Night of the Living Dead’s zombie apocalypse started with vampires
George A. Romero created the zombie apocalypse in Night of the Living Dead by playing off another horror classic.
The zombie apocalypse has become a subgenre of horror unto itself, having flourished from the early days of director George A Romero’s famous “Dead” films. His work spawned a host of imitators and eventually led to people like Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and a whole branch of horror films dedicated to the notion. Most important components date back to Romero’s groundbreaking original night of the living dead set in 1968, a film that established the ground rules for nearly all zombie apocalypse films, as well as the basic formula for how human survivors deal with what appears to be the collapse of civilization.
But as groundbreaking as they were, Romero’s tropes were nothing new. He himself claimed to have been inspired by a vampire novel, that of Richard Matheson. I’m a legend – who informed the foundation of its history. The novel spawned a movement of its own and was an expression of another horror subgenre seemingly at its last gasp. And it all came together to create something entirely new.
Romero discusses the origins of night of the living dead during an interview about the film’s 2008 DVD release and elsewhere. He told how he and his friends were shooting commercials and industrial films in Pittsburgh and decided to make a horror movie as a calling card for bigger projects. Horror films could be made inexpensively and had a ready market on the drive-in circuit, making it easy to turn a profit. The only question was what kind of horror movie to make.
The director was inspired by I’m a legend, which implies that the whole world turns into vampires. A lone resilient human locks himself in his home each night, only to emerge in the day with a collection of stakes and hunt down his former neighbors one by one. The novel opens after the overall transformation, with the necessary information told in flashback. Romero thought it would be interesting to look at the storyline from the beginning – when change begins and society crumbles. He couldn’t use vampires, but zombies – which were then largely tied to voodoo myths – were distinct enough. He borrowed I’m a legend notion of a virus to explain that the dead rise suddenly from the grave, with a hunger for human flesh and the ability – like a vampire – to be what transmits their condition to those they kill.
In retrospect, it seems incredibly simple, but it came with a healthy dose of social commentary from the novel, as well as the director’s flair for slow-burning terrors. Matheson’s story ends when his only human man realizes that his principles are no longer relevant in a world where the rules have changed so dramatically. He goes to his death with the understanding that he will be the monster that the new world frightens its children with at night. night of the living dead — and by extension, the entire zombie apocalypse — sets up a similar moral melting pot, as its characters find themselves in a world without normal social consequences and must decide what really matters to them.
Timing also played a role. night of the living dead was released in October 1968, at a time when its social commentary and final image of an innocent black survivor of a zombie attack being gunned down by a group of white sheriffs struck a chord in the national consciousness. The film became a hit, and Romero went on to direct five more films set in the same universe, including the equally genre-defining dawn of the dead in 1978. At the same time, I’m a legend has undergone a strange creative advancement of its own. No less than three film versions have been made over the decades – 1964 The last man on earth1971 The Omega Man and 2007 I’m a legend. And like Romero’s cycle, each is about the same idea for a different time.
It’s also an indicator of the cyclical nature of genres and how an effort to breathe new life into old ideas can take unexpected forms. I’m a legend happened when vampire stories were winding down and Bela Lugosi’s goth thrills had given way to the likes of Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein. Instead of rejuvenating vampire stories, it created something entirely new, helping to diversify the genre in the process. Romero gave the necessary props to his inspiration, which helped fans see how horror staples develop.
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