It falls to very few people to single-handedly create a new subgenre, and fewer still to come up with one which goes on to dominate the media landscape for over a decade. And yet this was the main achievement of George A Romero, the writer and director who passed away last week. Romero was a film-maker who dabbled in the studio system, amongst other things working on North by Northwest as a teenager (along with the great Martin Landau, also recently departed), but he is best known for the films he made operating independently. While his filmography does contain oddities like the 1981 movie Knightriders (essentially a drama about the death of the hippie dream), Romero is – of course – best known as a director of horror movies.
He did a movie about a vampire, a movie about a coven of witches, and a movie about a homicidal assistance monkey, but George A Romero's reputation really rests upon the movies he made about zombies. Other people had made zombie movies before Romero came along and unleashed Night of the Living Dead on the world in 1968, but it was he who conceived of the notion of the zombie apocalypse as we currently know it – inspired, apparently, by both I Am Legend and the Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies. Romero was fond of the zombopocalypse as it was both cost-effective (a boon to the cash-strapped independent film-maker) and offered great potential for social satire, but it has proven to be an almost endlessly flexible form in the hands of other creators. Since the release of 28 Days Later in 2002 (itself a mash-up of the classic Romero formula with John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids) the zombopocalypse has basically conquered the world, with endless riffs and variations on the basic idea of an unstoppable tide of walking corpses. Romero was able to finance his final three films, Land..., Diary..., and Survival of the Dead simply because his ideas finally seemed to have wide commercial appeal.
It is, however, his earlier movies that show Romero's talent at its most effective and inspired. Night of the Living Dead may have invented the modern zombie movie, but it was the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead that elevated it to the realms of something truly special. This is one of those virtually perfect movies that shows you don't need big names or big bucks to create magic – you just need a helicopter, a pile of guns, a van full of zombie make-up, several tanker-trucks full of fake blood, and free access to a massive out-of-town shopping mall.
Dawn of the Dead opens with a character waking from a nightmare, and the audience being plunged into one. The recently dead have begun rising and attacking the living (the cause of this appears to be viral in nature), and society is beginning to disintegrate as the situation spins out of control. Everyone can see which way this is heading, and the issue of personal survival is becoming paramount. Two TV news employees, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), team up with a couple of cops, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), and together they flee the city of Philadelphia in the TV network's helicopter.
Seeing the country descending into anarchy and with zombies seemingly everywhere, the quartet take refuge in a huge shopping mall (in reality the Monroeville Mall, in Pennsylvania). Although this is initially intended as only a rest stop, Peter realises the mall constitutes a huge stockpile of resources that could potentially help them survive for a very long time. All they have to do is secure the huge building against the encroaching undead swarms, kill the creatures already inside, and be prepared to defend it against the human marauders who are already appearing now civilisation is beginning to collapse...
George Romero was wont to lament that several of his earlier films were victims of what he called 'undercapitalisation' – i.e., a shortage of money – but this is not a criticism you could sensibly direct at Dawn of the Dead. For a film made for only about a million and a half dollars, this is a movie with a real scope and epic feel, with some huge action set pieces sprinkled through it. There have been many films made about the end of the world and the collapse of society, but none of them depict the actual break-up of civilisation with the same sense of immediacy and realism as this one. The opening scenes set the tone – there is chaos at the TV station, no-one seems to know what's happening, useless information is being broadcast just to keep the viewing figures up, while outside, rogue police are running out of control and the authorities are engaged in pitched battles with their own citizens. You instantly sense that we are sliding past the point of no return.
The director continues to orchestrate the movie with the same confidence as the story proper gets going – an ominous journey across zombie America, the introduction of the mall as the central location, the various escapades of the characters as they explore it. And then a deft change of atmosphere – no sooner have they begun to take control of the place than the mood changes to a more sombre and brooding one, before picking up pace ahead of a typically ambiguous conclusion (the scripted ending had all the surviving characters commit suicide in various ways, but the one in the movie is surely better – still far from upbeat, but not without a tiny glimmering of hope for the future). Romero barely puts a foot wrong in his handling of character, pacing, and action – the only significant issue with the movie is some of the stock music cues which it employs. The electronic soundtrack itself (provided by Italian horror director Dario Argento and the group Goblin) is terrific, though.
What really makes the film exceptional is the way in which it effortlessly marries remarkable wit, intelligence, and black humour with a palpable delight in astoundingly graphic and gory violence. Romero serves notice early on with the notorious moment where a nameless character has his head literally blown off by a shotgun, and continues with a series of legendary gags involving helicopter rotor blades, screwdrivers, machetes, and lots and lots of entrails. At the same time the film is razor sharp in its commentary on what is really causing all the problems – the zombies are really a secondary menace, compared to the selfishness, distrust, and acquisitiveness displayed by virtually all the human characters – Peter and the others are very open about their willingness to lie and steal in order to get what they want, and the film is bookended by battles not between the living and the dead, but between human groups with differing agendas.
Most of the obituaries of George Romero identified him as one of the great satirists of modern cinema, and I think that would have gratified him. Certainly this is his most celebrated and effective comment on modern life, perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1978. The zombies shuffling mindlessly round the mall are there because it 'was an important place in their lives'. Some dim memory persists. The main characters are likewise unable to accept that in their new world, material possessions will be rather less valuable – 'Let's just get the stuff we need! I'll get a television and a radio!' cries Peter, drawing a reply of 'Ooooh, lighter fluid! And chocolate!' from Roger. It is the characters' own acquisitiveness and greed that menaces them, as much as the walking dead outside. We are the zombies – that was Romero's message in this film. In a very real sense, we are our own worst enemy. To call Dawn of the Dead the greatest zombie movie of all time is accurate, but still considerably understates the scale of George Romero's achievement in it.