Understanding Zombies as Metaphors in George A. Romero's Dead Trilogy

Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster

What allows these movies to transcend being simple horror genre films is the evolving, layered symbolism of the titular undead.

Night of the Living Dead

In this 1968 movie the reanimated corpses of the recently deceased attack survivors barricaded in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Catching bits of news from television and radio, they hear theories of a radioactive satellite returning from a mission to Venus. Nothing conclusive is stated and since none of the theories help the survivors the information means little to them.

These explanations, however, did affect the audience by tapping into Cold War fears concerning space travel and radiation from nuclear testing. In a similar fashion the mindless, all-devouring living dead are a manifestation of anxiety concerning desperate hungry and faceless mobs in America and abroad following the population explosion after World War Two.

Dawn of the Dead

In Romero’s second film zombies take on more nuanced symbolism. Early in the film police and military forces attempt to contain both zombie outbreaks and mobs of panicked, impoverished minorities. Little discrimination is shown in trying to combat these scourges; a minor character even suggests the same lethal action be taken against the living and the dead as he spouts racist rhetoric before military action.

When the survivors are establishing a base in a nearby mall they question why so many zombies are drawn to the place. They theorize that the mall had an influence on them in life, so the zombies would be drawn their by their remaining primitive instincts. The audience can see the zombies as a comment on consumerism. The living dead are, in fact, the ultimate consumers since they literally do nothing but tear down and consume everything they find.

Day of the Dead

Film number three casts the zombies as a natural force. The military personal sees the zombies as sport kills or a security problem. In either instance there is nothing human about the living dead; they are simply another problem to be eliminated. The scientific researchers, similarly, treat zombies not as former humans but as subjects to be mercilessly probed, tested, and dissected.

Day of the Dead uses the zombies as a barometer of the inhumanity of the surviving humans. It is the latter who has the capacity to be virtuous, but they instead spend their time tormenting the living dead and fighting one another. It is the zombie Bub who displays the most positive character traits while the living taunt and betray each other into annihilation.

The Dead Shall Walk the Earth

In each instance the zombies are more than a typical horror movie villain. In fact they frequently come across as pitiable automatons when compared to the willful violence and destruction of the surviving humans. In each film the audience is invited to see another aspect of the zombies and what they mean not only to the characters in the movie but also to the viewers and the world around them.

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BumptiousQ profile image

BumptiousQ 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

I like your take on things -- interesting assessment of the symbolism.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks, BumptiousQ. I try my best.

ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

I wondered if the Dawn of the Dead movie was placed in a mall just because it was more interesting than a farm. All the consumer analogy added later by film buffs,critics?

Just a thought.

satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

According to Romero on the dvd commentary, he didn't think about doing another zombie movie until after a visited a huge mall and saw all of the behind-the-scenes passages and workings, and the setting was so interesting he started with that before the characters and the idea of the metaphor took shape.

Jay 5 years ago

I had read somewhere that the original Night of the Living Dead was a metaphor for the Cold War, that if America didn't band together, they'd fall to enemy hands.

I'm interested in the author's thoughts on this.

satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Jay, I believe there are several film critics who have such an interpretation of Night of the Living Dead. I believe, though, that the tragic ending of that movie is also meant to suggest that the people who band together for protection have as much to fear from each other as they do from any external threat. In this context seeing Night of the Living Dead as a Cold War allegory means that it is also a cautionary tale against American extremism as much as a call to be vigilant against foreign aggression.

Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Brief, but good analysis.

satomko profile image

satomko 3 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thank you, Thief12. I was just trying to give a quick overview in hopes of inspiring more people to give these movies a viewing.

Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

I love the whole trilogy. The first one is probably on my Top 3 of Horror Films, and the second one would be high on my list as well.

satomko profile image

satomko 3 years ago from Macon, GA Author

I agree, and I think they show that zombie horror movies tend to work better when they focus on the story/survival of just a few people in a limited setting.

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