Today, of course, was the 70th birthday of filmmaker George Romero. Romero is responsible for a number of films, such as The Dark Half, the original version of The Crazies (a remake of which is soon to be released), Martin, and plenty of others. What the world really remembers him for, and probably always will, is his Living Dead series of films: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and the upcoming Survival of the Dead. (It’s worth noting that each of these films has been remade at least once, usually with inferior results, though Zach Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead is arguably a quality film on its own merits). Night of the Living Dead was the first film to feature the modern zombie: the shuffling, moaning, flesh eating corpse that in large numbers poses a significant threat to civilization; and even though the word “zombie” did not show up in any of Romero’s Living Dead films (the creatures are more technically ghouls than zombies), they’re the perennial classics of the genre.
What’s funny, though, is that even though Romero pioneered the genre, and just about everyone, when asked to name the most influential zombie film will name Night of the Living Dead, the version of the undead zombie which has permeated pop culture is very different from Romero’s undead. The modern pop culture zombie shuffles about just like Romero’s did, but also cracks open human skulls to munch on human brains. The brain-munching seems to have its origin in The Return of the Living Dead (directed by Dan O’Bannon) and its sequels. Note that Romero had nothing to do with these films. In these films, zombies walk, munch brains (“Because,” one zombie explains, “being dead hurts”, and eating brains soothes that pain), and can even talk (“Send more cops”, says one zombie at one point). But you can’t kill them just by decapitating them as you can with Romero-style zombies; if you cut the arm off of a O’Bannon zombie, and now the zombie still comes after you as does its separated arm. Cut off its head, and the head keeps biting and the body keeps shambling. The only way to kill an O’Bannon zombie is to incinerate it completely, although the ash still contains the chemical that set it into motion in the first place.
So, anyway, the modern pop culture zombie seems to be an amalgamation of the two breeds of zombie: they shuffle (Romero), moan (Romero + O’Bannon), eat brains (O’Bannon), and can be killed by decapitation (Romero). They’re not articulate, but they can moan after “Brraaaaiiiinnnnssss”.
I’ve already shared with you my theories about the zombie apocalypse (in “It’s All About the Zombies“); now you’ve been subjected to my theory about the origin of the modern pop culture zombie. I don’t claim to be the font of all zombe lore, but I may end up getting there at some point.