How are George A. Romero's zombie movies still very relevant, with their subtexts about racism, consumerism, militarism and the collapse of human civilization? We find out in a new episode of Narrabilia.

I wanted to give you this article for Easter, but I'm a bit late. But unlike Sunday lunch, today's topic never goes wrong. Or rather, it goes bad, but he doesn't care.
Because what better time than a festival celebrating the resurrection to talk a little about zombie?

I'm definitely not telling you anything new by mentioning how George A. Rosemary is a name inextricably linked to the cinematic history of the zombies. The man, who passed away in 2017, who cast a shadow on the horror genre from his height of ninety-four meters without which today we would not have ... well, a bang of stuff.
But how did we get to have Romero? And why is his work still scary?

Let's go deeper into the matter in this new episode of the column Narrabilia, in which we dissect the stories to go back to their origins.
Here are the previous episodes:
The Brothers Grimm: The Beginning of All Stories;
Orpheus and Euridice: a story of love and beyond the grave.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: when society creates the monster.

The Zonbie painting by the Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud (1953). Source.
The painting Zonbie by the Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud (1953). Source.

The Origin of the Zombies: A Metaphor for Black Slavery in Haiti

Another not exactly obscure fact is where the concept of a zombie came from: Haiti. Here the zombies do their first appearance between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.
At that time, the area was ruled by the French, who deported slaves from Africa to work on the sugar plantations. And if being a slave wasn't already crap in itself, it must be said that the situation was brutal even by the standards of the time. In fact, many of the deported people died within a few years.

It is in this context of inhumanity that the zombie is born. A creature slave by definition, but not of the white rulers, but of his own body.
The Haitian slaves, due to the lack of prospects, saw death as the only possibility of liberation: in the afterlife they could finally regain their freedom. But taking your own life would have meant being condemned to roam the plantation eternally, trapped in your own undead bodies.
So the Haitian zombie is nothing more than a projection of the state of misery in which African slaves were forced to live.

The legacy of the Haitian zombie: between voodoo and cinema (white)

The Haitian Revolution of 1804 marked the end of French colonialism, but the zombies remained as part of the local folklore. There Voodoo religion he transformed them slightly, turning them into reanimating corpses by the bokor sorcerers, who employed their undead for heavy or nefarious work. A legend that carries with it the legacy of slavery, an aspect that over the years has been "washed away".

And in fact what is now considered the first zombie movie is The island of zombies, from 1932, whose original title is however White Zombie. Which is, like Ryan Hollinger also points out, rather ironic - if we want to call it "irony".
The film, starring Bela Lugosi, maintains the Haitian setting, but for the first time it puts gods white characters at the center of a story born of the terror of African deportees of being reduced to slavery again even after their death.
The island of zombies it is not an isolated case. Indeed, the far more fortunate The snake and the rainbow by Wes Craven will arrive in 1988, bringing Bill Pullman back to an all-Haitian zombie story. Because in 1988 the theme was to be able to tell a story of the living dead without repeating what Romero did.

Romero's Night of the Living Dead poster
The poster de Night of the Living Dead by Romero

Night of the Living Dead: where do Romero's zombies come from?

1968 was a year of revolutions in many ways. And it was also the year in which the first chapter of the Romerian trilogy was released: Night of the Living Dead.
Now, it is important to understand one thing: Romero was not thinking about Haiti at all with this film. Impossible as it seems, he didn't even think about zombies. Well, more or less.
His work, as he saw it, was much closer to the 1954 novel Io sono leggenda by Richard Matheson. And yes, we could say that that too can be read as a zombie story, but that's not how it was framed at the time.

Before Will Smith, Io sono leggenda it was mostly a post-apocalyptic story. And Romero this element wanted to capture: humanity's reaction to a catastrophic and unexpected crisis.
So much so that, at this point, the living dead in the film are not called zombie, but ghouls, just to avoid slipping into a chaotic lore of Haitian copying and so on and so forth. And it is precisely for this reason that the creatures featured in his films are not born from a voodoo curse, but have unknown origins. Still stealing the words of Ryan Hollinger, the concept was simply: what if the dead stop staying dead?

Ben, the protagonist of Romero's Night of the Living Dead
Ben, the protagonist of Night of the Living Dead by Romero

The subtext of ne racism Night of the Living Dead

So: Did Romero want to define the zombie genre for decades to come? No, but that's exactly what happened.
The impact of the film is due to simplicity and the frighteningness of its concept, as well as a certain dose of nihilism. But not only: Night of the Living Dead it was, by the standards of the time, incredibly realistic. And above all, more than a zombie story, it's a story of how humanity collapses. And this theme was current in 1968, as it is in 2022. But if today let's say Romero invented socio-political horror it is also due to the context in which the film saw the light.

The historical context of the USA in the 60s

And the US context in the late 60s was a pretty mess. From the assassination of JFK in 1963 to that of Martin Luther King in 1968, from the pacifist demonstrations against the war in Vietnam to the re-emergence of decidedly less pacifist groups close to the Ku Klux Klan.
And Romero, always a progressive thinker, found a way to put all this into the film in the form of the subtext.
Night of the Living Dead it remains to all intents and purposes an escapist film, yet it owes a lot to its particularity realism, made of a grayscale - like his photograph. Because, as much as it tells us about fictional events, the film has something very plausible about it.

The protagonist Ben: racism inside and outside the film

And if, as we have seen, the zombie stories have undergone a substantial dose of white washing, Night of the Living Dead it is still today considered a reference film for what concerns racial themes.
The protagonist of the film, Ben, is in fact played by the African American Duane jones. Ben places himself in a position of leadership towards the other survivors, who however show mistrust towards him. A distrust that will lead them, one after the other, to death. Ben himself will die at the end of the film, when the sheriff shoots him for mistaking him for a zombie.

A story that struck (and continues to impress) viewers for the effective way to tell about racism towards African Americans.
And the truth about Duane Jones' casting only reinforces it. In fact, the character of Ben was not meant for a black actor and Jones was chosen because he was considered the best actor among the candidates. With just one film, Romero makes cinema history twice - without even making an effort.

Romero's Dawn of the Dead movie poster
The movie poster Dawn of the Dead by Romero

Romero's zombies, between consumerism and militarism

Romero's original trilogy features two other films: Dawn of the Dead, or Zombies, from 1978, and The day of the zombies 1985. And even in these cases, our George he puts it down slowly.
Dawn of the Dead is a comment on the company of the best before date, with zombies continuing to roam the malls because shopping is all they remember of their human life. The day of the zombies questions the need for a massive one military power instead of scientific research.
And it is impressive, perhaps today more than in the past, how current these issues have remained. How these topics continue to shake our consciences and inflame our discussions - which have moved to social media, but remain so.

Some conclusive thoughts

But the effectiveness, in my opinion, of the stories that Romero told us (these as well as others) lies in the way.
A light way, which goes straight to the point but doesn't take itself too seriously. That he knows what he is talking about, but he doesn't pretend to teach you the lesson. Raw, at times nihilistic, but also ironic. And, more than anything else, aware.
And this is what I believe George meant in his famous words: stay scared!