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The Original Walking Dead: How George Romero Created Zombies In 1968

Entertainment | October 19, 2019

S. William Hinzman in 'Night of the Living Dead' (1968). Source: IMDB

Zombies are everywhere these days, from The Walking Dead to Zombieland: Double Tap, but these horror and Halloween mainstays are not the age-old phenomenon you might think. The modern idea of the zombie as a back-from-the-dead brain-eater dates back to 1968, the year Night Of The Living Dead, by zombie auteur George A. Romero, shambled into movie theaters.

The word "zombie" doesn't occur in Romero's film, nor did the director think of his monsters as zombies -- he called them "ghouls." "There were a few Universal films about ghouls and that was what was in our minds," Romero told the Irish Times. "We thought up very few rules or powers for them. The idea was they are your neighbours in a different state."

They Won't Stay Dead

Source: IMDB

Not everything in life is cyclical, but just about everything that was once popular, will become popular again. Except for the pet rock, that’s never coming back. In the year 2000, no one was talking about zombies. Vampires, a trope that appears timeless, were very hot.

But then a movie about zombie-like infected humans called 28 Days Later (2002) became a hit. A little comic book called The Walking Dead (which premiered in 2003) found an audience. A zombie parody, Shaun Of The Dead (2004), gained a cult following. George A. Romero's original Night Of The Living Dead got a remake in 2004, directed by Zack Snyder, and Romero himself was there with Land Of The Dead (2005). The zombie infestation has been going for over a decade now.

Patient Zero For Zombie Movies

George and his zombie creations. Source: horrorfreaknews.com

Night Of The Living Dead is patient zero for all modern zombie movies. It cost a paltry $114,000 and spawned a genre that’s made billions. The reaction to the movie was mixed but undoubtedly inspired. Some people deplored the graphic violence, while others, like the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, called it “one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made.” Its longevity proves Romero’s work was more than blood and gore. 

Zombies With Social Commentary

Duane Jones Played One Of The First "Real" Black Characters (youtube.com)

The lead in Night Of The Living Dead was played by Duane Jones. His character was a smart, resourceful, and level-headed black man during a time when actors of color weren’t given much to do in film. Throw in the ending in which a marauding group of rednecks kills our black hero and you’ve got a movie streaked with social commentary on the real ills of America. Many critics have drawn a line between the death of Malcolm X and our apocalypse survivor Ben.

When an undead daughter kills her own mother in gruesome fashion, it doesn’t take a literature major to see the parables of a younger generation turning on the one that came before them. It’s also easy to see the gun-tooting rednecks as little more than violence hungry zombies themselves. 

Back With More Zombies

Dawn Of The Dead "Zombies." (cbsnews.com)

On the heels of the success of Night Of The Living Dead, Romero found the inspiration for more zombies while touring a mall in Pennsylvania. Apparently seeing a crawl space started his creative juices for Dawn Of The Dead. The idea centered on what normal people might do in an everyday setting in the case of the zombie apocalypse.

Another source of encouragement came from acclaimed Italian director Dario Argento. The Italian Director helped get financing for the movie and wrote the film with Romero in a little apartment in Rome.

Liquid Inspiration

Maybe The Greatest Zombie Line Ever (Me.Me)

The most famous line from Dawn Of The Dead, which worked so well they reused it in the 2004 iteration, was “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” According to Romero, that line can be attributed to alcohol, “I just made that up. Truly. On a drunken night when I was really crashing to finish the script and I thought that was kind of nice. It was from something Dario Argento told me.” 

Voodoo Zombies

Voodoo zombies may be the next movie frontier (youtube.com)

Argento helped spur the iconic line by reminding Romero of his Caribbean heritage. “My family is Cuban and Dario said, ‘Well you have a Caribbean background and that’s why you’re into the zombie thing; zombies originated in Haiti.' I said, well, all right, and I just figured that’s something a voodoo priest might say. Whee! I’m just having fun, man.”

The Haitian zombie concept comes from African folklore and is quite different from Romero's zombies. A zombie is a corpse re-animated by magic (voodoo or vodou) who becomes a slave or henchman to a master. These zombies, believed by many Haitian vodou adherents to be real and documented beings, did not hunger for human flesh or attack humans in groups.

Zombies Then And Now

Director George A. Romero is surrounded by actors dressed as zombies as he arrives for the world premiere of his movie "Land of the Dead" (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Comparing Romero’s zombies to the current version is difficult as Hollywood has mined every square inch of zombie real estate left. Back in Romero’s day, the slow shuffling brainless nightmares represented various ill of society.

Today, they come in every form possible from the slow-moving Walking Dead variety to the fleet of foot monsters from I Am Legend. Undoubtedly, people could draw parallels between our smartphone obsessions or climate-related apocalypse scenarios and these contemporary zombie movies. More likely Tinsel Town is just beating another fad into the ground before we find another. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Horror | Movies In The 1960s | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Zombies

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!