A report by Greg Garrett for the oxford University Press blog. Garrett is the author of Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.
When George Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead, died on 16 July, the world was gearing up for the season opener of Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones owes its central storyline—the conflict between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers—and a great measure of its success to Romero, as do other popular and critically-acclaimed versions of the story, whether television (The Walking Dead, iZombie), film (28 Days Later, Sean of the Dead, and Zombieland), fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Making of Zombie Wars), comics (Marvel Zombies, Afterlife with Archie, Blackest Night), or any of the other media or products shaped by the zombie narrative. When we consider how important the Zombie Apocalypse story has become in our culture, it is hard to know whether to call George Romero a popular filmmaker, a social critic, or a prophet. Maybe he’s all three.
When Romero directed Night of the Living Dead in 1968 on a shoestring budget and with no-name actors, he and co-writer Joe Russo were simply trying to make a cheap, stylish, and entertaining horror film. In the process, they also shaped a myth appropriate for an age full of tensions and troubles. While the word “zombie” is never used in the film, Night of the Living Dead represents the Ground Zero of the modern zombie story. 1968, of course, was a year marked by assassinations, political unrest, the Vietnam War, changes in social and sexual mores, racial violence, and other unsettling changes. Night of the Living Dead took on those fears and worries metaphorically by transmuting them into ghouls outside a farmhouse, trying to break in and attack the living.
Did Romero and Russo consciously set out to offer cultural critique in their story? Yes and no. Romero talked in interviews about how the model of Richard Matheson’s science-fiction novel I Am Legend offered him a narrative of revolution, of the world being turned upside down, that he very much liked and wanted to explore. But the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to which some viewers think the film’s ending refers to, took place after the completion of principal photography, and the film’s topicality is largely a result of the shape of the narrative itself. The Zombie Apocalypse has proven to be a particularly appropriate tale for an unsettled world, as Night of the Living Dead (and the reaction to it) amply demonstrate.
As with many artists, in this film Romero was anticipating as much as he was responding. A story about zombies who attack in waves, about humans who resist and quarrel about how to resist, and about the fear that we will lose our identity turned out to be the right story at the right time. A similar congruence comes just after 9/11, when the British horror film 28 Days Later set off the zombie craze in which we still reside..
In reshaping the zombie story from its origins as a narrative about slavery and dominance in the Caribbean, to a story about supernatural ghouls who threaten all human life, Night of the Living Dead offered a contemporary example of a trope familiar in the West for at least 600 years in which Death or the dead confront the living in art and literature in times of crisis. Romero’s modern zombie story is an updated version of the Danse Macabre in which embodied Death reaches out to every member of the society and yanks them into the next life. It is also a cathartic tale of ultimate horror that feels much like our current experience, but which we can turn off or put down, grateful that however bad the terrors of the present moment might be, at least the dead are not trying to knock down our doors.
Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are two of our culture’s most-widely consumed versions of the Zombie Apocalypse story Romero inaugurated. In Game of Thrones, the often-foregrounded storylines of characters vying to sit on the Iron Throne are finally beginning to be overshadowed by the conflict between members of the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers (“The Others”) who command the walking dead. While the plots concerning royal succession are filled with human interest, intrigue, sexuality, and violence, some characters (and many critics) have suggested that all these are no more than the arguing of attractive children over toys. When you see the dead walk, as Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) have, it becomes clear that nothing else matters. In this way, the Zombie Apocalypse will determine Game of Thrones’ final outcome.
Like Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Game of Thrones uses the Zombie Apocalypse to wrestle with the threats of our own age, not just the obvious ones, but also perhaps the ones to which we’re simply not paying enough attention. So, as in Romero’s films, Game of Thrones helps its viewers to grapple with such menaces as international terrorism, economic unrest, refugees, pandemics, and natural disasters. But by showing how easily we can be distracted from greater menaces and how often people prefer not to believe that “Winter Is Coming,” it also encourages us to pay attention to undervalued or often-dismissed threats. In what ways, for example, might human beings be contributing to climate change, the decline of bees, the extinction of animal species, or any number of potentially apocalyptic crises that we ignore?
Romero’s films were recognized in his lifetime as entertaining,important, and culturally relevant. His great final achievement may be that he bequeathed to us a master narrative with which we can confront our fears. In the Zombie Apocalypse, the people of 2017 too can find meaning, comfort, and insight into our own lives, and for that, we can thank George Romero.