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

Updated on February 24, 2017
Night of the Living Dead screenshot -- a young zombie (Kyra Schon) and her victim (Karl Hardman). Direction and cinematography both by George A. Romero
Night of the Living Dead screenshot -- a young zombie (Kyra Schon) and her victim (Karl Hardman). Direction and cinematography both by George A. Romero | Source

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. They must instead focus on short term survival in a surreal and ghoulish situation.

These explanations in the official reports, 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.

Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster

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. Right away, the audience develops a sense of empathy for anyone, including zombies, who are on the receiving end of militarized aggression that in no way provides a solution to the mounting troubles.

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. All at once, the zombies stand in as both victims of violence, perpetrators of violence, unthinking, ravenous consumers and as victims of both their own insatiable, reflexive desires, and symbols of inevitable decay and death.

Film poster for Day of the Dead.
Film poster for Day of the Dead. | Source

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 only real difference is that the military finds some glee shooting zombies rather than filling sandbags or transporting clean water. The scientific researchers, similarly, treat zombies not as former humans but as subjects to be mercilessly probed, tested, and dissected. While their goals and methods are different, the researchers place no more value on the zombies than the military does.

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 over even the most petty of points. It is the zombie Bub who displays the most positive character traits while the living taunt and betray each other into annihilation. The hostility and general lack of empathy portrayed by the humans leaves the zombies as the object of audience sympathy in part because they cannot deny their nature, but better behavior should be expected from the living.

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 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

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

    • satomko profile image
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      Seth Tomko 7 years ago from Macon, GA

      Thanks, BumptiousQ. I try my best.

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      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
      Author

      Seth Tomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA

      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.

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      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
      Author

      Seth Tomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA

      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 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Brief, but good analysis.

    • satomko profile image
      Author

      Seth Tomko 4 years ago from Macon, GA

      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 4 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
      Author

      Seth Tomko 4 years ago from Macon, GA

      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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