How George Romero’s zombie tropes infected pop culture

George Romero, who died this week, popularised the zombie — one of the most compelling monsters in modern horror. His version of the undead – symbolic, even soulful – shuffled their way from his films to TV, music and video games. Here, we explore five Romero genre tropes that spread across pop culture. Warning: This piece contains spoilers for Jordan Peele’s film, Get Out.

20 July 2017

By Ramsey Hassan

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

On shuffle

When asked what his biggest criticism of modern zombie movies was, Romero’s answer was emphatic: “Zombies don’t run”.

Nothing typified Romero’s Living Dead series like the Zombie Gait: the shuffling, stumbling way his undead walked. In 1982 it was reworked wonderfully as The Thriller Dance in John Landis’ iconic video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Choreographer Michael Peters - often referred to as the “Balanchine of MTV” — helped Jackson devise the routine after watching Romero’s zombie movies. Peters later won a Tony for his work on Dreamgirls. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994.

Fans around the world memorised the air-clawing, walking-corpse swagger, whether they zombie-shuffled at home or en masse like the prison inmates in the Philippines, it became the universally recognised amble of the undead.

Romero worshippers like Edgar Wright and Peter Jackson remained stuck on shuffle, but there were those keen to up the pace. Fast zombies (or zombie a-likes) popped up in films like I Am Legend, 28 Days Later and World War Z. Romero, who saw fast zombies as a symptom of a film industry obsessed with size and speed, remained unimpressed “They can’t [run]!,” he said. “Their ankles would snap. What did they do — wake from the dead and immediately join a health club? I don’t get it.”

Remove the head! Destroy the brain!

In Day of the Dead (1985) Romero established a fundamental rule of the zombie genre: the undead don’t die until you destroy the head. This trope was seized upon by a generation of tech-savvy zombie nuts who would lead the horde from the world of the video nasty to a new feeding ground: the videogame.

One of the early games on the Sony PlayStation, Resident Evil (1996) gave birth to the third person, survival horror genre and borrowed heavily from the Romero textbook. So much so that in 1998, the game’s owners Capcom asked Romero to write and direct a commercial for the release of Resident Evil 2.

Sequels followed, alongside numerous imitators, all attempting to capture the pure panic of being in the shoes of a Romero protagonist. Sega’s The House of the Dead made the action first-person by incorporating the virtual shooting gallery and plastic gun made famous by Nintendo’s Duck Hunt a decade earlier. Instead of blasting waterfowl out of a pixillated sky, you’re blasting hordes of the relentless undead (with appropriate accompanying gore and flying rotted body parts).

Zombies are everywhere in games now, from the pixelated horrors of indie titles like I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 to the family-friendly man munchers in Plants V Zombies. But, in the early zombie games, the rules were simple: you fought slow, lumbering monsters. The key to survival was the same as in Romero’s movies – destroy the head to make it through the night. 

Keep consuming

By the late seventies shopping malls had replaced the town square as the centre of many American cities. Shopping had become an activity that brought people together. Romero, who set his second zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, in a shopping mall, drew parallels between the insatiable pull of consumer culture and the zombies’ ravenous appetite for flesh.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The Kobal Collection

Zombies have been used as carriers of social satire ever since. A whole genre – the zomcom – offers undead comedies with satirical bite. Among these films is Fido, a Canadian comedy in which Billy Connolly is a zombie that’s been domesticated for household use and Zombieland (2009), which spun on Jesse Eisenberg’s nerdy protagnist recognising and adapting to the rules of the genre for his own preservation. In 2011 Juan of the Dead used a zombie narrative to carry a critique of the Castro government. Yet there’s one zom-com film, made twenty-five years after Dawn of the Dead, that still looms over the genre. Shaun of the Dead, made by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, brought Romero’s tradition of critiquing capitalistic culture into the 21st-century, showing the life-sucking nature of modern techno-capitalism on working-class London.

From the opening credits we see young people in dead-dead jobs where they barely engage with their customers, plugged into ipods, going about their daily routines in a zombie-like stupor. Our eponymous hero (played by Pegg) and his best mate Ed (Nick Frost) are slackers that spend every night at the local boozer. They are so disengaged with the rest of the world that they initially overlook their early zombie encounter – thinking that a couple are just making out when it’s really something a lot more gruesome.

It can think!

Under Romero zombies gradually evolved from dumb lumbering brain-addicts to social animals. In Land of the Dead (2005) zombies are running a peaceful small town, complete with a little white chapel and a bandstand on the public square.

Still they are unable to speak in anything more than a growl. In fact, we almost never get inside the rotted mind of a zombie to see the world from their perspective. An exception is Warm Bodies (2013), a “zom-rom”, written and directed by Jonathan Levine.

In Warm Bodies Nicholas Hoult plays a zombie who goes by the name of R. Outwardly he’s a mumbling, stumbling, brainless bag of meat, but behind his grey-green flesh, R is still fully sentient emo dreamboat who tells us (via voice-over) that he’s big into music (vinyl only) and feels crappy about his brain-eating and his inability to communicate with the outside world.

There’s nothing to upset the Romero Rules, until R’s zombie urges are quelled through the healing power of love, thanks to his increasingly un-undead feelings for a human girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer). Warm Bodies has more in common with Beauty and The Beast than Romero, but you imagine the director would have appreciated the attempt to give one of his monsters agency. Warm Bodies stumbles on its way, but it introduces the Romero lore to a completely new audience.

The real monsters? Us

Get Out (2017)

Although Jordan Peele’s marvellous Get Out was rightly praised for its genius mix of horror and racial commentary, it’s far from the first film to combine the two.

Forty years ago, The Night of the Living Dead had at its centre Ben, a young black man who, like Get Out’s Chris, is struggling to stay alive in a racially-charged world within a horror movie.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The similarities drew closer with the DVD release of Get Out, where viewers were treated to an alternative ending in which Chris, instead of being rescued by his best friend after fighting for his life against a family of white psychopaths, Chris is arrested by two cops and taken to jail for the family’s murder. It’s mirrors Ben’s fate in The Night of the Living Dead: his end comes finally at the hands of a very-much-vital redneck posse, not the undead.

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