The Modern Zombie
The modern conception of the zombie owes itself almost entirely to George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. In his films, Romero “bred the zombie with the vampire, and what he got was the hybrid vigour of a ghastly plague monster”. This brought into being a new apocalyptic vision of monsters that have come to be known as Romero zombies.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times chided theater owners and parents who allowed children access to the film. “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them,” complained Ebert. “They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else.” According to Ebert, the film affected the audience immediately:
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
Romero’s reinvention of zombies is notable in terms of its thematics; he used zombies not just for their own sake, but as a vehicle “to criticize real-world social ills—such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation—while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies”. Night was the first of five films in the Living Dead series.
Innately tied with the conception of the modern zombie is the “Zombie Apocalypse”, the breakdown of modern society as a result of zombie infestation, portrayed in countless zombie-related media post-Night. Scholar Kim Paffrenroth notes that “more than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic… they signal the end of the world as we have known it.”
Night made no reference to the creatures as “zombies”. In the film they are referred as “ghouls” on the TV news reports. However, the word zombie is used continually by Romero in his 1978 script for Dawn of the Dead, including once in dialog. This “retroactively fits (the creatures) with an invisible Haitian/African prehistory, formally introducing the zombie as a new archetype”.