It’s important to first note that there is a difference between what a zombie originally was meant to represent and what history has actually made it out to be. The term “zombie” comes from the Haitian culture and folklore (called a “zombi”) in which a Bokor, or voodoo priest, used a white powder coup padre and black magic to resurrect the deceased of someone who had annoyed his or her family or community. The 1932 film White Zombie is one of the earliest productions to utilize this but it wouldn’t be the last. There were many early productions that focused on the traditional image of the zombie such as The Voodoo Man (1944), I Walk With A Zombie (1943), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), Plague of Zombies (1965), and I Eat Your Skin (1961), to name a few, but it wasn’t until writers John Russo and George A. Romero conjured up their 1968 production of Night of the Living Dead that the face of the zombie and horror genre would forever be changed.
Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD) marked Russo and Romero’s first feature production after having toiled in the commercial and shorts arena. This would also be Romero’s debut feature as director. It’s interesting to note that in numerous early interviews that because Romero’s “undead” were not those of traditional zombies that he referred to them as “ghouls” a much more accurate term considering that the film wanted to give a more supernatural reason for the reason behind the undead uprising. The word “ghoul” has many meanings but the most accurate in terms of how Romero uses it would be that a ghoul is a someone who feasts on flesh or a cannibal, which is exactly how Romeo depicts his ghouls. They are themselves undead that hunger for the flesh of the living.
NOTLD became an instant success having survived from word of mouth and underground and drive-in cinemas across the country. It was a realistically depicted apocalypse of an all too human kind. Romero’s film inadvertently re-invented what the term “zombie” meant and in turn redefined how audiences saw horror films. At the time of its release NOTLD was one of very few films in cinemas that wasn’t mimicking the success of the British Hammer studio films especially in terms of their own zombie films Plague of Zombies and I Eat Your Skin, which were famous for their gothic settings and almost dreamlike allure. NOTLD played everything straight as if its events could happen in the real world. NOTLD was released in a time when audiences were growing tired of the Hammer studio model and wanted something different.
The success of NOTLD was something that Romero could not live up to in his early career. He would then go on to direct several non-genre titles including There’s Always Vanilla (1971), Hungry Wives (aka Season of the Witch, 1972), and The Crazies (1973), before he tackled the vampire genre with Martin (1977). None of these productions were a significant boost to his career and eventually he decided to return to the film that made him a household name with the NOTLD sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978). With ten years inbetween the two films Romero had set to craft a film far removed from that of NOTLD.
Dawn of the Dead (DOTD) was a film not associated with his previous partner Russo (who would go off to write and produce the NOTLD spin-off Return of the Living Dead in 1985 with writer/director Dan O’Bannon). Instead, Romero teamed up with Italian horror master Dario (Suspiria, Deep Red) Argento in a grand adventure of gore-ific excess that would further entrench Romero into the sub-genre. DOTD was an international success that inspired imitators all over the world. In Italy and many other European countries the film was simply titled Zombi, for which has had four sequels of its own (although none of them have anything to do with Romero’s original film).
Romero was now deemed the father of the zombie film (although he still never calls them zombies in his films). Romero’s trilogy would be complete with Day of the Dead (1985) but by this time audiences were growing weary of his version of the zombie and latched onto Russo and O’Bannon’s 1985 release Return of the Living Dead. Although credited to both Russo and O’Bannon it is clear that Return is definitely a product of O’Bannon’s choosing. O’Bannon had previously written the comic-sci-fi spoof Dark Star (1974), for which he collaborated with John (Halloween, The Thing) Carpenter, Alien (1979), and Dead & Buried (1981). He decided to pay homage to Romero’s classic but also steer clear away from Romero’s example. O’Bannon’s zombies (and he does call them that) can talk and have a conscious and can think and react. They are neither slow moving nor eat the living flash; they simply claim “brains” as sustenance and cannot be destroyed by shooting them in the head. These are a whole different type of zombie for a new generation.
Romero would not abandon the universe that made him famous. He would explore the nature of the zombie in several other films including Creepshow (1982) and Creepshow 2 (1987), which he did not direct but did write the original screenplay for which features his the story ” The Hitchhiker”, and Two Evil Eyes (1990), with his segment “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemare.” These films allowed him to stray from his tried and true formula with mixed results. In 1990 Romero decided to try his hand at his “ghouls” once again by writing the screenplay to the remake of his own NOTLD. This 1990 version would be directed by frequent collaborator and make up effects artist Tom Savini and would not go over well with audiences. Its opening numbers were a mere $2.9 million with an estimated total domestic gross of just under $6 million (www.boxofficemojo.com). Audiences and critics were indifferent with the film especially in a year fueled with such heavy psychological films as Misery, Flatliners, Jacob’s Ladder, and The Exorcist III. The only other genre offerings of the year were Arachnophobia, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Darkman, and Predator 2. NOTLD 1990 did not fit anywhere within that year’s offerings.
After Two Evil Eyes, Romero would toil away on the studio debacle The Dark Half (1993) before disappearing into obscurity. Although he had given birth to the modern day “zombie” film time had passed him by and audiences had forgotten about him.
Although Romero was nowhere to be found, the zombie genre did not disappear. It was kept alive with films such as Re-Animator (1985), Dead Heat (1988), The Evil Dead (1983), The Evil Dead II (1987), Zombie High (1987), Dead Alive (1993), My Boyfriend’s Back (1995), Pet Sematary (1989), Resident Evil (2002), and 28 Days Later (2005), to name a few. These films changed the face of the zombie from zombies that talked to zombies that craved brains (among other things) to fast moving zombies, among other things. These were zombies for a more savvy age (that had no problem calling them zombies) influenced by the success of Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, and the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004). How fitting it is that just as the remake of Romero’s DOTD hits screens that he decides to make a comeback to the series that made his career with the forth part in his zombie apocalypse Land of the Dead (2005).
Not only battling the popularity of the modern day (as in 2004 version) zombies inhabiting Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Land of the Dead (LOTD) also was released to a market crowed with other zombie films Shaun of the Dead and Undead, among others, that paid homage to Romero’s films while also offering something different to audiences. LOTD‘s worldwide gross was over $46 million, triple its $15 million production budget. Although Romero clashed with Universal Studios who produced the film, the experience re-awakened the filmmaker that had been buried underneath years of compromise and disappointment due to Hollywood studio interference with his previous films.
With LOTD Romero did not change the way he looked at his “ghouls” but what he did do and which very few other films have ever tried to do is to evolve his “ghouls.” This was something he experimented with in Day of the Dead where Bub was being conditioned by the doctors to find a way to domesticate them. In LOTD, this evolution is further explored through Big Daddy who leads the undead horde into the city for vengeance. A new undead being was born and Romero finally decided that it was time to go back to the beginning.
In 2006, Romero started production on a new series of films that would happen parallel to events depicted in his original 1968 version of NOTLD. This film would be Diary of the Dead (2007) and its events would be the beginning of the apocalypse through the eyes of filmmakers who are capturing everything as it happens. This allowed Romero to have total control over his production (as there was no distributor in place during filming) without the influence of a Hollywood studio, the way he used to work when he first became a filmmaker.
Diary is a new evolution in the way Romero sees his “zombies” and hopefully this new film will again change the face of the zombie genre like his original 1968 Night of the Living Dead did.