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George Romero's Legacy: The Zombie With a Purpose

Director-producer wrote the rules about the undead

Still from 'Night of the Living Dead' 1968

Everett Collection

“Night of the Living Dead” was George Romero’s first major project, and it turned out to be his best — earning him the title of father of the modern-day zombie.

Zombies may be merciless killing machines, but they also shine a bright light on society's ills.

At least they were in the hands of film director, writer, and producer George Romero, who died earlier this week at 77. Romero used the monsters of The Night of the Living Dead and its sequels and remakes to tell a story far beyond a simple us-versus-them plotline. And in doing so, he created the rules for modern zombies that live on in dozens of films and TV shows.

"Looking at the films of George Romero reminds me of an eighth-grade geology map of the layers of the Earth's surface, because he just keeps drilling down into more and more cultural and historical awareness,” Max Brooks, who wrote the book World War Z, told Rolling Stone. "Dawn of the Dead is the single most searing indictment of his generation ever."

How big is Romero’s influence on all things zombie? Consider this: How many zombie movies and TV shows now have deeper, underlying themes? How many zombies across multiple film franchises look and act exactly like the zombies in Romero’s movies? How did zombie clichés become zombie clichés at all? 

In fact, there is a whole zombie canon that can be traced back to Romero, including these common points:

  • The humans can be more dangerous than the undead. The main hero of Night of the Living Dead is mistaken for a zombie by a human posse and killed. Bill Murray — who plays himself — meets the same fate for laughs in Zombieland. And Negan (who really put the “Slugger” back in “Louisville Slugger") has become the latest antihero of television's The Walking Dead and is feared as much — if not more — than the “walkers” that roam the earth.
  • Zombies aren't just killers — they're also metaphors. Political and social overtones run everywhere in modern zombie movies. Juan of the Dead, which is Cuba’s contribution to the genre, satirizes some of the more clichéd and bureaucratic parts of life there. Dawn of the Dead, with its zombies mindlessly roaming a mall, can be interpreted as a sly take on rampant consumerism. The metaphors in modern zombie fare are so strong that scholars took note: A few years ago, Princeton University Press published Theories of International Politics and Zombies (which is now available in a "revived edition").
  • Zombies walk just so. Sure, these beasts are incredibly driven. However, they have the locomotion skills of your everyday toddler. And what is with the floppy arms that suddenly reanimate just in time to go for a victim’s neck? This gets satirized in Shaun of the Dead, where their shambolic ways are one of the main sources of comic relief. And in case you were wondering, there’s even a wikiHow article, complete with dance steps, to teach you the proper shuffle. 

So the next time you watch a zombie at the movies or on TV, remember: Their actions may seem random, but they probably are dictated by a set of rules. And Romero almost certainly influenced them. 

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