Zombies could easily be classed as movie monsters rivalling the likes of Vampires, Werewolves and Ghosts. Their infiltration into the cinematic playing field has been slow and disjointed, much like the creatures themselves. The golden era of zombie movies was probably the 1980s when a plethora of these movies rose up to greet eager cinema fans, but then they slowly sank without a trace when over-exposure got the better of them. In the last few years, however, these movies have virtually become commonplace.
The popularity of the zombie movie genre could have to do with its origins, which are rooted in reality. The Haitian folklore myth of Voodoo is where the zombie first appeared, with the dead being taken and turned into slaves to work for the Voodoo priest who had raised them. The modern era zombie we know today, with its decayed flesh and shambling appearance, was the creation of one man. That man is George A. Romero.
When you see George Romero today with his oversized, almost comedic-looking glasses and happy, contented face, it is hard to imagine that he has created some of the most horrific, thought-provoking and satirical zombie movies out there. Though he was born in New York in 1940, he decided to adopt Pittsburgh as his movie location of choice, filming numerous movies there.
He has had a career that has spanned over 40 years thus far and he shows no signs of letting up. Romero uses many of the same actors across his movies, which adds an element of continuity to his universe and makes it particularly entertaining for the viewer.
Although Romero is famous for his contribution to the zombie movie genre, his recent movies on the subject have not really forged new ground. Many of them explore theories Romero himself has dealt with previously and do not really take his zombie mythology and ideals any further.
Many of them have been remade for a new audience, but they lack the punch of the originals. Romero does, however, have a great selection of non-zombie movies that all fans of the horror genre should know about. The list below showcases some of these movies as well as his more interesting and appealing films, but his body of films as a whole is well worth taking the time to get to know.
10. Monkey Shines: An Experiment In Fear (1988)
Allan Mann is a man who has lost all hope. Due to a road accident, he has become a quadriplegic and feels his life is now over. A friend of Allan’s called Geoffrey hopes to restore his friend’s love of life by providing him with a test subject monkey from his lab. This monkey (called Ella) has been injected with human brain tissue in the hope that she will be able to assist the now helpless Allan with his daily routines.
The relationship between man and monkey seems to work out, with Allan and Ella working together as a team and developing a friendship of sorts. However, Ella soon becomes increasingly aggressive towards Allan’s friends, especially Melanie, a specialist in quadriplegics who is falling in love with Allan. When Allan finds out his condition can be treated, it should be the best day of his life. But when Ella’s actions turn murderous, drastic action needs to be taken.
Why It’s So Great
Romero is fascinated by isolation in his films – the different forms it can take and how it affects people. This is dealt with in various ways across his films. In Monkey Shines it is the body itself which causes the isolation. Initially Allan’s life seemed perfect but after being hit by the truck, losing everything he held dear in his life, and having to put up with constant interference by his supposed loved ones, he tries to end his life.
Ella’s arrival in his life and the bond they develop helps Allan to feel less alone. But it also means that when Ella becomes psychotic, it comes across as a betrayal of the trust and bond they had formed. Trapped in his body, Allan has no escape.
The fact that Allan seems to be having dreams depicting a monkey’s point of view adds to the tension and uneasiness. Elements of the feeling of being trapped can be seen in Romero’s zombie films, but here Allan is confined in his own body rather than a place, and remains unable to escape until the very end.
Romero does a great job of getting the audience on the side of Allan and Ella. While the rest of the people in Allan’s life (for the most part) have their own problems and do not come across as helpful individuals, Ella’s sole task is to look after Allan. The way she hugs him and the moments they share together show a genuine bond. So it is shocking when it is this commitment to one person – in a fashion – that causes Ella’s breakdown.
Romero likes to have his characters go through an emotional rollercoaster ride, and it is refreshing to have a simian as part of this journey, especially as the poor creature has no say in her condition. It is the ongoing injections being given to her that cause her to become unhinged.
Romero gives us a story about an animal that loves too much and it is sad when Allan and Ella’s bond breaks down and she starts to unleash Allan’s repressed anger onto the people around him – particularly as she is doing it out of love. The only other character towards whom we feel sympathy is Melanie, who inadvertently causes Ella’s insanity. Romero does give us a very touching love scene between Allan and Melanie, which could possibly be a first in film history.
9. The Dark Half (1993)
Writer Thad Beaumont has decided it is time to kill off his writing alter ego – his alias, George Stark. As he decides to put this plan into action, however, a series of murders is set in motion. A number of Thad’s friends die and cryptic notes are left at the horrific crime scenes, all of them pointing the blame at Thad. When Thad finds a reference to one of his books at a murder scene, he begins to think he may have some kind of connection to the killer.
Soon he begins receiving threatening phone calls from the killer. It seems to Thad that his alter ego George Stark has actually become real and it is he who is committing the murders and setting Thad up to take the fall. But as the investigation continues, it seems there may be more to this story than first meets the eye.
Why It’s So Great
Romero has a great relationship with the writer Stephen King. They worked together on Creepshow, King has a fun cameo in Knightriders and here we have a Romero adaption of a Stephen King novel.
Aside from the humorous antics of Creepshow, this is Romero’s first foray into the supernatural. Though zombies are certainly not the norm in our lives, the various theories for their existence suggested in his movies (meteors, viruses, etc.) provide us with some kind of plausible explanation. With The Dark Half we never really get a solid reason for the ‘birth’ of Thad’s creation, George Stark.
Is it caused by the possible shame Thad feels for absorbing his brother into himself (in a scene involving an eyeball that will shock even the most hard core of horror fans!)? Or is it due to his own neurosis coming to life, his resentment of being forced to write as Stark or is it simply due to an inexplicable supernatural event? We never really know and it is this which makes the film truly intriguing.
It is hard not to see elements of King’s personality in Thad. The way the media portray him and the abuse he gets from his alter ego Stark, could be seen as both Romero and King’s way of exorcizing the demons they have over the abuse both of them have received from the press. Romero uses this movie as a way to take a comedic yet serious look at how the public and media see craftsman like himself and King.
Stark comes into being after Thad tries to distance himself from that part of his personality and, much like King’s novel Misery, it seems Stark, like the fans of his work, does not want to let go just yet.
In amongst this we have touches of Romero’s dark humour such as having a man beaten to death with his own false leg. This kind of humour mixed with gory details produces some gruesome sequences. It may not have been as well received as some of his other work, but it is certainly one of Romero’s most personal films.
8. Land of the Dead (2005)
The zombie apocalypse has ended. Mankind has finally figured out how to control the undead and humanity has formed a new social structure – a series of outposts have been set up around the USA for humankind to live in. We follow the citizens of one such outpost based in Pittsburgh.
There the lower class live in slums while the rich live in Fiddler’s Green, a state of the art, luxury high rise building. Both social classes have zombie protection in the form of Dead Reckoning, an armoured, weapon-enabled vehicle. It distracts the zombies in the more infected areas with the use of fireworks (which mesmerise the undead) and firepower.
While this distraction is occurring, a team from the outpost can quickly get supplies from the zombie-infected areas. On one such trip, many of the crew notice that the zombie population is showing signs of intelligence. When Cholo, who works as part of the Dead Reckoning crew, is denied a place in Fiddler’s Green by the owner Paul Kaufman, it sets in motion a chain of events which could lead to the city’s downfall.
Why It’s So Great
Romero had for the most part left the zombie movie genre behind after Day of the Dead, so for genre fans this movie was of great importance. His return must be attributed in part to the success of Shaun of the Dead.
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright constructed a zombie movie drawing on all the elements of Romero’s movies and crafting the plot according to their own unique style. In fact, Romero was so impressed by the movie, he gave Wright and Pegg cameos as zombies in Land of the Dead. This time, with a bigger budget than usual, Romero makes a more epic, Hollywood-style zombie movie.
The inclusion of Dead Reckoning and its macho crew, for example, draw certain elements from the movie Aliens. The tone of the film feels very much like that of a comic book. In 2004, Romero did in fact write a comic book called Toe Tags.
It featured an intelligent zombie as the lead character and this was obviously an idea he wanted to expand on hence his sentient zombies in Land. Dennis Hooper as the owner of Fiddler’s Green does his usual over the top performance which works perfectly for the cartoonish tone of the movie.
Though Land is not as depressing as Romero’s previous film, it does have a story to tell about modern society. In Land zombies are no longer feared as they once were, and in some cases are used for the entertainment of the populace. Photo booths are set up for snap shots with captured zombies.
The use of fireworks to distract zombies was seen by critic Roger Ebert as a direct comparison to the tactics that were used in the 2003 Iraq conflict. The more noticeable social commentary is on the social divide between classes.
In Day this could be briefly seen in the conflict between the civilians and the army, but here it is made much more obvious. The widening gap between the socioeconomic classes is something that is evident in many countries throughout the world.
In Land the zombies form an underclass, fitting in below the poor, and their uprising could be seen as a revolutionary action against their mistreatment and an unfair class system. While in other Romero movies the dead are to be feared or pitied, here they are ignored.
The notion of zombie evolution is something Romero is interested in. Under the leadership of Big Daddy – a zombie who becomes increasingly intelligent during the course of the film – they construct a basic social order, develop a communication system and are able to control their desire for food in order to achieve a higher goal.
They learn to fight against their limitations and the key victory for them is learning that water no longer affects them. This also has the effect of shaking up the human populace, especially the rich who previously saw themselves as untouchable.