Now we get to the “meat” of my thesis. And thank goodness for Romero. I actually owe my career to him as do many of my friends and colleagues.
The American mythos of the zombie must be credited to Romero. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Romero’s classic 1968 horror film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is considered by some film historians to be the first modern horror movie.” (Maher) That black-and-white classic is the genesis of all zombie fiction. Simply pick up a book in that horror sub-genre and you will almost certainly see some form of acknowledgement to Romero. It is one man’s vision that has scared, entertained, and inspired a generation.
While it cannot be disputed that Romero’s films were loaded with deeper meanings and statements on everything from civil rights to consumerism, it is the horrific imagery that captured such a devoted audience. Tame by today’s standards, Night of the Living Dead is often credited with forcing the creation of the MPAA ratings board. Eventually the movie was awarded one of the first ‘X’ ratings in addition to being banned in several locations. Flesh eating ghouls (as they were initially referred to) were only part of the reason.
One of the greatest outrages turned out to be unintentional. Duane Jones, an African-American, was cast as Ben, the male lead. According to director’s commentary by Romero, “Duane was cast as Ben solely based on the fact that he was the best actor of the bunch,” (Night) During one scene Barbara is slapped in the face by Ben during a hysterical fit. This scene did not play well in 1968…especially in the Deep South.
There are three “monster based” scenes in Night of the Living Dead that disturbed audiences and put them on the edge of their seats. The first is S. William Hinzman as ‘Cemetery Zombie”, and his relentless pursuit of Barbara. The second is when Johnny, Barbara’s brother, returns as a zombie and drags his sister through a busted down door into the waiting horde. However, the clincher is when the pre-teen daughter of Harry and Helen Cooper “turns” and eats her father, then proceeds to attack her mother with a trowel.
Just as the atomic age created a monster heyday of gigantic, havoc-wrecking beasts, Godzilla being one of the most notable, Romero couched a very subtle warning about space exploration. Man had walked on the moon and the Soviet-American space race was in high gear. His warnings could be easily compared to Shelly’s in regards to the direction science was leaning at the time.
While no direct cause is ever actually given, there are comments about a probe returning from Venus breaking up on re-entry. It is this possibility that separates the ghoulish Romero-zombie from its Haitian brethren. There was no mystic force in control of these beings. Also, they would exponentially increase their numbers when their bitten victims would fall ill, die, and then rise as another soldier of the undead mob.
Romero had unleashed his monster to the delight of horror fans. Still, it would be another decade before he would truly establish the zombie’s place in monsterdom. In 1978, a new franchise would be offered to anxious, monster-loving horror fans with the second film in what would be commonly referred to as the “Dead” series.