Romero's zombies

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In the beginning of the 60s, USA started a transformation that unleashed an economic crisis worsened by the expenses of the Vietnam war. This crisis expanded between the citizens a feeling of disappointment for society and for the promises of the American Dream. As a compensation to this situation, contra cultural movements started arising which had a big impact in cinema. Many films, for example, started to deconstruct myths about sex and violence. It was the beginning of the New Hollywood, with movies such as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This moment was also a turning point for horror films, genre that many directors started using to show their restlessness with the political climate. This way, films such as Repulsion (1965) or Rosemary's Baby (1968) were the beginning of a new style characterized for the adoption of a naturalist attitude, critical spirit and an attraction for mental disorders.

It's in this historical context when George A. Romero, with just a few short films and advertisement videos in his curriculum, starts the production of his first feature film, The Night of the Living Dead (1967). The plot tells about the troubles of six refugees that shelter in a farm trying to protect themselves from the zombies, corps reanimated by a strange virus. The film became a revolution of terror cinema, popularizing the genre from within the more underground B movies, moving away from gore effects and making a sinister catalog of taboos from the western culture: the destruction of the family, cannibalism, impersonalization and the direct contemplation of dead.

After the unexpected debut as a film director, Romero directs a few other films, but he doesn't bring his zombies back to live until 1977 with Dawn of the Dead. In this film, three men and one woman hide in an empty shopping mall to defend from the zombies, which gather around the complex guided by automatic reflects from their former lives. The main characters manage to be self sufficient thanks to the the goods of the mall. Romero makes this way a perfect metaphor of the consumer society showing people and zombies hanging around shopping malls.

Dawn of the Dead was filmed in about 4 months, with a relatively modest budget of 500.000 dollars. For that, he used the Monroe Mall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during closing times. The mall was the first of its kind, a huge indoor building with 143 shops distributed in two floors. Almost all the stores authorized the use of their spaces, except the bank and the jewelery shop that demanded the supervision of security guards. The shopping mall became as crucial in the film as any of the other human character. It took a life on its own, embodying not only a sanctuary, but a tragically ironical confinement as well.

Many consider Dawn of the Dead the best movie made by Romero, although according to his own declarations, his favorite is Day of the Dead, made 1985. The plot tells how zombies assault a military establishment and satirizes the military perspective during the process. This is how the director summarizes the movie: "As a military group they were there for research and of course now the need for what they are doing is all but gone, with society gone who are they going to report to if they find anything out? All of a sudden when that structure is gone they don't quite know how to behave or they cling to old behaviors and no one talks to each other and no one communicates. So there's this sort of tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society."

From Romero's zombie films, Day of the Dead was the one with the least enthusiastic critic. Many of the followers of Dawn of the Dead were disappointed with the less dramatic plot. Instead, fans of Day of the Dead defend that the human characters are intentionally compared with Bob, the outstanding zombie leader, underlining the reflexion about the little difference between zombie and human behavior.

The fourth zombie film of Romero, Land of the Living Dead, was made in 2005 as a counterpoint to the propagandist films after the September 11 attack, such as C 9/11: Time of Crisis. Land of the Living Dead is a terrorizing vision of the world, where the living try to have a normal life in a city fortified by walls that protect them from the zombies. This model of society has been designed by a few opportunists that live in skyscrapers, far from the rough existence of the streets. When the survival of the city is at stake, the politicians hire a group of mercenaries to protect the city. But the mercenaries become enemies of the system when they are denied the privilege to go up in society.

It is rumored that Kaufman, the tyrannical businessman played by the actor Dennis Hoper, is inspired by Donald Rumsfeld, the American Minister of Defense. In a moment, confronted with the pressures from the mercenaries, he claims: "We don't negotiate with terrorists". With phrases such as this one, used and abused nowadays, Romero places us in the comparison he wants to make between fiction and reality.

Romero doesn't hide his sympathy for the zombies. They are tragic beings stripped of individuality and consciousness, with no other trace of what they were in life but the automatic repetition of old socialization routines, like hanging around the shopping malls. Having no will, they don't even mean to hurt anybody. They just pounce on the living, anxious for the possession of something that they don't have and maybe never had. It's actually among the living where we find the bad guys of the movie. The biggest threat is another human being that will do anything to survive in this macabre process of natural selection. The scientist in Dawn of the Dead keeps on repeating: "We have to remain rational" as a desperate mantra, as he watches civilized society crumble around him.

Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum



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