Few trends in pop culture have stuck around as lastingly as the genre that George A. Romero invented: the zombie movie. With The Walking Dead going strong after ten seasons, video games full-to-bursting with zombie escapades, and zombie fiction like World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, zombies have a proven staying power. This is not unlike their fictitious ability to outlive their human counterparts.
Without George A. Romero, though, we might not even know the word zombie. We definitely wouldn’t know the social messaging and impeccable design principles the director used to make an eminently retainable villain.
Let’s look at how Romero’s scripting, message, and creative choices made him the godfather of a genre and a household name.
Importance of Scripting
Despite his mainstream success, Romero’s first major movie, Night of the Living Dead, was not a studio picture. Romero’s 1968 masterpiece earned him 250 times its budget internationally, proving that wealth was not a requirement for success. Instead, Night took audiences by storm through its special effects, story, and message. With an inherently scary story (the dead are rising) and his unlikeable white characters, Romero’s message shines through the film. Prejudice is dangerous.
Message remained at the foreground of Romero’s work, even as he continued to use the walking dead to engage audiences. When Romero made his sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, dialogue reveals the issue at hand. “They don’t know why, they just remember,” Peter says of the zombies’ desire to get into the mall. “Remember that they want to be in here.”
If Night was a thinly veiled assault on racism and Dawn was a critique of mindless consumerism, 1985’s Day of the Dead (yes, Romero titles were fairly predictable) targeted an overzealous military in the midst the Cold War. Even much later in his career, Romero’s films each bore their own message of social responsibility. Land of the Dead (2005) tackled financial inequality. Diary of the Dead (2007) questioned our obsession with social media and digital documentation. Romero’s final Dead film, Survival of the Dead (2009), dealt with generational strife and toxic grudges.
Other Design Principles At Play
However, it wasn’t just the powerfully humanist messages that defined Romero’s zombie tales that drove audiences to embrace the genre. Other principles played just as much a role in Romero’s success as his messages—the human form, motion, and surprise.
Why did the zombie become a classic movie monster instead of a passing fancy? Most of it has to do with the human form. Since they look people, we can’t help but focus on them. Our brains are hard-wired to seek out human forms, so we find ourselves drawn to them even if they frighten us. Of course, Romero knew that looking human wasn’t scary—looking almost human was scary.
A huge part of the “almost human” element of the zombies is the way that they move. The stumbling, shambling movement of zombies is hypnotic for two reasons. First, motion always draws the eye; the lizard brain can even move the head to help the eyes follow movement. So the monsters’ moving is already reason enough to focus viewers’ eyes and attention. Secondly, the motion is wrong—it doesn’t fit the human form the way we expect. This disconnect is too engagingly weird to look away from, and Romero capitalized on it.
Then, there’s surprise, which Romero built into virtually every major plot point in his stories. Zombies appear from behind a door or wall, and attack; a character bitten earlier suddenly wakes up as a zombie; new survivors turn out to be thieves; rescuers turn out to be trigger-happy fools. Surprise causes the brain to release dopamine, and to become and remain curious. Romero knew to use this engagement boost as often as possible. It kept his audiences glued to the screen—and to his message.
Eventually, He Had To Liven Up The Mood
Of course, audiences expected to see these kinds of surprises after a few encounters with Romero’s world, so he added one that audiences really didn’t see coming: humor. Romero knew that his subject matter was scary. He also realized that a non-stop series of shocking scares would exhaust his audience. To ensure that his message wasn’t swallowed up by a too-disturbing story, Romero peppered laughs throughout his pictures.
These laughs provided the audience with the same dopamine hit, and provided them some good, clean fun to rest with before the next dramatic scene. Take Dennis Hopper’s character Paul Kaufman in Land of the Dead. Ostensibly the ruler of the last human city on the East Coast, Kaufman’s meant to represent oligarchy, unfit leadership, and ruthless self-interest. He could be a terrifying character, but instead he’s hilariously immature and moronic. When he looks over the city and opines, “Zombies, man… they creep me out,” the audience hears Romero’s message (the privileged don’t even understand the gravity of the situation) and gets a laugh.
A Film Legacy
Romero made more than zombie movies, but it will always be the zombie genre that defines his career. By the time of his death in 2017, Romero had directed seventeen films. This included the Stephen King anthology Creepshow and the Edgar Allen Poe double-feature he made with Italian master director Dario Argento, Two Evil Eyes . With his Dead series, though, Romero showed that a monster movie could be driven by design principles like message, story, use of the human form, motion, and surprise. He even added the kind of surprise horror audiences didn’t expect with his use of humor.
George A. Romero was a beloved member of the industry, famous for his kind manner on set and zealous work ethic. His goal was to send as many positive, humanist messages as possible through entertaining, engaging works of thrills and chills. Like Rod Serling before him, he trusted his audience to understand his message, even when its vehicle was unconventional. Let’s close with a quote from Romero himself on that message.
“My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.”