Entertainment

How George Romero’s Progressive Politics Gave Way to 'The Walking Dead's' Nihilism

The legendary director turned the B-movie into a powerful vehicle for societal criticism.

by Noel Ransome
Jul 18 2017, 6:55pm

Image sources: Wikimedia commons. 

I think it's time that we stop pretending that the classic zombie is an actual thing to be afraid of. Yes, admitting this doesn't come easy a mere two days after the passing of the legendary zombie director himself, George Romero; but I'm not declaring some groundbreaking hot-take here. They're slower than a granny with a walker, forever dumber than a sponge, and lack all methods stealth with all their reflexive moaning.

Modern film/tv shows alike have found ways to modify the dread. 28 Days Later, Resident Evil and World War Z turned the walking into the running. The Walking Dead, and In the Flesh instead opted to shift mostly away from the exclusive zombie threat that plagued B-movies, instead focusing on the overall shittiness of human nature by proxy—a far more scary thing. But honestly, it's still too safe of a message. In a world of desperation, where flesh eating half dead creatures outnumber humans, food is scarce, laws don't exist, expecting the worst out of human nature is like expecting the sun to rise.

Keep in mind that I state this in an age of President Donald Trump; a person that greatly helps in our collective understanding that humans can generally suck. The death of fictional characters by other fictional characters then, while painful, have yet to say anything new; Glen's death in The Walking Dead by said shitty human, still says nothing new. A fictional human killing another fictional human still says nothing new. In fact, the modern day zombie film/television show has made a tradition of saying a whole lotta nothing instead of finding comfort in our most basic suckage—which is frustrating given the footsteps George Romero left in his wake.

I didn't always feel this way about Romero's work. My first watch of his masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead (1978) honestly felt cheap . It played out like this candy-coloured, low budget film that featured a shopping mall, some gray painted dead folks, and a bunch of stupid humans who served as a comical excuse for practical gore—it was no insomnia-inducing experience like The Exorcist.

Over time, however, I recognized the political languages Romero spoke; these visions of dread that also revealed the shitty societal things that humans continue to do even without a horror backdrop. The traditional zombie, as used by Romero were often a reflection of the human moral fibre and the fears that are attached to that; they were never the main players. "If there's something I'd like to criticize, I can bring the zombies out," Romero once said during a Time magazine interview in 2010. "I get the financing that way. So I've been able to express my political views through those films." And that he did.

Consumerism vs. Zombism.

If you didn't already know, beyond the choreographed cannibalism, chewed pig's flesh, and torn torsos, Dawn of the Dead was actually a statement about consumerism. You had this suburban mall that served as a fortress to a foursome of zombie survivors from different creeds. Two Philadelphia S.W.A.T members (Peter and Roger), a traffic reporter (Francine), and a television executive (Stephen). Throughout their time confined to this figurative jail, Romero exposed the fake happiness that came from their proximity to "things," despite their valid reasons to go plain nuts from cabin fever alone. Then you had the zombies themselves with their strange attraction a mall; which the character Stephen blames on a memory: "It's some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."

For late 70s, the statement on consumerism was a vague but powerful message. In regular George Romero style, he had a gift for the purposely unclear. Initially, like me, no one understood what he was trying to do. But in subsequent interviews after the film came out and had been overanalyzed, he revealed his intent, which was a decidedly non-PC stance.

Later on, I had the privilege of watching The Night of the Living Dead, a film from 1968 that shared a date with the assassination of Martin Luther King featuring a black main character, Duane Jones—understatedly huge for the time. Plot wise, having survived the worst imaginable nightmare of a house filled with flesh eating zombies, Duane interestingly enough gets shot square in the head by a bunch of white redneck police men from a distance—the credits roll.

Romero of course denied that race had anything to do with his overall choice in casting. You can also make an argument the end scene showcased a bunch of white folks that simply thought that Duane was a zombie, but a statement was still made—subtle but major considering the political climate at the time.

Lastly, there was my exposure to Day of the Dead, which originally debuted in 1985. Despite being about a bunch of military men, scientists and engineers finding refuge and looking for a zombie cure within a bunker after the virus had already spread, it was really an allegory about militarism years after the Vietnam War. Scientists Sarah and Logan represented the scientific, logical point of view to an outside threat (Liberal). Cpt. Rhodes and his crew represented a military point of view that favoured aggression and control (Conservative). While John and McDermott embodied a holistic, separatist viewpoint away from the other government lead characters (undecideds). Characters that ultimately favoured military action were made to be barbaric buffoons that met horrible deaths. His statement was clear.

Contrast that with the The Walking Dead of today, a staple of the zombie narrative that still says very little about anything all that important in a post-apocalyptic society. Forget potential conversations about classism, capitalism or more topically, race. Sure, TWD has gifted us with moments of LGBT representation through characters like Jesus, Tara Chambler and Denise Cloyd, but we also exist in a period that's far more accepting of on-camera LGBT relationships. There's very little that's daring about a lesbian kiss on primetime. And very little that's daring about a white cop from King County damn Georgia who is seemingly colourblind and absent of all racial biases. If the show does have a message it's a nihilistic one—that any character at any time can be thrown into the meat grinder to shock and disgust its massive audience. Unlike George Romero's past works, The Walking Dead stays in its own head, hesitant to speak to something outside of its world as suggested by Romero himself during an interview with IndieWire last year.

"All of a sudden, here came The Walking Dead. So you couldn't do a zombie film that had any sort of substance. It had to be a zombie film with just zombies wreaking havoc. That's not what I'm about."

I can go on and on and even make arguments over the fact that his non-zombie selections like The Crazies also spoke messages of totalitarian governments and environmental ruin, but his legend for making statements don't need anymore defending. At least, not as much as genre may need in his absence. If films like Get Out have proved anything, it's that George Romero was an artist that transformed the B-movie aesthetic into messages that stood more powerful than the sum of its parts.

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