Zombies, what is not to be said?
In light of George Romero’s death there are not enough words to describe how much his iconic monsters have shaped pop culture over the past fifty years.
I could tell you all about when his first zombie film (Night of the Living Dead) hit the big screen (1968) or how many zombie movies Romero has made (six) but I am not going to.
If you want to find the numbers surrounding the zombie legacy I am sure there are articles and top ten lists all over the internet and YouTube overrun with that information.
I have no interest in discussing all the creators who were inspired by this great man in horror. That is their job to do.
Instead, allow me to tell a personal story.
Early years and video games
An eleven-year-old boy sits in his older brother’s room, knees curled up to his chest. The pillow he squeezes to his chest threatens to burst. The click-click of a Playstation controller is the only respite he receives from his mounting dread. Groans invade his ears, a warning of the slaughter to come. A scream fills the room, the lights darken and the television scene goes white. His brother swears as he slams the controller on the bed.
Resident Evil is a truly unnerving game, no matter your age. At eleven years old I was introduced to zombies through video games. Much of my early gaming experience was watching my big brother play horror survival games. Usually in the exact state described above. Zombies were not the main focus for me at the time; I was simply experimenting with fear.
My obsession with monsters narrowed to the undead about two years later. By then my brother had moved out. Some friends and I would go visit him once a week and roll some funny-shaped dice. Those were my first Dungeons & Dragons games.
I played a cleric, which would become my go-to class for years, because I wanted to be able to demolish anything cursed with undeath. Even at that time zombies did not strike me as exciting, just another threat to be consumed in holy light.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: It is Maxillae the Mad’s suggestion that undeath is a blessing, not a curse. I’d rather she not cast speak with dead on me.]
Like many who grew up in the ’90s I spent a good deal of time with a video game controller in my hand. I wrestled the Redead in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I mowed down countless skeletons through no less than three Final Fantasy titles and I pounced on the heads of many Dry Bones, only to watch them return to their original form in the Mario series.
But I never resurrected Resident Evil from my brother video game graveyard. To this day I cannot play zombie survival games.
Three teenage boys rummage through the discount bins of their local video rental. They each polish off a dusty movie revealing the title of their victim for the evening. Their finds contained a cult classic mutant movie, an unknown thriller and a zombie movie with a Freddy vs. Jason cover rip off. The drive home is filled with excited chatter. Each young man tries to explain why his choice will be the best of the worst. They pull into the house. Rush from the car armed with their terrible films and a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper. The first movie is selected. The plastic case pops and they remove the film. Vampires vs. Zombies is printed in white lettering on the black VHS. Into the VCR it goes. Each boy grabs a drink as the opening credits roll. It was a great night.
I enjoyed horror movies as a teenager, especially B-films. Zombies quickly rose to the top of my list as the 2000s end-of-the-world craze began. I saw the rise of the first Resident Evil movie (2002), the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead (2004).
I avidly watched all three of those movies, along with the aforementioned Vampires vs. Zombies (2004), which has since been changed to Carmilla, the Lesbian Vampire. It is a terrible film, filled with pointless character, plot holes, and heaps upon heaps of bad acting. Watch it, if that is your thing. You won’t thank me.
Two friends, some might call them best friends, babysit a couple of little girls. They debate about what to do after putting the girls down for a nap. It was only early afternoon, the day was bright and warm, the yard was open, inviting with endless possibility. They decided on the logical choice. It was time to watch a movie. Shaun of the Dead came out earlier that year and the boys were eager to see it. Just as the movie started the girls woke from their nap and wanted to play. What are two teenage boys to do? Turn off the film and take on the role they were asked to do? Nope. With the cleverness of a couple of sixteen year olds they instructed the girls to play in their room, but if they came out into the living room they were NOT TO LOOK AT THE T.V. It was a good day.
Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite zombie movies of the 2000s and for good reason. It has a great cast, brilliant writing and it understands what people want from zombies while adding buckets of humor.
I look back at both Vampires vs Zombies and Shaun of the Dead with nostalgia because each movie has a story to go with it. The difference is I will still watch the latter.
As I grew into my 20s and many of those early friendships dissolved, along with my previous outlets for zombie filmography, I actually took a break from the horror genre. I returned a few years later with slightly more refined taste, and a dislike for new things. I devoured zombie films once again, this time taking on the classics. In that time I watched Night of the Living Dead, along with anything else ending in Living Dead. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead came back into my life after a ten year absence and ’80s horrors joined in too. I truly encountered George Romero at this point in my life. My total consumption in zombie fantasy finally found its source.
Books and Comics
The sun set shortly after all the heat forsook him. Finding warmth wasn’t an easy thing when he spent most of his nights in a giant refrigerator. He grabbed another carton of milk, desperate to ignore the spoiled smell wafting through the room. One of the cartons probably broke as a result of someone’s careless actions; two gallons of milk left to rot, buried behind stacks of crates. Voices droned over the loudspeaker. The words set a tone that contrasted the florescent lights above. He grabbed the dolly, cursing at the world. Why should he have to fix everyone else’s mess? The swoosh of the double doors pulled him out of his self-pity. A silhouette stood in their center. It took a slow step forward. He recoiled slightly as a voice spoke. “Man, this is an awesome audio book,” it said, pointing to the speakers overhead. “What is it?”
World War Z is the answer to the aforementioned questions. The story I told is from a time when I use to stock the dairy section of a grocery story, and the second time I listened to the audiobook of my favorite zombie book. In my early 20s I truly discovered the joys of reading.
My passion for zombies gnawed into my growing love for literature. Comic books and novels featuring the ravenous undead quickly became my favorite. I learned of I am Legend (not actually a zombie novel) and it’s impact on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Even my sons, all avid readers, were infected. They picked up the children’s series Zombie Chasers and have been part of the horde ever since.
Comic books were a heavy part of my reading diet. The decrepit corpses on the pages evolved, as my tastes grew, from zombie superheroes to The Walking Dead to stories of the revived. To this day my favorite iteration of the living dead comes from Revival. A comic arch centers around what happens when people inexplicably return from the dead. It follows the revived as they descend into madness, due to an emotional disconnect from the living, and because they are incomplete.
I love zombies that have become more than the sum of their rotten parts. Take Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion. A story where zombies eat brains to regain some connection with their humanity. Even George Romero meant his undead to serve a higher purpose than blindly consuming whoever they can dig their claws into.
Literary allegory aside sometimes I just want slow, mindless zombies that are just going to kill stuff. For that I turn to The Walking Dead. Like many before me I was drawn in by Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels instantly. A zombie story that does not focus specifically on the outbreak and collapse of human civilization, but on what happens after it is all gone. It has a great range of depravity, insanity and most of all character. Even though the zombies are a bit lifeless, the survivors deal with a number of real world problems that define them as the story progresses. You can only imagine my excitement when AMC picked up this title and The Walking Dead shambled onto television.
My wife and I enjoy watching horror movies and TV shows together. Overcome with my enthusiasm for The Walking Dead graphic novels nothing could keep me from the show. My wife and I were consumed. We watched it religiously for years. Nothing drew our complete attention like The Walking Dead did for a long time to come.
He inspects his teeth in the bathroom mirror, they are as sparkling white as can be, which isn’t very much. An almost permanent tint has set in due to years of coffee consumption, and the chip on his front tooth, compliments of a work accident years earlier, remains ever present. A scuffling outside the bathroom door jerks him from his obsessive thoughts. Probably just one of the cats. He secures the towel around his waist. Enough time has been wasted this evening. In about an hour or so his girlfriend would get bored and decide to go to sleep. He reaches for the door handle with no idea just how his night is about to change. The hinges creak. Before his eyes can adjust to the dark hallway a groaning sound fills the hall as a figure steps toward the bathroom door.“Braaaaaaains” the woman demands in a guttural drawl. He slams the door closed as the girl in the hall erupts into laughter.
At that point in my life I wanted everything crawling with zombies. I shortly got my wish. With the show’s success everyone joined the herd. Flesh eating ghouls invaded literature, clothes, social media, video games – they were everywhere. They even took a bite out of the comedy genre.
Over the past two years my interest in the zombie crazy has waned. I am a solid season behind on The Walking Dead and I only pick up the odd zombie comic from time to time. Just when it appears the dead will stay buried Netflix released Santa Clarita Diet. My wife and I watched is together and we enjoyed every moment. They turned horror to humor, and they were killing it.
ConclusionUnfortunately George Romero zombies were dying off in the theater. The last three installments in the Living Dead series were met with mixed to bad reviews. He had not released a single zombie movie since The Walking Dead aired in 2010.
Whether his struggle to get the financial backing for another project was related to the success of The Walking Dead I cannot say. What I can say, for certain, is zombies have changed, as has my fascination with them. But without George they never would have existed.
He is the Godfather of Ghouls, the Grandmaster of Gore, the Tsar of Zombies. Without his unique view on the horror genre many of the pieces of fiction I love would not be around.
The fantasy I indulge in, my hobbies and passions, these things create who I am. What I am trying to say is, thank you George Romero, you played a large part in my life. I would not be who I am without you. Your loss is one felt by me and many others.
You will be missed.
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