the look of pixilated video (or a shaky cellphone camera) replacing grainy 16 mm, Night of the Living Dead (1968) feels not so much real as it does stylized, has since moved from the realm of verite to the realm of subconscious imagery.

Why is the photography so unsettling? Not so much for the way black-and-white evokes dreams — recent studies suggest we mostly dream in color ever since movies and TV have shifted into color — as for the way it evokes an otherworldly state, a ghost state. The unnatural countenance of the undead seems more appropriate to an unnatural monochrome world.

Mr. Romero is often credited for creating a subgenre of horror; I’d add that the classic Haitian undead (which example Mr. Romero consciously avoided) was a solitary figure, an anomaly wandering the land of the living. Romero hit upon the idea of the undead as the unthinking masses the overwhelming majority, the, in effect, new normal; he suggests this is how the world ends — not with a bang or whimper but an endless meat lover’s buffet.

Mr. Romero created a powerful fable at a time of social turmoil (taking the only finished print to New York to be exhibited, he heard over the radio the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot) and people have since read meaning into this or that aspect — that the film is a metaphor for racial oppression, a metaphor for Vietnam, and so forth. Most interpretations stick; Mr. Romero’s debut feature is a Rorschach inkblot that morphs into whatever image you care to read into it and they’re all valid.

Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, and Kyra Schon in Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The film is still morphing; people continue to read whatever they want into it. The idea of a black man gunned down by a white man before he can identify himself has, if anything, gained new currency.

If Mr. Romero had done only Night he would have left an indelible mark, not only on the subgenre of the undead but on horror and independent filmmaking in general. Unfortunately a crooked distribution deal meant all the profits ($30 million, or $210 million in today’s dollars, for a film that cost at most $114,000 or $798,000 today) flowed elsewhere, and it would be 10 years before Mr. Romero would enjoy his first real commercial hit (or first where he actually benefited from the proceeds).

Night of the Living Dead was shot verite-style and has become the nation’s dark dream of the 1960s; Dawn of the Dead (1978) is arguably the comic-book sequel, complete with garishly bright Day-Glo blood. Where Night is a metaphor for beleaguered America (us against a world of undead), Dawn is a parody of shopping mall America (“Why do they come here?” “Memory of what they used to do. Some kind of instinct. This was an important place in their lives”) down to the mindless wandering, the pointless consuming (of clothes, liquor, sporting goods), the long stretches of unrelieved boredom. The film was a dark deadpan joke, one that audiences — sharper than many of the critics at the time (Variety, Halliwell’s Film Guide, The New York Times among others) — were able to appreciate.

Most folks — critics included — don’t much like Day of the Dead (1985); I thought it to be Mr. Romero’s underappreciated masterpiece. The producers offered $7 million if Mr. Romero would tone down his gore for an “R” rating; the filmmaker instead kept the gore and shrank his production accordingly.

The result could be called Mr. Romero’s Dr. Strangelove: a claustrophobic end-of-the-world scenario where scientists and soldiers huddle in an underground bunker surrounded by hordes of undead, deal with drastically dwindling resources, confront each other’s paranoia and mounting sense of desperation. Day still has its moments of dark humor but unlike in Dawn the heroes aren’t common folk but what’s left of the government — all real hope of turning things around gone and the game, in effect, just about over. Man’s relationship with ghouls have also come full circle: where in Night they were the unknown Other and in Dawn were parodies of our consumerist selves, in Day they have ominously developed (as if sensing a gap about to open on the evolutionary ladder) a rudimentary intelligence, a limited range of emotions, even an ability to show affection — not to mention (in a nod to yet another Kubrick film) the ability to use the tool-weapon for murder, for revenge.

A scene from Diary of the Dead (2007).

The remaining films in the Dead series don’t add any major ideas but instead attach interesting footnotes to what, in my mind, is an already perfect trilogy. Land of the Dead (2005) with its Fiddler’s Green full of elite upper class and its undead constantly distracted by fireworks (not unlike the large-scale ordnance detonated during the Iraq War) parodies the Bush Era class struggles. Diary of the Dead (2007) was an attempt to go back to the beginning of the plague and tell a different story using “found footage” format. Survival of the Dead (2009) follows two narrative lines: the all-too-human perversity of insisting on family feuds past all sanity (What’s the point?) and the gradually developing consciousness of the undead, from the preternaturally intelligent Bub (Day of the Dead) to the patriarchal Big Daddy (Land of the Dead) to the horse-riding mail-delivering ghouls of Survival. The last film’s very title contains its theme: how can the dead survive? Mr. Romero’s final work suggests answers to that question.

Mr. Romero wasn’t always about flesh-eaters; Martin — released the same year as Dawn — is, outside of Dreyer or Murnau, possibly my favorite vampire film, either a brilliant documentary on how a modern-day hemophage might feed on his prey or the eerily poignant portrait of a young man (John Amplas) seeking to end his loneliness. The ambiguity can be dizzying the way loss of blood can be dizzying; Mr. Romero sustains the delicate balance between horror story, parody of a horror story, and a youth’s coming-of-age with remarkable deftness and depth of feeling.

If America has demonstrated a genius for anything it’s for self-invention and Mr. Romero’s Knightriders shows that peculiar genius at its most creatively fertile: basically the Knights of the Round Table on motorbikes, roaring through the fields and roads of rural Pennsylvania. A docudrama approach helps establish the parameters of the group’s shared fantasy: they’re knights with ladies and tournaments and a king (William, played with eagle-eye intensity by Ed Harris), living in a world of showbiz promoters, rubbernecking public, corrupt cops. They tilt at each other but their weapons are rubber blades, lightweight maces, weakened lances — they want to win but not kill. They deal with jealousies and rivalries and meager finances — the sale of handcrafted medieval “artifacts” and hotdogs help defray costs; at a certain point the sense of bitterness and frustration is such that the community flies apart — Morgan (Tom Savini) and William’s finest knight Alan (Gary Lahti) go their own way, seeking individual success.

It helps that Mr. Romero doesn’t explain too much, that King William never offers a clear reason for why he set the group up in the first place, why the group breaks up (though we have an idea), and what mysterious force brings them back together again. You suspect that if Mr. Romero started explaining it’ll all come crashing down and here’s the shock — you don’t want it to.

It’s not Mr. Romero’s tautest, or most effective, or even most efficient work but it does help you realize just what is Mr. Romero’s great and secret theme: fragility. The fragility of humanity among survivors in a besieged house; the fragility of an economic system established and then satirized in an abandoned shopping mall; the fragility of leadership and intellect flickering out in a military bunker; the fragility of a young man’s sense of self; the fragility of a shared dream of Camelot. All things pass and Mr. Romero captures both the horror and fleeting beauty of its passing with his often cheap, often handheld camera.

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