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5 Things Zombie Movies Stole from Night of the Living Dead

By Zeus | 2011-03-08

5 Things Zombie Movies Stole from Night of the Living Dead

Every gimmick designed to set zombie films apart from Romero's can be traced back to the original Night of the Living Dead.

Introduction

Night of the Living Dead - Barbra George Romero created a monster. His original Night of the Living Dead gave birth to the modern zombie. Like any monster, Romero zombies had their own rules: They were lumbering, unintelligent, and quite dead. They could be killed by a shot to the head or heavy blow to the skull. Driven by an insatiable craving for human flesh, their bite could turn you into one of them--though any cause of death was enough to make you join the ever growing army of the undead.

Over the years, the genre has seen a lot of innovation. There have been fast zombies, smart zombies, and plagues of zombies caused by zombie plagues. Even a casual observer can tell that 28 Days Later bears as little resemblance to Night of the Living Dead as Twilight bears to Dracula.

Yeah, zombie movies have come a long way.

Or have they?

1. ZOMBIES AREN'T CALLED ZOMBIES

Ed: Any zombies out there?
Shaun: Don't say that!
Ed: What?
Shaun: That!
Ed: What?
Shaun: That! The "zed" word. Don't say it!
Shaun of the Dead.

Can you imagine a werewolf movie where no one had heard of werewolves, or a serial killer movie where no one knew what to call serial killers? Of course not. How about a ghost story whose characters were completely unfamiliar with the concept of a "ghost"? That'd be silly.


"Oh my god... she's so drunk."

And yet most zombie movies take place in some alternate dimension where no one has ever heard of zombies. And it's not as if MOST characters haven't heard of them, until an elderly scholar busts out a dusty tome of zombie lore -- NO ONE knows what a zombie is, what to call them or how to put them down.

In real life, if a bunch of ghastly looking pale people came staggering after you, there'd be two possibilities: one, you accidentally wandered into England; two, there's a zombie outbreak. But usually the survivors aren't surprised zombies are real, they're surprised because they don't know what zombies are. It seems that in order to distance themselves from Romero's early zombie films, later movies don't want to even mention the word "zombie."

Thing is, George Romero doesn't like the "zed" word either. Except for their iconic sleepwalker's stagger, Romero's undead have little in common with the brainwashed slaves of voodoo sorcerers found in White Zombie and other "traditional" zombie films.

"I never thought of the things as zombies when we made Night of the Living Dead," he told the Leader-Post. "Never called them zombies. They were ghouls, flesh-eaters. I thought I was coming up with some kind of new creature: neighbours. Dead neighbour walking... When people started to write about the film, they called them zombies. I used the word only in Dawn of the Dead. Haven’t used it since." (I guess he doesn't count Dennis Hopper's awesome ad lib from Land of the Dead, even though it's the best line in the movie.)

2. ZOMBIES ARE FAST

28 Days Later had more of an impact on the genre than any film since The Return of the Living Dead convinced everyone zombies went around moaning, "BRAIIIIINS!" 28 Days Later introduced crowds of high-speed homicidal maniacs. Gone were the days of slow moving swarms; these guys could sprint down the road and tackle their prey like a cheetah. Dubbed "rage zombies" by fans, they proved so popular that they wound up in remakes of George Romero's Dead films, even the surprisingly not-terrible remake of Dawn of the Dead.


Dawn of the Dead image stolen from TV Tropes.

Fast moving zombies have been a point of contention ever since. ("ZOMBIES DON'T RUN!" shouts Shaun of the Dead star Simon Pegg.) When BBC News asked George Romero where he stood on the running vs. lurching issue, he answered, "Lurching. You have to shamble, man." Later he told the Leader-Post, "What did they do -- wake from the dead and immediately join a health club? I don't get it... Zombies don't run. They can't! Their ankles would snap."

Which is funny, because (as Mars pointed out years ago) George Romero's first onscreen zombie didn't seem to have that problem.


In the right lighting, with a question mark covered jacket, he could pitch guides on how to get free money from the government.

Meet Bill Hinzman, the Cemetery Zombie. He has the distinction of playing Romero's very first flesh-eater. Hinzman made the mould--only to break it seconds later. For his Cemetery Zombie is the physical equal of the admittedly dweeby Johnny (Russell Streiner). When knocked to the ground, Cemetary Zombie springs to his feet like a WWE Superstar. Once Johnny is bested and his sister Barbra locks herself in the car, Cemetary Zombie can briefly be seen sprinting towards her, closing the distance in seconds. He quickly circles the car while pounding the windows like a cracked-up bum demanding his window washing fee, then jumps back and performs some sort of crazy running charge attack.

Watching Bill Hinzman's performance, it's not hard to imagine what inspired fast zombies.

The most remarkable thing is that even with all that "rage zombie" speed and intensity, Bill Hinzman never once broke his ankles. Compared to him, the Cemetary Zombie in Tom Savini's 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake is downright sluggish. The Cemetery Zombie of the '90s spends most of the fight with Johnny crawling on all fours, struggling to stand, attacking the car with lethargic blows rather than frantic pounding, and quoting NIN lyrics.

My buddy Jake also pointed out in Romero's Dawn of the Dead, two kid zombies burst from a closet and charge Peter (Ken Foree) full speed.


In this scene, Hinzman keeps up with a moving vehicle.
Yeah.

Despite Romero's insistence that fast moving zombies are impossible, maybe his Living Dead could run all along. But, like those who ride through Walmart on motorized scooters, it's not really that they're incapable of quick movement, they just don't want to be bothered. If anyone makes a movie where Walmart scooter zombies chase people, I'll buy them a sandwich.

3. ZOMBIES ARE SMART ENOUGH TO USE WEAPONS

Big Daddy goes over. Pulls out the rifle. Tests the weight of it in his hand. Curls his finger in through the guard and pulls the trigger.

BLAM! A bullet ricochets off a brick wall. Big Daddy is startled at first. Then, he relaxes, realizing the rifle's power. With surprising dexterity, he slings the weapon's strap over his head and across his chest, patting the strap as if comforted by it.
— Land of the Dead, original screenplay by George Romero.

Big Daddy
Land of the Dead image stolen from the Internet Movie Firearms Database. Please don't kill me.

Since the original Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies have tried to distance themselves from the image of the unintelligent zombie who can only latch on and hope for a bite--barely able to throw a punch, let alone a ninja star. Nightmare City armed its zombies with guns and knives. Psychomania had a whole gang of motorcycle undead. Even George Romero got in on the act: his zombies grew progressively cleverer throughout the series. In Land of the Dead, Big Daddy not only figures out how to use a gun, but other zombies imitate the behavior, all of which which annoyed Dead purists.

Though maybe it shouldn't have. The very first zombie we see in NotLD uses a brick to smash Barbra's car window. Tool use, problem solving--for a dead guy, he really thinks on his feet. Other ghouls use bricks and clubs to break through the survivor's defenses.

Okay, "Zombie Smash!" not good enough for ya? Later on, the Cooper girl rises from the dead and repeatedly stabs her mother with a garden trowel. She was smart enough to realize that unlike Cemetery Zombie, she wouldn't be able to overpower an adult. So, she improvised, made like an 80s slasher movie killer, and used a gardening tool as a murder weapon.

Karen Cooper

It's strange how quickly this unsettling image disappeared from the public consciousness, especially considering Night of the Living Dead came out 10 years before John Carpenter's Halloween. The shot of young Michael Myers holding a knife seems to be burned into everyone's brain, but when you bring up young Karen Cooper stabbing her mother to death, it's like, what? Zombies didn't stab people!

4. ZOMBIES ARE EXTERRESTRIAL IN ORIGIN

Less popular than other twists to the genre, but consistent over the years, is the extraterrestrial origin story. The Australian zombie flick Undead features space aliens and flying saucers. There's also the Night of the Creeps (and the unauthorized Night of the Creeps remake, Slither) in which alien slugs turn folks into zombies. Then there's the totally unrelated to Night of the Creeps (not to mention underrated) zombie comedy Hide & Creep, which opens with an alien abduction. Stephen King even wrote a story called Home Delivery about a giant ball of worms from outer space that causes the dead to reanimate. Which, come to think of it, also sounds a lot like Night of the Creeps. Sheesh. Maybe I should have called this section, "Zombies are caused by Space Worms."

Night of the Creeps

Romero has never given a definite explanation of why the Dead are Living, which is one of the reasons I respect the guy. Say what you will about his later films, but he's resisted the urge to film some sort of "patient zero" origin story for 40 years. While Dawn of the Dead introduced theological and biological theories, nothing was ever confirmed.

But wait! In the original Night of the Living Dead, there was only one theory, a theory repeated by government agents, scientists and newsmen: That a space probe returning from Venus, shot down by NASA over Earth's atmosphere, was contaminated with "mysterious radiation." The report went so far as to say, "Since the brain of a ghoul has been activated by the radiation, the plan is, kill the brain and you kill the ghoul." Yes, the theory was immediately questioned, but it was the closest NotLD got to offering an explanation, an idea expanded upon in several later zombie films. Like the ones I just mentioned.

5. ZOMBIES AREN'T THE REAL THREAT--WE ARE!

The breakdown of society is the foundation of all post-apocalyptic movies, even when the "apocalypse" is caused by zombies rather than mushroom clouds. But lately, emphasis has been placed almost entirely on living antagonists, with zombies serving more as the backdrop.

It's a popular design decision in videogames, like the upcoming zombie RPG Dead State, in which "Humans are much deadlier than zombies." In Capcom's Dead Rising, every boss is human--a violent crazy who proves more deadly than a small crowd of zombies. 28 Days Later's entire third act simply forgets that zombies exist, and spends a half hour focusing on evil rapist British army thugs. And, of course, the smash hit television series Walking Dead. Television pundits can't stop talking about how survivors--not zombies--are the real antagonists, as if it's a major revelation.

Survivors
We don't like your kind around here. These are the kinds we like.

The thing is... that was sort of the point of Night of the Living Dead. In the film's unforgettable ending, a vigilante posse mistakes Ben for a zombie and shoots him dead. That's right, humans did what an entire Night of the Living Dead could not.

"My villains are human," Romero told Lost Zombie. "Zombies aren't the villains. In a couple of cases, they've been rather heroic. And I probably sympathize with them." In an interview with G4TV, he elaborated: "Zombies are annoyances... The humans are the problem. But that's been true in all six of the films, that the humans are more of a problem than zombies. So that's just a theme that I've always worked with and played around with."

If, as Romero said, zombies were your neighbors, then living survivors are the kind of neighbors who'd borrow your lawn mower and use it to run over your cat.

BONUS ROMERO RIP-OFF: ZOMBIES AREN'T DEAD, THEY'RE JUST INFECTED WITH A VIRUS

"I can't stand this whole--I don't know, sort of an apology or something that they're not dead anymore in most of these films; that they've got a virus or some kind of rage bug. That's almost like they're apologizing. My guys are DEAD, somebody changed the rules and they're coming back to life."
— George Romero (Lost Zombie interview).

Sometime after the AIDS scare, it was decided that all mythological monsters were now based on a virus. Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies changed from supernatural creatures to glorified STDs. The problem with these pseudo-scientific explanations is that they're a little fuzzy on how this "virus" is passed on. Zombie bites are infectious, but a hero can have their eyes, mouth and open wounds splattered with infected blood and not suffer any consequences. Only the bite transmits the virus. Because that's how viruses work.

Pontypool There are dozens of variations on the theme, ranging from "Zombies aren't actually dead, they're just sick" (28 Days Later) to "Zombies are dead, but they're kept alive by a virus that overrides the nervous system" (American Zombie). There's even a thriving sub-genre of films where an "audio virus" in the form of a cell phone call or radio signal turns people into zombies: Pontypool, Stephen King's Cell, The Signal, etc.

One thing remains a constant: The "infected" never attack each other. Yes, a virus makes people homicidally angry and attack anyone on sight, unless of course they spot someone who is already infected. Because that's how viruses work.

Romero Zombies aren't caused by a virus. A bite is not required to raise from the dead. In fact, Romero has gone on record, and even gone so far as to have characters speficially say in his later films, that in the universe "of the Dead," any cause of death is sufficient to turn you into a zombie. The only requirement of the Living Dead is that you're... well... dead. Viral Zombies are so common that it's taken for granted that a bite, chemical agent, bacteria, etc., HAS to infect you before you turn into a zombie. Romero's literal "walking dead" are almost a thing of the past.

Shot from The Crazies trailer

But mobs of homicidal infected people ARE of the past. They appeared in George Romero's 70s flick, The Crazies. Like 28 Days Later, the Crazies are not dead, they're living people turned homicidal... by a virus named Trixie.

Outro

So, there you have it. While the original Night of the Living Dead wasn't filled with zombies who were as fast as the Flash, well-armed as The Punisher, smart as Beast, or as apt with superhero metaphors as yours truly, I hope this article has shown that the seeds of these ideas were planted long ago; rooted in Night of the Living Dead, they grew like Poison Ivy and... hell, I dunno, Plant Man.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm not feeling well. This shaggy old bum sneezed on me earlier tonight, and now I feel all itchy itchy. I think I might eat my ugly-faced neighbors, unless of course they're already infected. Becasue that's how viruses work.

— Zeus (e-mail me!).


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