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The Social Consciousness of George Romero Zombie Movies

By David Young · October 3, 2022

The Social Consciousness of George Romero Zombie Movies_feature

There’s something about zombie movies that speaks to us on a subconscious level. There’s a multifaceted message that exists there, whether it’s the mindlessness of the monsters or the “Us vs. Them” conflict that’s formed in each one. Those messages, coupled with a horror that has poisoned our minds for decades, were best brought into the spotlight by filmmaker George Romero. 

Known as the Godfather of the zombie movie, his deathly touch also brought us a poignant and weaponized social commentary within each of his horror movies — a trait that revolutionized the genre as we know it. To better understand his impact in so doing, have a look at the zombie movies that he used to tell audiences about the world.

As always, you can expect some spoilers when learning what makes a story tick — even a monster movie. Feel free to read the scripts first if you want to be surprised!

Scripts from this Article

Night of the Living Dead

It’s well known that this 1968 film introduced us to the creatures that would soon be called “zombies.” To anyone who knows their monsters well, the word “zombie” isn’t quite accurate — and even Romero himself refers to the creatures as “ghouls” since they eat human flesh. Still, call them what you will, these creatures have become iconic in horror films since this most-famous iteration.

But Night of the Living Dead accomplished much more than just trend-setting in the monster space. Inspired by the vampire-like creatures in the book I Am Legend, this film acts as an experimental reproduction of certain social issues. Notably, the cannibal creatures of this film have been seen as symbols of capitalism, depicting those who have fallen victim — and those who continue to propagate this particular cultural sickness. There’s also a poignant parallel between the mindless mobs of ghouls and the repression of certain countercultures of the time, the Civil Rights movement chief among them.

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Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The conscious link to consumerism is made complete in Dawn of the Dead, where Romero shows mall-bound zombie creatures flocking in droves without a reason for doing so. On the screen, he moved away from chiaroscuro lighting — but in the script, he doubles down on the symbolism representing a broken, sick society. Whether it’s police brutality and racism or obsessive statements about everything being in the mall, there are symptoms that show up time and again. There are even links to the socioeconomic issues that many Black and brown communities were facing, as seen in the way urban populations struggled immensely against the mounting infection.

But there’s something special about the script that the movie doesn’t do: It establishes a certain doom for the remaining characters. Fran and Peter are scripted to bring about their own deaths, something that really drives home the sense of doom that often comes with criticism of material lives. Yet, the movie changes the ending by injecting the unknown. Which one makes the most sense for what George Romero was trying to say? That’s probably up to the reader — or the viewer.

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Day of the Dead

There’s something all the more pensive about Day of the Dead’s insistence on isolation. When you think about it, you know that your own humanity depends in part on the people you surround yourself with. It’s part of what keeps us “sane,” for lack of a better term. That very idea is explored at length through Day of the Dead, where George Romero provided scathing insight into the nature of humanity as a whole.

The decisions made, rising temperatures, and the pressures that mount underground with the characters there make for a compelling question: What makes a society? That question pervades the numerous moments where progress and safety are hoped for, but have yet to be achieved. As the people separate themselves from functioning society, they start to experience breakdowns: Dr. Logan’s experiments, Miguel’s inner struggles, and the vengeful actions of Captain Rhodes all demonstrate this breakdown.

The living dead in this movie serve more as instruments, extensions of one character’s agenda, as Dr. Logan tries to showcase the rewards of “civility.” As seen throughout the story, communication breakdown is the real villain, the real nightmare scenario. It’s through this breakdown, and the subsequent symptoms of a broken society, that causes collapse. The zombies of Day of the Dead act as a personification of this, rather than the catalyst and cause.

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Dawn of the Dead (2004)

This James Gunn revisit of Romero’s 1978 screenplay brings to mind some of the same images, including the mall as a hub of life. However, this version directed by Zack Snyder also prodded at some different situations, including the value of life. This is seen by the way Frank reasons away his isolation, and in the emotions that lead up to and surround the birth of Luda’s zombie baby. Gunn himself admits to seeing the story in a different light than that of the original movie by Romero, naming it a story about “redemption.”

The narrative focuses on who people are after their previous lives are stripped away — and that focus brings the audience close enough to investigate in an intimate way, be it the friendships or romances that form when the group is forced together or C.J.’s heroic suicide. The dreams they had have been suddenly replaced by the motives of “the now”: bond and survive. While the ending wavers in its depiction of the group’s fate, the message of the new Dawn of the Dead is clear: “What matters in life is what you do with it right now.” 

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Land of the Dead

The secret of humanity is our ability to adapt. We evolve in ways that surpass the physical, thanks to reasoning and tools. That’s also become our downfall in Land of the Dead, Romero’s depiction of a normalized future in the wake of undead disaster. The resulting society bears scars of the harsh survivalist world they’ve endured: scars like cruelty and an oppressive class system.

In the light of this dark “new normal” comes the interruption of the status quo: zombies that have evolved as well. This symbolic horror flick takes note of things tyranny and rebellion and allows them to provoke the audience in a new context — one that makes good use of Romero’s iconic affinity for gore and disturbed psyches.

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If you want to know how important George Romero was to the horror genre, just take a look at how horror filmmakers reacted after his death in 2017. With him behind the wheel, it’s never “just a zombie movie.”

There are names and faces to the enemies his films build behind these mindless mob monsters: racism, counterculture oppression, feudalism, and the weight of the past, to speak of a few. The 1960s became a time for horrors and thrillers to speak up — to highlight the dangers of society as we knew it. From Twilight Zone and on, there was room for this social commentary to flourish, and on the big screen, Romero accomplished exactly that! 

Read George Romero’s scripts to become more familiar with the way he used and established horror tropes as part of that commentary.

Scripts from this Article