Genre of the Living Dead: How George Romero started a zombie epidemic in pop culture

Prahlad Srihari

Oct,29 2017 11:16 40 IST

Often, when I'm in a crowded train, shopping at a busy mall or stuck in endless traffic, I feel a certain uneasiness looking at droves of people going about their dreary lives and wonder — what if they all turned into a malevolent horde of zombies?

Will they be the kind that shuffle around like drunks or the kind that run amok like they're tripping on bath salts? Do I possess the necessary skills and tools to survive? How long will I survive? How long will I survive if I'm stuck with a blithering idiot like Rick Grimes?

These questions are born out of both fear and fantasy. Having grow up on a pop culture diet of blood, guts and brains, I'm prone to such flights of macabre fancy like any fan of the horror genre. Why, even today, if there's a new movie or TV show in which a groaning zombie goes "Uuuummmmm" — craving brains — I willingly offer mine and indulge in the gorefest.

George Romero, father of the modern zombie genre, died in July this year. He was honoured with a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Wednesday. Reuters

George Romero, father of the modern zombie genre, died in July this year. He was honoured with a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Wednesday. Reuters

The Knight of the Living Dead

My introduction to the zombie canon came in the form of the Resident Evil video game franchise and its scatter-brained film series, with the lean, mean genetically engineered Milla Jovovich. True, her choice of clothing always seemed a bit impractical for her zombie-killing profession but if (and when) the apocalypse comes, who would you rather be stuck with? Alice or Rick Grimes?

Though the film franchise left me unsatisfied, the video games had bred a fascination with the post-apocalyptic world. After some research, I happened upon the work of George A Romero, who was the brains behind the genre as we know it today.

By Americanising Haitian folklore into a post-apocalyptic siege narrative, he made films that were gritty political allegories and echoed the cultural anxieties of the times.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is considered the progenitor of the modern zombie apocalypse sub-genre of horror films. Mondo

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is considered the progenitor of the modern zombie apocalypse sub-genre of horror films. Although, he didn't care for the Z word. Mondo

Romero set the narrative template with definitive imagery and a distinct zombie archetype (without ever calling it that). Romero's ghouls inexplicably rose from the dead with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. If you got bit, you would turn into one of them. They possessed negligible to no cognitive or normal biological functions. And the ONLY way to kill them was to destroy their brain.

While Romero's first venture, Night of the Living Dead (1968), has not aged all that well, it was still ground-breaking in more ways than one. By casting Duane Jones in the lead, he subverted the "black guy dies first" trope long before African Americans even became a sacrificial minority in horror films.

His 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, was a stinging critique of unbridled consumerism pitting a group of survivors exercising essential Marxist doctrines against a horde of cold-blooded capitalists in a tacky mall. Day of the Dead (1985) satirised American militarism at the height of Cold War paranoia.

Soon, others followed. Binding Romero's mythos with The Exorcist's ethos and scares with slapstick gore, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series gained a massive cult following in the 80s and well beyond. Peter Jackson's Braindead carried on Raimi's tradition testing our gag reflex, more than courage, as zombies soon went from pale-skinned and bloody to missing an eye or a limb to stumbling over their own intestines.

The British Invasion

Nina Forever offers a diabolically effective twist on the rom-zom-com formula. YouTube

Nina Forever offers a diabolically effective twist on the rom-zom-com formula. YouTube

After taking a breather in the '90s, zombies re-emerged in the 21st century urban metropolis in a heightened security atmosphere post-9/11. The undead in 28 Days Later were faster, angrier and hungrier than the Romero archetype. Danny Boyle too used zombies to tackle problems like loneliness and isolation at the end of civilisation.

However, zombie films can be good, unpretentious fun even without subtext and metaphor. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg blended the traditional gore with British comedic levity to morbidly hilarious effect in Shaun of the Dead (2004) producing the rom-zom-com phenomenon. And the Brits continue to experiment with the formula as we saw on Blaine brothers' Nina Forever (2015), which was a sharp and affecting parable about grief. Meanwhile, Colm McCarthy took a more serious approach in The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) giving the genre a thought-provoking new twist.

The Americans followed suit with mainstream offerings like Zombieland (2009) and World War Z (2013) to the more enterprising indie variety like Fido (2006) and The Battery (2012).

The zombies in films like World War Z exhibit heightened endurance and velocity levels, compared to their slower Romero brethren. YouTube

The zombies in films like World War Z exhibit heightened endurance and aggression levels, compared to their slower Romero brethren. YouTube

With [•Rec] in 2007, the Spaniards set the bar for the found-footage flick with arguably the scariest zombie offering yet. South Koreans got in on the action a bit late but made sure it was worth the wait with 2016's Train to Busan. The film will surely make you rethink your daily trip on the Mumbai local.

No brain drain in Z country

Zombie culture has grown from relative obscurity and entered mainstream consciousness in the past 10 years. The undead have taken over our bookstores, our TV channels and our streaming services. More and more writers and producers are jumping on the zombie bandwagon to fill the niche in this multi-billion dollar industry.

On TV, it was the Brits, as usual, who laid the groundwork with Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker's Dead Set, a five-part miniseries set in a fictional Big Brother house. BBC's In the Flesh was a poignant drama — about zombies attempting to co-exist with humans and offered biting social commentary.

Robert Rodriguez's 2007 quasi-B-movie is a sleazy variation on the zombie genre. After uni-legged go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) loses her limb, she replaces it with an machine gun-cum-rocket launcher. YouTube

Robert Rodriguez's 2007 quasi-B-movie Planet Terror is a sleazy variation on the zombie genre. After go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) loses her limb, she replaces it with a machine gun-cum-rocket launcher. YouTube

Across the Atlantic, The Walking Dead started from an ambitious project into what Romero rightfully called “a soap opera with a zombie occasionally”. The show lost its way once Frank Darabont (of The Shawshank Redemption fame) was fired from the position as showrunner and has since turned into one stinking mess.

But one of the best shows (zombie or otherwise) currently on TV is the amazing Rose McIver starring iZombie. It is a delightful mash-up of horror, comedy, police procedural and a cooking show. Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright's refreshing take on the genre boasts a phenomenal cast and snappy dialogue filled with pop culture references. And oh, did I mention it's got the AMAZING ROSE MCIVER? I did? It's okay. She deserves repeated mention.

Video games like The Last of Us, Left4Dead and Red Dead Redemption allow us to indulge in some harmless, guilt-free killing with no real-world socio-political implications whatsoever.

In 2008, PopCap Games came out with a genre-defining twist to the tower defense strategy game. See, your typical zombie has poor eating habbits and doesn't particularly care for your mum's idea of a clean plate club. They stalk, kill, have a nibble and move on without finishing their meal. They treat the world like an all-you-can-eat buffet. But you don't have to ask the zombie in Plants vs Zombies to finish their vegetables. In fact, they insist on a whole salad course before they get to your brains. They want to promote a healthy life-style and keep you in shape for the impending apocalypse.

For someone who eats brains for a living, Liv Moore (Rose McIver) is delightfully charming in iZombie as she explores a vast array of personality traits in each episode.

For someone who eats brains for a living, Liv Moore (Rose McIver) is delightfully charming in iZombie as she explores a vast array of personality traits in each episode.

It may not happen today. It may not happen tomorrow. Hell, it may never happen! But, if it does (Yes, a big 'if'), the knowledge acquired through years and years of pop culture consumption and elaborate fantasy indulgence should keep us prepared.

For the uninitiated, find yourself enough food, alcohol, antibiotics and ammunition. Then, go hide deep in the woods and hope for the best.

And remember, if you see Rick Grimes coming in your direction, please blow his brains out! That's How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse 101! A complete no-brainer!