George Romero's Living Dead Series (Night, Dawn, Day, Land, Survival, Diary of the Dead) and Social Commentary.
Firstly, a quick warning: Some of the attached videos have clips that involve strong language and scenes that people may find disturbing.
George A. Romero bears the nickname "Grandfather of Zombies" and quite rightly so. The production of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, the first of his Living Dead series, created the archetypal zombie film with which we are all familiar. His cannibalistic undead -- driven by instinct alone, constantly and inexorably spreading -- would eventually become so accepted and embraced that it is arguably the most recognised and reproduced horror figure in present popular culture.
But each of Romero's Living Dead 's have conversely, in some way, commented on aspects of contemporary society. Here is a brief look at just some of the social commentary that can be found in each of the films included in this series.
Romero's Living Dead starts in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. The subsequent films followed the traditional passage of day: Dawn of the Dead in 1978, followed by Day of the Dead in 1985. Then came the wider scoped Land of the Dead in 2005, where the zombies themselves become less mass, indistinguishable antagonist to ambivalent individuals, as interesting on the screen as the human protagonists. Next came Diary of the Dead in 2007. Survival of the Dead, released in 2009, remains Romero's latest Living Dead installment.
Night of the Living Dead
It is said that Duane Jones was cast for the principle role for Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) simply because he was the best actor for the job. However, a black man as the main character, particularly during the 1960s with so much unrest about race, is always going to garner comment, as much now as at the time. And undoubtedly it is the ending that generates the majority of it.
Ben survives the onslaught of zombies only to be killed in the closing final seconds of the film by a posse of zombie hunters. The scene is not a difficult one to deconstruct -- a black man shot by a group of white men. A variety of questions could be asked about this section. First and foremost, the one that has to be asked: did they shoot because he was a black man? Or did they honestly think him a zombie? Then this begs the question, if it had been a white man, would they have first checked to see if he had been turned, or would they have also immediately fired? Do they assume that a black man would not have been able to avoid being bitten, to be capable of surviving -- which Ben has proven to the contrary throughout the film (being the sole survivor from a larger group). It is said that Ben represents all types of 'Other', through race, gender, sexuality, and that the zombies are the violent repressing force of society. The film itself does not seem to make its own comment, ending abruptly after the event, leaving the audience with something even more unsettling than the ravernous undead rampaging through the rest of the film.
Dawn of the Dead
Romero's second installment, made in 1978, ups the colour, ups the gruesome, almost lurid, special effects...and piles on the satire. Set in a shopping mall, Romero uses the mindless, drone-like zombies as a mirror for mass comsumerism. The very apparent commentary on this makes Dawn of the Dead arguably the most critically discussed of all the Living Dead series.
The inclusion of scenes of zombies clawing at the glass doors of the mall, or later wandering around its starkly lit insides, parody the behaviour of people in malls and shopping centres, satirically recreating everyday scenes of society's need to buy. In a parallel with the zombies, people are driven by the desire to consume, not fully understanding why they need to, but pursuing it nonetheless. The zombies consumption of human flesh drives them, it is their sole purpose, it keeps them alive (as it were); thus, then, is human's need to consume material goods. It is also indictative that the human survivors choose to hole up in a mall -- surrounded by material goods, the world that they are familiar with and comforted by. Ownership and property, that other aspect of Capitalism, is also addressed, when the group's claim on the mall is threatened by other people, resulting in the age-old method of fighting it out.
Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead does not seem to be held in such high regard as its predecessors and perhaps part of it is due to the lack of social commentary like that in Night... and Dawn.... However, on closer scrutiny there is still a fair amount that can be commented on, even if it is more disparate. In particular, the line between zombies and humans seems to become much more blurred in this film. Not just through the 'humanisation' of the zombie 'Bub', as he regains some vestiges of his former, human life, but also through the fact that for the first half of the film, much of the violence comes from people, directed at people. There is much more on the brutality of humans, and with the isolated setting and the close quarters in which they live, things seem to be once again almost tribal, with factions being created, the arguing and fighting between them. A point started in Dawn of the Dead is expanded here -- it is no longer simply us vs. them, but us vs. us vs. them...
Land of the Dead
Land of the Dead saw a return to Romero's more apparent, biting commentary. In this film it is very prevelant in the rich/poor divide, with the rich holed up in their expensive, luxury skyscraper, and the poor left to defend themselves against the zombies outside. Any solidarity that people may feel would arise when the human race is confronted with such a terrible common enemy does not seem to have a standing in Romero's world. As seen, racism, consumerism, ownership and property and now the rich/poor divide are still very much in place. Another thing that has made it through the zombie apocalypse is money, which one would think would be useless in such a world. Yet still money equals power. In a world where everything else has fragmented, some would clutch onto kind of power and Kauffman seeks to keep in place the old monetary power structure.
However, looking past this more obvious social commentary, people have drawn parallels between the events of the film and the 9/11 attacks and subsequent Iraq War. The skyscraper where the rich reside is a symbol of wealth and power, an easy comparison to make with the Trade Center Towers. The rich, seated in their safe central position, away from conflict, send out lower class, working people into the dangerous territory -- again, not difficult for people to see this as politicians sending out people to fight the Iraq War.
Diary of the Dead
Considerably shortening the gap between films, Diary of the Dead was released only two yars after the last installment. In this film Romero brings zombies right into the twenty-first century, exploring the use of current technologies, the internet, subsequent social networking sites, and the media in general. Romero even adds a nod to his own reputation as amalgamator of horror and social commentator. One character talks of how they were making a horror film at the start of the outbreak, to which another character adds "with an underlying thread of social satire"... However some fans feel that this commentary, so deftly used in previous films, was starting to weigh in a little too heavily by this installment; rather than horror with the undertones of social commentary, it had become the reverse.
The film is shot entirely through hand-held, amateur camera work, recording all events including every zombie attack that happens to the group. If viewers wonder at the diligence of this, the film gives the answer, tinged with commentary on present society. The media cannot be trusted, choosing what to cover up, what to release, what to report and in what ways. Adding their own personal accounts to the relatively unrestricted space of the internet reveals the real stories, the real events. However, in the same way, there is a critique of the internet; with so much information constantly being bombarded at people daily, we are forced to shift through and find the truth, whatever that might mean, in all the differing reports and accounts. Instantaneous access to news may mean that we're constantly kept up to date, but at the same time, the news has to always be updated, with first reports often being overblown, startling, reporting the rumours and assumptions rather than what has actually happened. The group's well-meant recording of the things they go through is ultimately adding to the myriad of confusing voices contributing to the 'news'.
Survival of the Dead
One thing fans seem to agree on with regards to this film is that it is the worst of the Living Dead series. A casual look at reviews of Survival of the Dead turns up nary a good word to say about it. Well, Romero's ability to kill zombies and humans alike in interesting ways remains, but otherwise the film seems to have little going for it, through the eyes of the Romero fan. Also, that which defined his films seems to have become a curse by this point. The social commentary that worked so well in the original trilogy, as it is known, seems to have become stilted and forced in its striving to be present.
What commentary there is can be picked out in rather incomplete chunks, that makes one wonder if it is even there or not. Are the clashing families on the island representing civil war? One side wants to kill the zombies; the other wishes to keep them alive and acting like human ways, until a cure is found. Is this perhaps a comment on rights -- perhaps the differing methods of involvement in other states and foreign affairs (military involvement vs. help to set up fundamental rights and diplomatic government). Perhaps it is even a comment on euthanasia or abortion -- pro life against pro choice. Perhaps it is just a comment on the human condition. The zombie apocalypse may happen, but eventually people will accept and live with them instead of doing anything else about them.