Barbara, Bub, Peter, and the Zombie King
When asked to write a piece to honor Mr. George A. Romero, I couldn’t refuse. How could I? He was one of my heroes. The one who influenced me the most, despite of the fact that he created a reality where humanity had been overrun by the hungry, mobile dead. Or maybe because he shared his awful and terrifying vision of what this fragile world – perhaps in the universe just next door to our own – could oh-so-easily become.
I’ll attempt to keep this short, so to accurately share the experience of being introduced to Mr. Romero’s creation first hand, let’s set our Way Back Machine for July, 1985.
(Yes, yes. I know. That date is so far back in the shadowy halls of history I’m sure some you have visions of a pristine, emerald green, pre-mankind Earth where unicorns stalked the forests, but bear with me.)
That was when DAY OF THE DEAD was released widely upon the world, in all its gory glory.
I’m sure most who refer to Romero’s rotting universe will take you back to the 1971 release of DAWN OF THE DEAD-- or even farther back to when everyone still believed the Earth was flat in 1968, and the release of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD—but let’s all just stick with DAY, shall we? That way you won’t have to break out the ol’ flux capacitor, or have any points taken from your driver’s license by law enforcement for getting your car up to eighty-eight mph.
At age twelve, I was at the 40 East Drive-In with a friend and their older siblings, and the Drive-In was playing a marathon. That being NIGHT / DAWN / DAY back-to-back-to-back. When NIGHT began I thought, yeah, right. A black and white horror movie. How scary could this be? Little did I know the trilogy I was about to watch would alter my world. For roughly the next five hours and change, I sat mesmerized. I don’t remember what I ate or drank. I don’t remember any of the conversations I may have had. I don’t even remember the intermissions between movies with those silly, dancing, animated popcorn boxes and soda cans. All I remember is during that time, existence skewed sharply to the right and jumped off a bloody cliff. I couldn’t have looked away from the horrid world revealed on the big, big screen if I’d wanted to.
And I didn’t want to.
I had to see. I had to witness the blood and the pain and the gut wrenching, soul-numbing, intellect-shattering terror only hordes of ravenous walking corpses could create.
After the credits rolled on DAY OF THE DEAD and the Drive-In began to empty out, it was an effort to reorient myself with reality again. Something I’ve never experienced after watching any other movie or series, before or since. Romero’s world of desperate (sometimes hapless) survivors and endless crowds of shambling, carnivorous cadavers had changed me. Ben and Barbara’s frantic struggle to survive through the night, and the original uprising. Fran and Peter’s dry byplay as they fled their mall refuge, in a helicopter with a nearly empty fuel tank. Sarah and her friends fighting for their lives against not only Bub’s buddies, but the morally bankrupt living as well. They’d left their mark on my mind. Shifted my psyche.
…I suppose you could say they’d infected me.
Over the years, as the zombie genre grew exponentially like a horde (Sorry, had to go there.), the smelly, brain-eaters chewed their way ever more deeply into my brain. I went on to create novels set in a “zombieverse” of my own, but Romero’s masterful work—everything from the original NotLD, all the way through the more recent Land and Diary and Survival of the Dead—still give me the same sensation. They still cause that familiar reaction deep down in my guts.
You know the feeling too.
It’s the chill that moves like an icy wave in your veins. It’s your stomach quaking while you grip your inadequate weapon with shaking hands, as the monsters begin to batter their way into your hidey-hole to eat you from the inside out. It’s that feeling of dread strong enough to shake men to the marrow, brought into being by the High Lord of Harmful Matter. A gift, for you and me, straight from the Father of the Modern Zombie’s brilliant mind.
It’s the legacy of Mr. George A. Romero.
The uncontested King of the Zombies.