Did George A. Romero Really Create the Modern Zombie?

Posted: September 12, 2013 in Entertainment, Horror, Movies, The Blog, Zombies

Zombie Car Wash

There’s nothing like a challenge to kick the brain into working at things from angles you never really looked at before. In this case, it was a simple conversation that ended with a friend of mine questioning how something so well-known and well established could even be argued against.

A friend was discussing possible panel discussion topics about horror and, when zombies came up, another friend suggested a discussion about who created the zombie as we know it. He was blown off with a quick answer as to who did it and how silly the idea of even debating it was. There was, he was told, simply no questioning the fact that George A. Romero created the modern zombie. There are, after all, entire books and documentaries dedicated to just that fact.

My comment in response to this was that, hey, they’re still arguing over whether or not the Wright Brothers were really “First in Flight” in America. If that can be seriously debated by various scholars and newspapers then why not this? So I put on my devil’s advocate’s cap and a day later told him that it might actually be easier than he thought. This is the result.

I should note, as if it wasn’t already somewhat apparent from the above, that this is pretty much just an exercise in looking at this from a different POV than the one I usually hold. It’s also maybe an opening for fun debate. I love George and think he doesn’t get enough credit in some areas and I certainly respect his well-earned reputation as the father of the modern zombie. Keep any angry typing and any offended INTERNET SCREAMING to yourself here. We’re likely on the same side of the actual argument. However, friendly geek debating is always welcome.

This is also going to be a bit rough as a read. I’m a bit busy and I’m supposed to be working on other things right now so I’m not working this out or refining it much beyond first think through and first draft. I’ll leave the polishing (or crushing) of the thing to any debate it might invite.

So, without further ado…


Did George A. Romero really create the modern zombie?

The generally accepted answer is usually a resounding “yes” and given faster than one can think. But the answer may not be as cut and dry as that. As a matter of fact, one very authoritative source has repeatedly stated that George A. Romero did not invent zombies back in 1968. That source would be George A. Romero himself.

Romero has, in many interviews over the years, stated that he never intended them to be zombies. Zombies to Romero were the still living Voodoo slaves of such classic films as White Zombie. His film was partially intended to be a riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend with updated concepts and contemporary themes thrown in. But Romero didn’t want to use vampires. So after some thought about what to do, the decision was made to make them ghouls.

That’s actually an extremely important point. Romero knew what his creatures were and he named them. They were ghouls. And ghouls, even as portrayed in Night of the Living Dead, were not new or original by any stretch of the imagination.

Ghouls, particularly as seen in NotLD, date back centuries if not millennia in legend and lore from all around the world. You can find stories of the ravenous dead in ancient cultures that have been nothing but dust and ruins for longer than anyone reading this has been alive. In many cases, they were also depicted as the departed friends, family or village-folk that came back both mindless and with a taste for the flesh of the living. That’s not a story new to 1968 or even American storytelling. There were even a few of the pre-code horror comic books in the 1950s that at least played with the concept even if they didn’t dance fully into on-panel, full gore body devouring.

So, again, George A. Romero himself has for years said that he never intended these things to be “zombies” and didn’t even call them that himself in the early years. Yet they still became “zombies” to the movie going and horror loving public. So how and why did that happen?

Romero has answered that one as well. The press basically did it. It was the press, both professional and fanzine, that labeled the ravenous dead of Romero’s film with the “zombie” tag.

But, Jerry, I hear you saying, they were new to film. We had never seen such a sight in films before; certainly not American films at any rate and not films that had any sort of mainstream coverage and release. To that I answer simply…

So what?

Did James Bond not exist as a fully realized creation until the films came along? Yeah, they changed him quite a bit in the transition from page to screen, but it has always been acknowledged that James Bond was based on a book, on pre-existing stories, created by Ian Fleming. The film Beastmaster and Marc Singer’s Dar are nothing like Andre Norton’s books or Hosteen Storm in any way but the most superficial, and changed far, far more of the story and setting than Romero’s ghouls were changed from some of the ghouls of legend, but it’s still widely acknowledge that Beastmaster is Andre Norton’s creation. So how are we not to also acknowledge that Romero’s “zombies” existed so fully and firmly in story and legend that he knew what they were well enough to name them as ghouls himself even if a host of press people felt the need to give them a hipper name?

But, you say, the origin makes them different. The ravenous dead were supernatural. These were brought about by natural, if slightly cosmic and exaggerated, means. That means that they are different at least based on the “birth” as it were.

No they weren’t, and no they’re not.

A lot of people who call themselves big zombie fans and big Romero fans often seem to trip themselves up over that one. They’ll tell you that the zombie plague was created by radiation brought back by a satellite that broke up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This is not true.

The satellite is referenced in NotLD, but it’s never actually established as the cause for the zombie outbreak. Romero himself has even said that the satellite was not the cause and inserted commentary by an expert into the early parts of Dawn of the Dead shooting down that idea. The cause of the zombie plague of Romero’s world is to this day exactly what Romero himself has stated he wanted it to be. It’s an unknown and hotly debated source, and, again, no matter what else is said, we still have this.


GEORGE ROMERO: “They haven’t. When I did the first film, I didn’t call them zombies. When I did Night of the Living Dead, I called them ghouls, flesh eaters. I didn’t think they were. Back then zombies were still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wet work for Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Matheson novel called I Am Legend which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I mean this is a 60s guy sitting there [pretends to take a toke, laughs] and I said if you’re going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning. Richard starts his book with one man left. Everybody in the world has become a vampire and I said, “No man, we gotta start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit.” And I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth shaking change, something that was forever, like this awful shit, something that was really at the heart of it. I said what if the dead stop staying dead. Again it’s just an idea that comes to you. And I just never thought of them as zombies in the first place. This film goes back theoretically to that first night. I mean I didn’t use the word until the second film and that’s only because people who were writing about the first film called them zombies and I said maybe they are in a way, but to me zombies were separate in the rainbow. I mean they were not even undead, they were just people that were … You blew this shit up with blowfish powder which would put someone in a state of suspended animation and then you get them to do your chores for you. I just thought it was completely different.”

It’s kind of hard to argue with the man himself when he says that he never intended them to be “zombies” and in fact thought that they were just ghouls. He also addresses the fact here that he only decided to use that word himself because other people were describing his ghouls as zombies in their writings on the first film.

You’ve built a car. A bunch of people who don’t know any better call it a plane. You finally give in and call it a plane. Did you really invent the modern plane?

No. No you did not, and Romero may not have created the modern zombie. He certainly had a hand in it and might be honestly labeled a co-creator who has had the good fortune of having many other co-creators who were far more unknown than he was, and in some cases with the passage of time mostly forgotten.

But certainly he can be credited with creating the “Romero Zombie” and thus still have the title as the “Creator of the Modern Zombie” that has been bestowed upon him, right? Maybe not. The truth may be that we’ve never really seen a “Romero Zombie” on film.

The closest thing that you can make the claim of being a “Romero Zombie” about would be the first zombies of NotLD. Creatures, again, that Romero himself has stated were never zombies, and after that film we saw the creature drifting away from what it was and into the pop culture created narrative of what the zombie was.

Think about the evolution of the “Romero Zombie” for a moment. The zombies seen in Night and the zombies seen in Dawn could almost be different creatures. Yeah, they both rise from the dead to munch warm, living flesh, but there’s much more about them that’s different.

Other than the two child zombies at the airport in Dawn, the zombies of Night show the ability for faster movement than their counterparts in Dawn. In NotLD, the very first zombie we see jogs at a fairly nice clip while chasing after the departing Barbara. He also shows us zombies in Night that are more physically capable and that show more signs of intelligence in the moment. Jogging zombie upon catching up to Barbara’s car starts rapid-fire pounding on the window like a jackhammer. He then, after figuring out that his knuckles ain’t cutting it, steps back, rapidly looks around the ground, picks up a rock, hauls back, and then smashes the window with the rock. Throughout Night we even see the undead using basic tools (sticks and stones) with regularity. Hell, one uses a tool to stab a much larger human (its own mother) that its smaller, weaker frame would never have been able to overpower. They also seemed a wee bit light sensitive.

By Dawn of the Dead, the concept of the NotLD ghoul being instead a “zombie” has seemingly infected their presentation on screen. They’re slower, they’re more lumbering, they’re more clueless, they seem to have forgotten what tools are, and they resemble the lumbering Voodoo zombie of films gone by insofar as their general actions and movements much more so than their NotLD counterparts did. It was as if the very idea of labeling them zombies in turn affected the way they were written and performed.

The argument could be made that Romero allowed others and their descriptions of and ideas for his creatures to shape the development of his creatures- either consciously or unconsciously -rather than keeping them what they were and expanding on that. They changed in between NotLD and DotD into being closer to something you might see in White Zombie or King of the Zombies.

By Day of the Dead, the transformation of the creatures from being a ghoul to simply being a deader, hungrier version of the Voodoo zombie was more or less complete. We’re even treated to the lone zombie breaking through the haze of its clouded zombie-state mind to start remembering aspects of its previous life and to start displaying facets of its old, pre-zombie personality.

By the time the modern era of the zombie film came around (skipping Land of the Dead even though I actually liked that one more than most) and George Romero reclaimed his cinematic kingdom, we saw him using zombies that were in every way respectful of what many call “Romero’s Rules” for zombies. Surely these zombies are in fact Romero’s zombies, right? Hey, they follow Romero’s Rules for crying out loud.

Actually, if anything, these “Romero’s Rules” zombies from Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead are the least like the Romero’s zombies in NotLD than any to come before them and are actually fairly different from even the zombies of Dawn, Day, and Land. These zombies do in fact follow the “Romero’s Rules” as defined by a legion of hardcore zombie purists in pop culture, but the problem is that Romero himself never really followed “Romero’s Rules” all that closely in his first three zombie films. What we see in Dairy and Survival is Romero using the zombie demanded by the purists and what we saw was even the purists ranking these two films as the worst two films of his (so far) six films.

What we have is a man who set out to use ghouls, slowly allowed the pop culture forces of the time to shift his creatures closer to their “zombie” moniker, and, after many years, finally set out to use “his” zombies based on “his” rules when the rules in question were never really his rules in the early days. So where does this all leave Romero insofar as being the “creator” of the modern zombie?

He’s certainly a great filmmaker. He’s made three fantastic films, two pretty damned good ones and one kinda clunker. But the reality of the situation is that he’s a co-creator of the modern zombie at best, and, when looking at his first film VS subsequent films, he’s not even the majority co-creator of what is today considered the Romero Zombie.

He laid the groundwork, the well established groundwork, and so many others filled in the blanks. He headed the team, but a lot of other technicians added the fine details. Godfather of the modern zombie he may be, but he is at best only the unintentional co-creator of the modern zombie and not in fact the creator of the modern zombie.

Oh… A little bonus debate starter… Do you want to hear something that’s really insane sounding but very likely true? It’s quite possible that the single biggest thing that created the modern zombie as we know it, even the modern Romero zombie and the zombie craze as we know it right now was a simple mistake with copyright. Yeah, you read that right. You may in fact owe your favorite current creature’s success and relevance on the horror landscape to a screw-up.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a Christmas staple. For years you couldn’t turn the television on in the Christmas season and not channel surf into it on at least two or three channels. Everyone was airing it from your short on funds local PBS station to superstations like WOR, WGN, and WTBS. The thing is, It’s A Wonderful Life was basically a flop. It was largely a failure at the box office and it was savaged by most critics at the time. No one cared about it and somewhere along the lines the film fell out of copyright and into public domain. At that point, just about anyone who wanted to could air the thing day and night without putting the least little dent into their budget. Slowly over the years this “Holiday Classic” was aired so much and so many times that almost everyone had a chance to see it. It actually found an audience on television and it built a bit of a nostalgic following for some as the movie that they always watched in the Christmas Season when growing up.

Then the popularity got it noticed and it slipped back into copyright. Nice DVD versions were released and the cost of airing it went up. Suddenly it’s not on TV as much every December and its popularity has been noticeably slipping.

Night of the Living Dead sort of did the same thing. Night fell out of copyright almost immediately thanks to a fairly large screw-up. As a result, it cost basically nothing to air. Channels that were willing to air it, occasionally “uncut” but slightly edited to avoid bare zombie butts, could do so every Halloween season or on their local horror host’s program on the cheap. Drive-Ins and exploitation theaters (now called Grindhouse Theaters but not so much known as such then) could get prints cheap if they knew where to look and show it on special occasions with a much better profitability bang for their original layout buck.

When VHS came along, every fly-by-night company put out their own print. The same thing happened when DVD came along and put a bullet in the head of VHS. Hell, some of the DVDs were the VHS prints copied over with all of the tape defects intact. You could buy it on DVD for a whopping $1.99 or get it in a collection of ten, twenty-five or fifty films for the cost of any one or two big studio release DVDs.

Night of the Living Dead was everywhere when I was growing up. Everyone that was a horror fan saw it because you almost couldn’t not come across the film on TV or in a friend’s video collection.

It was a good movie to be sure. But the film also had a much better than average chance at finding and building an audience. Would it have been popular if it had never fallen out of copyright? Yeah, I think it would have been. It’s a good film after all. Would it have been as big if it had stayed in copyright? I really don’t think so. It would have been aired less on television and there would have only been higher priced VHS tapes and DVDs on the market with almost no mega collections containing it until the most recent years of DVD distribution.

It would have found an audience, but the audience, just based on the reduced exposure, would have likely been smaller in the early years as well as into the 80s and 90s. Without the larger “cult” following, we don’t see the same rise of the cheap zombie horror that we saw in the 80s. Hell, we may not even have seen Return of the Living Dead. Without these things, we don’t see the same demand for Day, which may still have been made, and Land, which may not have still been made, and the blossoming love affair with all things zombie that we’ve recently seen from major studio heads. The zombie genre isn’t as strong as it is now and we maybe don’t see The Walking Dead on TV even if we do maybe see the comic with a less successful run from being released to a less rabid zombie fandom.

The zombie craze we see now can be traced back to Night of the Living Dead. But do we see an in copyright NotLD making the same impact in the two and three decades after its creation that we saw from the cheaper to air/print/distribute version? Probably not.

  1. Sean says:

    I think what’s scarier is when you see a zombie, expect it to follow Da Rules, but it doesn’t. I think there’s no reason you couldn’t have slow zombies and fast zombies and talking zombies and shooting zombies and zombies that wash the dishes together.

    • jjchandler says:

      Which is largely why I advocate using a baseline set of rules while tweaking as you need to to fit the story you need to tell. Take The Walking Dead’s pilot episode for a moment. The three of them are in the house and the zombie that used to be the wife/mother of the two people Rick finds walks up to the house. No big deal as the door is shut. Then the tension in the scene shoots through the roof as she starts to try an look inside and tries to turn the doorknob. I know zombie purists that went ballistic over that scene, but it was amazingly effective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s