Zombie films just aren’t what they used to be if you listen to modern undead genre creator George A. Romero. Partnered with John Russo, Romero broke multiple grounds when they created NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968. Not only did they set the high bar in low budget filmmaking that would inspire the likes of Sam Raimi, but they brought to “life” the mythos of the dead coming back to devour the living. Most modern zombie movies can trace their lineage back to that black and white masterpiece.
With 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, Romero, and legendary makeup artist Tom Savini introduced some of the goriest scenes in horror up to that point that still resonates now. But those days are over, according to the godfather of the genre. When speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Romero singled out a couple of examples of why the genre is now suffering.
“The Dead are everywhere these days. I think really Brad Pitt killed it. The Walking Dead and Brad Pitt just sort of killed it all.” He said, continuing with, “…along comes Brad Pitt and he spends $400 million or whatever the hell to do World War Z. [World War Z author] Max Brooks is a friend of mine, and I thought the film was not at all representative what the book was and the zombies were, I don’t know, ants crawling over the wall in Israel. Army ants. You might as well make The Naked Jungle.”
It’s interesting to note that WORLD WAR Z didn’t intentionally have a $400 million budget. Multiple production issues coupled with a nearly complete reshoot sent the budget skyrocketing, but the film itself was generally well received when released. It was reported this week that 17 million people tuned into the “Walking Dead” season 7 premiere. Romero himself points out that Zack Snyder’s remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD and horror-comedy ZOMBIELAND pulled in large audiences. Most of this is thanks to a resurgence of interest after Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg took the world over with SHAUN OF THE DEAD.
With the genre understandably starting to become stale, filmmaker’s starting looking for different takes on the undead. Examples include DOGHOUSE, DEAD SNOW, DANCE OF THE DEAD, WARM BODIES, and the recent NINA FOREVER. It seems like not only is the zombie genre not dead, but continues to get more innovative.
There is one thing that Romero brought to his zombie movies that many recent ones miss. It’s a trait that he injects in all of his films. He takes social commentary and wraps a horror theme around them. He always has something to say, an opinion that really reflects the time. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was about the new society literally eating the old. DAWN OF THE DEAD took on consumerism in an interesting way, with the characters being trapped in a mall with nearly anything they could want. All of his films seem to put in the theme that not only does the government usually screw everything up, but the general populace has no idea what to do without them. Of newer zombie films. This has lead him to a lack the interest in contributing to the current wave of zombie films.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m content to wait until sort of zombies die off. My films, I’ve tried to put a message into them. It’s not about the gore, it’s not about the horror element that are in them. It’s more about the message, for me. That’s what it is, and I’m using this platform to be able to show my feelings of what I think.” Romero stated.
After DAY OF THE DEAD, Romero struggled with finding money to make another zombie film, even in the middle of the undead crazy. His script for LAND OF THE DEAD circulated for years before he had to retool it for a studio to pick it up. After that, he returned to independent form in order to make his next two zombie films, DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. Of the return to independent film, Romero said:
“It’s all about control. I’ve only actually done one studio film. I want to be left alone. I’m telling you, man, after I did Land of the Dead, which Mark Canton produced, Universal picked it up and I had to use stars. I didn’t think I needed stars — Dennis Hopper was in it. I loved him. We hung out. I loved him, but his cigar budget was more than we paid for the entire budget of Night of the Living Dead. (Laughs.) I mean, I’m sure I’m exaggerating a little but. But I wanted to say, “Wait a minute — what’s this line item? Oh, that’s Dennis’ cigars.”
While it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting another “living dead” film from Romero anytime soon, we do get to revisit his original film soon. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is getting a 4k restoration that will premiere at the Museum of Modern Art. One thing is for certain, however, for better or for worse, zombies aren’t going anywhere for a while.
Jason Stollery has horror films encoded into his DNA, going so far as to name his sons Michael and Fred. He can be found on Twitter @smegghed, and on his genre film blog and podcast at filmguild.net