Dead Reckoning: The American Nightmares of George A. Romero

A new retrospective devoted to the master of horror is an occasion to explore his nightmarish visions of American life.
Brian Ehrenpreis
On April 4th 1968 George A. Romero was on the highway in a Ford Thunderbird convertible speeding from his native Pittsburgh towards New York City. He had just finished his first feature film, Night of the Living Dead, and was eager to take a meeting with Columbia Pictures in the hopes of selling it to them. In his film the African American actor Doug Jones plays Ben, a man forced to barricade himself inside a farmhouse in order to survive a hellish all-out assault from a marauding undead horde. Unfortunately for Ben, he has to share his hideout with a small coterie of other survivors, all white, who over the course of the night prove themselves to be more dangerous to him than any of the ghouls slavering hungrily outside the gates could ever hope to be. Exhibiting heroism and courage, Ben is rewarded by the film’s end with a bullet. As a posse of white survivors roll up to the house, he is “mistaken” for one of the zombies and shot dead, his lifeless body unceremoniously dragged onto a raging pyre.
As Romero drove on towards New York City that evening, a print of his film resting safely in the trunk of the car, he listened in anguish as a breaking news bulletin flashed in over the radio, and as the moral arc of the universe bent a bit further away from justice: “Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and wounded at a downtown Memphis Hotel today shortly before 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. Dr. King was reportedly hit in the face, the extent of his injuries is not known at this moment...”
The history of America is a history of horrors. Founded in genocide, the United States built its civilization and cities atop the bodies and bones of its continent’s first inhabitants. It is a nation forever stained by the moral calamity of the transatlantic slave trade and the chattel slave system, plagued by a racism that seeps into its national life as if through some sort of oozing cultural wound that will not heal; a pathological blight so deeply embedded in its cultural unconscious that it would be impossible to conceive of the nation without it. The only country to ever utilize the world annihilating power of the atomic bomb to decimate innocent civilians, two years after the atomic test at Trinity, Robert Oppenheimer remarked that the physicists who built the bomb “have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” The story of America is one written in blood and fire. It is a parade of violence, prejudice, subjugation, massacre, and ceaseless war.
It is a horror story.  
Night of the Living Dead. Photo courtesy of Living Dead Media
George A. Romero understood, perhaps better than any other American artist of his generation, that the only way to adequately confront the horror of American life is through horror itself. The subject of a new retrospective at BAM, Romero’s films are full of a compulsive desire to transform his viewers, to violently shake those who saw his work from their sleep and awaken them to new political possibilities. His was the cinema of confrontation and crisis, full of spectacular guts and gore, yes, but always in the service of making those who viewed his films really see, perhaps for the very first time, the hidden hand behind the status quo, the prejudice, moral rot, and systematic brutality undergirding the American way of life. Romero was, and unfortunately still remains, one of America’s most unheralded social critics. Critically engaging with everything from the crises and contradictions inherent to capitalism, the scourges of militarism, racism, and sexism, to the unbearable isolation of modern life, his cinema was one that was radical, empathetic, deeply personal, and unequivocally revolutionary.  
When Romero first burst onto the scene with the immeasurably influential Night of the Living Dead, his film resonated so strongly with the counterculture because it perfectly captured the spirit of 1968 with its bitter and cynical evocation of an America in its death throes—a nation quite literally eating itself alive. The America of Night of the Living Dead is one still reverberating from the aftershocks of the violence of Watts, Newark, and Detroit, as well as one wrestling with the horrors of what it was doing on the far-flung battlefields of its war in Vietnam. Romero’s first cinematic depiction of America shows a nation shot through with racial strife, a land pathologically and irrevocably divided by historical circumstance. By the end of his film nothing survives except the untenable status quo, and as Ben’s body burns so too is any hope for a better American future consumed by the flames of racial resentment.
Blackened despair at the futility of all human endeavor is a staple of Romero’s cinema, the sinking feeling that America has always been like this, and will always be, no matter what we do. His films are full of the horror of the endless now; the terror present in the thought that there may be nothing more than this; that the permanence of our historical moment is actually all there ever will be; frozen forever in its structural injustice, impervious to change and political resistance even at the point of crisis. Romero is the ultimate pessimist, a firm believer that it is men who are the truest of all monsters, and that as long as they exist there will be always be suffering, war, and division.   
Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in his 1978 anti-consumerist masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, in which hundreds of zombies flock to a suburban mall, wandering its corridors as if in a daze. Cursed with some remaining memory of their past lives, the zombies are now less objects of terror than they were in Night of the Living Dead, as they shuffle pathetically around while mall muzak spins on a loop in the background, carrying out a sad pantomime of shopping because, as one character puts it, “this was an important place in their lives.” 
Romero’s depiction of zombies as the perfect consumer with an irrational and perpetual hunger to devour human flesh is both funny and soul-crushingly sad because of what it reveals about life under late-capitalism. The zombies are the creatures of pure excess, the logic of capital taken to it’s very extreme: beings cursed by a mindless and endless consumption that is not based on need, bound to a hunger they cannot sate. The zombie myth has always been inextricably bound up in questions of labor and dominance, but it has also always  been about the infinite extension of pain: the inability to escape a suffering imposed on you by an unjust political order, the horror implicit in the idea that not even death can release you from an enslavement that follows you from cradle to grave and then again from grave to slave.
The 17th century Haitian sugar plantations where the concept of the zombie originated morph seamlessly into the middle-American mall as the site of endless laboring in Dawn of the Dead, as Romero depicts a new kind of enslavement for a new century.  His zombies aren’t bound to a necromancer as in previous films like White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but instead are chained only to their own boundless drive to consume. That Romero’s zombies draw no actual sustenance from what they eat is both the joke and the tragedy.
It’s not only the dead that continue to march to capital’s unending beat in Romero’s film, it’s also those still living. The humans in Dawn of the Dead continue to consume unneeded goods; dressing up in expensive furs even though they are living in a dead society where such class signifiers have lost all meaning and referent. One of the most telling scenes in the film involves a biker gang looting their way through the mall and almost exclusively stealing things which no longer have any use value: worthless paper money from a cash register, television sets that can play nothing but endless static. As if embodying Romero’s own voice from behind the camera, Francine, one of the small group of survivors hiding out in the mall, chastises her male companions for their consumerist complacency: “You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you.... You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison!” Even in death, even in a society in complete collapse, Americans simply cannot imagine a world beyond capitalism.
If Dawn of the Dead raged against the eternal and self-perpetuating logic of capital, Romero’s underrated 1985 follow-up Day of the Dead was an urgent missive to an America that seemed to be on the brink of actual annihilation. Released at the apex of the Cold War, the entirety of Day of the Dead takes place in an underground military installation where a small group of scientists and soldiers butt heads over the direction of a research project they have been charged with carrying out. Above ground, the zombies have taken almost total control of America, but below, the humans are their masters, keeping them kenneled in containment pens for use as test subjects in brutal medical experiments aimed at finding a way to stop their continued rise.
Day of the Dead is both a stinging critique of the military-industrial complex as well as a hilarious skewering of the depraved masculinity and damaged machismo of the 1980s. All of the soldiers in the film are constantly screaming and barking orders, obsessed with the size of their guns, the size of their dicks, their physical prowess, and this ridiculous hyper-militarized masculinity is very much Romero’s rejoinder to the rise of the hard-body Hollywood heroes of the 1980s. It’s difficult also to imagine that he’s not also taking shots at the wood-chopping, horse-riding cowboy projectionism of Reagan, as American popular culture at the time was infatuated with a barbarian masculinity that when combined with the tensions of the Cold War was something Romero clearly saw as a recipe for disaster. Rather than the stewards and standard-bearers of American culture that they imagined themselves to be, these men were, for Romero, harbingers of America’s decline, symptoms of its inevitable downfall. It’s clear that he thought these insane men, with their bloodlust and phallic obsessions were going to get us all killed.  
When the soldiers on the base learn that the experiments the head of the science unit, Dr. Logan, is carrying out have to do with teaching a zombie named Bub to learn and conform to the standards of human behavior, they lose their minds. Nothing could be more offensive to them than to see a zombie, an enemy, a mockery of man, ape their actions. They grow hysterical at any idea of behavioral kinship with zombies, rejecting it fully. Why teach these fuckers when we could be wiping them out? This being a Romero film, there aren’t any true heroes, and he is similarly critical of the scientists he depicts. The violence and brutality of Dr. Logan’s experiments on his captive zombies is portrayed as vile and sickening, and Romero makes plain that Dr. Logan is, in his own way, illustrative of the same tendencies towards control and domination that the soldiers are.
There is no moral high ground to be found in Day of the Dead. Both the scientists and the soldiers are ultimately complicit in America’s destruction and even the film’s “heroes” eventually give up, opting to flee the base and head for a deserted island. Day of the Dead is a critique of how insane American culture had become under Reagan, but also is concerned with how inevitably assured our destruction is as long as America has to deal with the scourge of an apocalyptic masculinity that is little better than a death-cult. The entire film feels as if it is perched on the edge of a vast abyss, with Romero wrestling with the all-too-real possibility of the world ending in the blink of an eye as some musclebound American or Russian commander gives the order to launch the first ICBM in what would surely be a short but devastatingly deadly nuclear exchange.
All of this culminates in the purest and most urgent rejection of American history, life, and culture that we see in all Romero’s cinema. In one pitch black monologue—perhaps the longest uninterrupted stretch of dialogue in any of his films—John, a helicopter pilot, gives voice to all of Romero’s pessimism and despair as he speaks to the scientist Sarah about the underground military bunker they are holed up in:
“…you know what they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top 100 companies. They got the Defense Department budget down here. And they got the negatives for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records, census reports, and they got the accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good old U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? We ever gonna give a shit? We even gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great, big fourteen-mile tombstone with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read.”
Continuing on, John offers his vision of the best possible future that could be hoped for: “We could start over, start fresh, get some babies and teach 'em, Sarah, teach 'em never to come over here and dig these records out.” In the end, the last best hope for America is that its history simply be forgotten. In order to move forward we must obliterate the past. Our cultural objects and our histories must rot underground, unknown and unread, while a new generation grows up in complete ignorance of their existence. America is damaged beyond repair, with nothing worth salvaging or saving. All that is left to do is to wipe the slate clean, to entomb our past, and sever our cultural bloodline. We must die off and let a new generation live on in our stead, a generation unburdened by the crushing weight of our crimes. 
The Crazies. Photo courtesy of American Genre Film Archive.
Such rejectionism had deep roots, and Romero spent the better part of the 1970s excavating the madness and social divisions that he saw as lurking just beneath the surface of American life. One of the most powerful examples of this is found in his 1973 film The Crazies, whose plot concerns a military transport plane carrying a highly infectious bio-weapon (codenamed “Trixie”) that crashes on the outskirts of a suburban town in western Pennsylvania. The bio-weapon poisons the town’s water supply with its viral payload and quickly gets to work infecting the citizens: manifesting itself by turning anyone who has come into contact with it into gibbering homicidal maniacs. Soon enough the military declares martial law and swoops in to lock down the town, as gas-masked gun-toting shock troops shoot anyone who attempts to escape the quarantine zone. 
The Crazies is Romero’s statement on the Vietnam War and the ways in which its violence and lies had, like the bio-weapon in his film, irrevocably poisoned the wellspring of American life. The film sees the war finally come home, and it is a deeply disturbing homecoming. Grappling with the moral cataclysm the Vietnam War inaugurated in American life, Romero suggests that the general public in 1973 had yet to fully face up to what its government had been up to overseas. As the full might of the national security state erupts into a peaceful suburban American town, it seems to come as a surprise to everyone, except for those who actually served in Vietnam; with one vet sagely remarking “the army ain’t nobody’s friend, man. We know because we’ve been in it.”
When the military attempts to round-up the townsfolk and transfer them to a central location for medical testing, the citizens fight back with extreme force, firing back as if they were VC guerillas uprooted from the jungles of Hanoi and suddenly set down in the cornfields of Anytown, USA. Romero is careful to never make clear whether or not the majority of the townspeople shooting at the military have actually even been infected by the madness-inducing bio-weapon, or if this particular register of insane gun violence is simply the American way of things.  
The Crazies is a depiction of America’s martial posture in rebound, as the violence of the US military explodes back onto the heartland, deployed against US citizens at home instead of abroad “where it belongs.” Romero is plain about his unchecked hatred for both the military and for the larger architecture of American state-sanctioned violence, showing the army to be both needlessly cruel as well as completely inept: utterly out of touch with the facts on the ground, with its top brass totally insulated from the carnage they are unleashing. Romero even makes explicit reference to both the Kent-State shootings as well as the self-immolation of Thích Quang Duc, coopting some of the most incendiary images of the period.
Towards the end of the film, David, a Vietnam veteran, realizes that he is immune to the virus unleashed by the bio-weapon. Knowing that he could help the military find a cure, he instead keeps his immunity a secret, refusing to help the military clean up the mess they have made. If you listen hard enough, beneath the whirling helicopter blades, rat-a-tat gunfire, and the shrieks of the damned and dying, you can almost hear Romero, whispering: you people aren’t even worth saving.
The same year in which he directed The Crazies Romero also shot one of his most ill-fated and unjustly maligned films, Season of the Witch. Where The Crazies depicted Americans going mad in the streets, Season of the Witch focused on the hidden despair, shame, sexual repression, and social imprisonment that women experienced in the 1970s. Though plagued by poor production value and some unfortunate original marketing, Season of the Witch manages to remain one of Romero’s most interesting films.
Season of the Witch is a slippery admixture of horror and melodrama that centers on the character Joan, a suburban housewife on the cusp of middle age who finds herself stifled and emotionally penned in by the social expectations imposed on her by a deeply misogynistic culture. Joan is in a loveless marriage to her husband Jack, who is either always away on business or when he is home, either ignores or abuses her. Struggling with the feeling that she has wasted her life with a man who doesn’t care about her, Joan is beset by nightmares that start to bleed into her daily life. 
These nightmares are vivid and terrifying, full of fragmented and highly suggestive images: her husband whipping her bloody with tree branches in a wood and then affixing her with a dog collar and imprisoning her in a kennel, a mirror that reflects back the image of a withered old crone, a masked man who breaks into her house and violently rapes her over and over. Subconscious eruptions of her disempowerment, Joan’s nightmares function as expressions of her repressed anguish, her all-consuming confusion at how she ended up so broken and subservient. Tired of her predictable and emotionally stunted life of suburban cocktail parties and card games, she turns to the occult in a bid to shake loose from her malaise, exploring the world of witchcraft in order to regain her lost sense of herself.  
The film is very much Romero’s commentary on the American patriarchy as prison: a monstrous system that bleeds all life from the women unfortunate enough to be caught in its vice-grip, as well as his statement on the impossibility of truly escaping from that prison. Ever the pessimist, Romero doesn’t appear to believe that any deliverance from the overwhelming brutality of American patriarchal culture is even possible, with Joan’s occult explorations amounting in the end to nothing more significant than any another form of self-indulgent flight from reality, a “mind-trip,” as one of the characters in the film puts it. Ultimately, witchcraft isn’t a path to freedom or self-actualization for Joan, it’s just another diversion, an imagined escape hatch, a new structuring fiction she deploys to cushion the blows she receives from a hopelessly misogynistic society. 
The final scene of the film places Joan at yet another cocktail party where she tells anyone within earshot about her new identity as a witch, proud to now be able to define herself on her own terms. As a brutal counterpoint to her optimism, the final words uttered in the film are extremely illustrative, as the host of the party introduces Joan to another guest as merely “Jack’s wife,” with Romero adding a ghostly reverb to the audio track so that these words echo over and over again in our ears. Season of the Witch ends in failure and entrapment, as Joan ends up back where she started, within the prison of patriarchal dominance. In America you can’t break the cage: the cage breaks you.
Like Season of the Witch, Romero’s 1978 film Martin is also concerned with the ways in which personal fantasy intersects with the social constraints of American life. Acomplex film, and certainly one of his best, Romero considered Martin to be his most personal artistic achievement, and one can easily see why. The film is a radical revision of the vampire tale that follows a young man named Martin who believes himself to be an 84 year old vampire. Though he doesn’t have fangs, Martin does drink blood, which he draws from his victims with a razor blade. He is a clumsy and bumbling predator, frequently apologizing to those he is about to kill.  A far cry from the smooth aristocratic sexuality of gothic vampires, Martin is a pathetic and isolated kid, deranged and compulsive yes, but also wretched and pitiable, enslaved to impulses and social circumstances he cannot control.  
Martin is a film characterized by a deep ambiguity, a bent towards an exploration of a gray-zone liminality that is singular in all of Romero’s cinema. We never do find out whether Martin is really a vampire or if he is merely a mentally ill murderer, and Romero makes the question feel beside the point. So much of Martin is about fantasy and delusion, the stories men tell themselves in order to structure their lives in a country that is disintegrating all around them. With its gritty realism, Martin doubles as something of a functional account of this disintegration, as it traces the decline of Braddock, Pennsylvania, the city in which it is set. Braddock is an all-American city withering on the vine of cutthroat capitalism; one that appears on screen as if it itself has been exsanguinated by a vampire’s bite. A bleak ex-industrial landscape drained of life, the Braddock of Martin is locked in a long slow slide towards total social death—a decidedly unromantic setting for an intentionally unromantic take on vampires. 
Martin is focused on deconstructing and deglamorizing the tangled web of fictions that men employ to self-actualize. American masculinity is a psychopathology that encourages men to wrap themselves in myths of dominance, virility, and sexual prowess; and Romero links Martin’s desire for blood directly with his sexual fears and inexperience. Whenever he feeds it is almost always on women, and the one or two times in the film in which he drinks blood from men it is either depicted as an act of revenge or as something done out of pure necessity. That Martin’s vampirism is so closely linked with his sexual desire is certainly drawn from the original vampire lore, but in the deglamorized modern context of Braddock, one in which the reedy and pathetic Martin isn’t sweeping into women’s bedrooms at night to bite their necks, or seducing them over sumptuous meals in his castle but is instead drugging and killing them without ceremony, suggests that that vampirism is a necessary structuring fiction for him: a deeply ingrained masculine delusion, a way to assure himself of both the necessity of his crimes as well as the “romantic” lineage attached to them. 
Even though Martin outwardly rejects the trappings of the gothic vampire, railing against the idea that any real magic exists in the world, he still indulges in daydream fantasies (or are they flashbacks?) that see him cast as a classical cloaked vampire; elegant, suave, sexually assured, aristocratic, powerful, terrifying: all the things which he is not. Martin is deranged, filtering his propensity for sexual violence towards women through a gothic horror framework, but the core of his psychopathy is one central to American masculinity, a ramshackle fiction in itself; a sickening nexus of delusion centered on dominance, violence, and control over women. Martin sees Romero tracing the horror of a masculinity that makes villains and victims out of men. As he deconstructs a set of delusions that are central to how American men see themselves, Romero is probing at the very boundary point between where violent fantasy ends and where the true horrors of American life begin. 
Land of the Dead. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios/Photofest
Twenty years after the release of Day of the Dead, Romero once again returned to the genre that he helped popularize with his most radical vision, a whirlwind assault of Marxist agitprop with a brazen incitement to class war. An exhortation to eat the rich, literally, Romero’s 2005 Land of the Dead is a dead reckoning with the wages of late capitalism that sees his zombies reach the final stage in their evolutionary process, gaining class consciousness for the very first time.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh starkly stratified along class lines, the living have retreated to gated communities where they barricade themselves behind electrified fences. Enclaves of safety and security, these communities are segregated spaces, with the rich distracting the poor with bread and circuses while exploiting their labor, forcing them to patrol the zombie outlands in order to procure food and medicine while they themselves stay safely ensconced inside their exclusive high-rise community-within-a-community, Fiddler’s Green. Run by slimy capitalist dictator Paul Kaufman (Denis Hopper doing his best Donald Rumsfeld), Fiddler’s Green is a bastion of excess where the bourgeoisieindulge in the pleasures of fine dining and masked balls while the underclass suffers outside their gates in shantytowns, prevented from entering the Green by a private mercenary army.  
During one incursion into zombie-held territory the humans notice that zombie behavior is beginning to change and that they are starting to act like humans again, carrying out empty pantomimes of their previous lives as if trying to remember who they are supposed to be. After a particularly brutal episode in which a human death squad rampages through a zombie town, gleefully butchering any undead they see—including one particularly gruesome kill in which a zombie cheerleader is skewered through the skull with the finial ornament of an American flag—the zombies spark to class consciousness. Led by ‘”Big Daddy,” a zombie at the apex of the evolutionary process, the undead masses become something they have never been before in any Romero film: organized. Uniting as one singular shambling mass, Romero’s zombies march in glorious unison on the stronghold of Fiddler’s Green with the singular goal of ending the tyranny of the living over the dead once and for all.  
When the zombies finally fight their way into the Green, killing and eating the rich—reducing their world of petty pleasures propped up by exploitation into smoldering blood-soaked ruins—it is one of the key moments in all of Romero’s cinema. No longer content to be the eternal slaves of capital, the zombies of Land of the Dead have finally become what we long suspected they always were: American capitalism’s home-grown executioners. Upending a deeply unequal status quo and reducing Kaufman to a lump of charred flesh, the zombies of Land of the Dead are unambiguously heroic figures, righteous bearers of a cleansing revolutionary violence. After the assault is over, two survivors discuss the process of rebuilding Fiddler’s Green, with one asking the other if he would like to stick around to “turn this place into what we always wanted it to be.” The riposte he receives is characteristic of Romero’s entire view of power, full of the world-weary knowledge of a man who has seen enough war, suffering, and bloodshed to last a lifetime: “Maybe. But then what will we turn into?”  
Romero places his faith in the just cause of proletarian revolution but is much less sure of what comes the day after. He is too much of a pessimist to believe that America can ever outpace its demons, that it can ever move past a set of class stratifications and social divisions that course virally through its national bloodstream like a host of tiny plagues. When Romero suggested in Day of the Dead that the only way to expunge the racism, sexism and classism of American life would be to birth an entire generation that had no concept of what the nation of America even was, he very much meant it. For him it is impossible to unchain ourselves from the endlessly spinning wheel of American injustice, and much of his cinema is about the various ways in which we carry our divisions with us into the ruins of our world and then attempt to rebuild our society in the selfsame image that originally led to its destruction. Romero is the great chronicler of the American ouroboros, a nation eternally eating its own tail, locked into a fatal cycle of repetition. None of this means we shouldn’t continue to fight, struggle, and die for a better American future. For Romero the revolutionary is merely doomed, not defeated.  
"Living with the Dead: The Films of George A. Romero" runs February 22 – March 3, 2019 at Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek.


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