Once upon a time, zombie movies starred guys like Bela Lugosi, and those old-timey horror films didn't feature anything that most modern horror fans would associate with the genre. All of that changed, and changed quickly, in 1968 when a Pittsburgh resident named George Romero decided to move on from making regional commercials for laundry soap and beer, and tried his hand at directing a film instead.
That film was Night of the Living Dead, and with it Romero and John A. Russo (who co-wrote the screenplay with him) created the modern zombie film and the rules that define the genre. For decades, Romero wrote and directed a new zombie movie every few years, injecting subversive social commentary into their narratives. His playbook was borrowed by countless others, but Romero's films were special — they work on both an intellectual and a visceral level. His apocalyptic vision of an unfolding zombie uprising found time to examine social issues in a way that most films did not, and they weren't for everyone; most movie audiences generally avoided his extremely violent films, missing the underlying messages entirely. Those films were primarily an underground phenomena, appealing to a non-mainstream audience of horror fans.
Nowadays, zombies are everywhere. They've fully emerged into mainstream consciousness on a scale that's baffling to a lot of old-school fans like myself. I never could have conceived of a time when the most popular television show in America would be a hyper-violent zombie series, but that's exactly what's happened with The Walking Dead. And big-budget Hollywood movies like World War Z have taken the genre to a level zombie films had never reached before.
Recently, in an Indiewire interview, George Romero lamented that the runaway popularity of productions like World War Z and The Walking Dead have put a damper on his type of filmmaking. Romero claims that the enormous popularity of those productions has made it impossible for him to get financing. He explains:
"Now, because of World War Z and The Walking Dead, I can't pitch a modest little zombie film which is meant to be sociopolitical. I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now you can't. The moment you mention the word 'zombie,' it's got to be, 'Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.'"
After discussing some of his more recent zombie efforts, Romero added:
"Then, all of a sudden, here came The Walking Dead. So you couldn't do a zombie film that had any sort of substance. It had to be a zombie film with just zombies wreaking havoc. That's not what I'm about."
I've criticized The Walking Dead before, but had a difficult time grasping exactly what it was about the series that I don't dig. There are reasons I could identify, including the often maudlin soap-opera tone that the show seems to wallow in, but that didn't adequately explain why The Walking Dead seems so shallow to me. But Romero's comments struck a chord.
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AMC's enormous hit show doesn't have any underlying message that I can see. There's no real social commentary, and the show lacks depth because of it. If there's any theme to The Walking Dead, it seems to be that we should all be extremely paranoid of our neighbors, and we'll probably have to shoot a few of them. A friend pointed out that he thought the show had a message about the problems associated with libertarianism, and that's an interesting thought, but I don't really see a lot to indicate that the writers on TWD are consciously exploring that theme. No, the show seems to have a formulaic pattern in which the core characters encounter another group of survivors, briefly trust them, are betrayed and then all hell breaks loose. Along the way a few new "friends" are introduced, and a few die. Repeat.
Lots of fans have described the show as "a Romero zombie film that never ends," but that's not really accurate. If it were a Romero film, there would be a lot more substance to go along with all the gunplay and gut-munching. Carl or Daryl would've been eaten already, and there would be a more developed message than "Everyone outside of your group is dangerous."
People like myself who've enjoyed zombie movies for many years before the mainstream caught on are not gatekeepers, and we don't "own" the genre. There have been terrible zombie movies made for decades, and that's fine. It's also fine that other people love World War Z and The Walking Dead — but it is troubling to fans like myself when an auteur like George Romero can't make films his way anymore because less-thoughtful versions of the mythology he created make more money.