George A. Romero is, for all intents and purposes, the father of modern zombies. His original film, Night of the Living Dead, first introduced the world to the idea of the dead rising from the earth to eat the flesh of the living. But what many may not notice, is that Romero has a solid evolution for his zombies throughout his classic trilogy. This evolution comes to a head in his final film, Day of the Dead. His zombies' transition from mindless beast to human companion is incredible and has been mirrored and imitated ever since. But how did he do it?
Zombies, as we know them today, originated in Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead. Sure, zombies had been in films before this, but they were specifically connected to voodoo. Night was the first film to depict zombies as slow-moving, rotting, flesh-eating ghouls. While one zombie can be dispatched rather easily, once they gather together, a swarm is nearly unstoppable. These zombies are specifically cannibalistic as well, eating every part of the human body, and nothing else; they don’t attack animals, only us. They represent our lack of humanity; humans at their worst, without a soul or conscience.
But what Romero does in his next film, Dawn of the Dead, is introduce the slightest hint of that missing humanity. The zombies are still extremely dangerous, driven by their base instincts, but they seem to still show some form of memory. The husks of former humans seem to gravitate and congregate at the malls, theaters, and other buildings from their past lives. Of course this was Romero’s commentary on consumerism, but the idea he planted here would grow into an incredible evolution for these monsters.
These little memories become very important in the final film of Romero’s Living Dead Trilogy, Day of the Dead. At this point in the chronology, the world is all but lost. The zombie virus has spread across the planet and the monsters now have free rein. The film follows what could possible be the last survivors on the face of the earth in an underground bunker. The characters of this film are split into two groups: the military men, and the scientists, which includes Dr. Logan (or Dr. Frankenstein as the rest of the characters refer to him). The film is permeated by a constant fear that the zombies will take over, not just because of their sheer numbers, but also because we as a people are falling apart. The military men and doctors constantly fight over what should be done and how long it should take. This is humanity at its worst... and we’re not even zombies yet.
Dr. Logan discovers that the zombies still retain some semblance of intelligence along with their memories. Instinctual muscle memory is responsible for the movement, and the “hunger” is just the instinct to eat. The food does not even give them nutrients, they simply still have the drive to feed. Because of this, they can be slowly trained and are actually learning through repetition. The first example of this is shown at the Inciting Incident. While trying to gather more specimens for the doctor, the workers discover that the zombies are slowly realizing that if they get caught, they will not return. Thus, they stay completely away unless lured in by the promise of meat. Dr. Logan’s star pupil is a zombie by the name of Bub. Bub watches how the doctor and others treat the zombies, and learns how to behave in order to avoid the same fate. He remains quiet and docile while chained to the wall.
During a crucial moment in the film, Dr. Logan shows the other characters in the complex a demonstration of Bub’s ability to learn and behave. Bub remembers what a razor is and cuts his cheek mimicking his old shaving routine. Dr. Logan then shows Bub how to use headphones and a cassette player, and the reaction is beautiful. The look on Bub’s face when he hears Mozart... indescribable. And when Bub sees the main commander, Rhodes, in uniform he even salutes him. This proves that Bub wasn't just a military man before he died, but that his memories are influencing his behavior after death. Dr. Logan’s theory is correct! To prove this one step further, the good doctor hands Bub a gun to everyone's horror. The gun is not loaded of course, but Bub still knows what to do with it: he cocks the gun and immediately points it at Rhodes.
Bub then picks up a phone. Dr. Logan says “Say ‘hello Aunt Alicia,’” and Bub mimics his words! This causes a rush of fear throughout the military men. They scream for Bub to die, which represents the exact opposite view point of the doctor’s “learn from them and train them” perspective. Dr. Logan is trying to prove that civility is the key to changing the zombies’ behavior. They must be rewarded for being good. Positive and negative re-enforcement work; when Bub is good he gets a treat, and when he’s bad, Logan yells at him and turns off the lights. This proves that zombies are essentially dogs.
By doing this, George Romero flips the coin on us humans: we are worse than the zombies. They can be civil whereas we humans cannot. The zombies, when treated right can even still show some kind of love and devotion! Bub becomes so attached to Dr. Logan, that when Rhodes kills the him, Bub is filled with rage and goes after the murderer. When Rhodes finds out that Logan has been using the deceased military men as Bub’s treats, he kills him. Then, when Bub finds the body, he reacts just like any other human would when finding a friend murdered: he moans with sorrow, cries out, and then upon seeing the gun, begins his quest for revenge. He even puts together that Rhodes was the one who did the deed. Rhodes was the one man who was always angry and threatening either Bub or Dr. Logan. Rhodes even pointed a gun at Bub. Bub uses deductive reasoning to put together that Rhodes killed Logan, and he must therefore die. The vengeful zombie finds Rhodes and shoots him several times before letting his more rabid brothers eat Rhodes alive. As Rhodes screams, Bub salutes the fallen soldier.
Romero flips the genre trope around in Day of the Dead. Most of the time, zombies reflect our darkest fear: lack of humanity. But what happens when humanity has gone out the window and we are now the monsters? Day of the Dead is what happens. Other filmmakers have taken this idea and found their own way to tweak and change the zombie trope. Romero followed up on his ideas in Day of the Dead and expanded them in Land of the Dead. At this point, the zombies can learn fairly fast and amass their own army, using tools and weapons to kill their prey.
The Return of the Living Dead was the film that introduced us to zombies saying “BRAAAINS!” These zombies can not only talk in complete sentences, but they can run, and even lay traps. One scene features the zombies calling for the police to “Send more cops”. Once the main characters capture a zombie, she explains that being dead is extremely painful and eating brains alleviates that pain. In essence, they want what we have: life. In addition, destroying the brain will not stop these zombies, so even when dismembered, the individual parts will come after you! Only burning them to ash truly stops them.
Re-Animator introduces several different aspects of life into the zombie genre throughout its three film franchise. The first film introduces the idea that the body can re-animate and become a zombie. However, these zombies can be controlled, and if the dose is correct, it can cause the person to come back with their own personality fully intact. The first film also introduces the idea that the will is located in each individual part of the body. That means that individual parts will continue to attack you, much like in Return of the Living Dead. This idea is expanded upon in the sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, when Dr. West combines body parts; bringing to life horrific monstrosities made of random pieces of flesh. In the third film, Beyond Re-Animator, Dr. West realizes that the soul is also an essential part of bringing someone back completely.
All of these ideas were birthed from Romero’s original concept of the dead retaining slight memories of their once enjoyable lives. His evolution of the zombie concept continues to influence our modern take on these flesh-eating nightmares. Many people don’t even realize that the idea of a zombie talking or firing a gun is not new. But the first film to capture that magic feels fresh and believable, even nearly 40 years later. Romero was a genius and I feel it’s important to give the man as much credit as possible. So next time you throw on a zombie film, pay attention. See which take on the monsters is being used. It may be a new twist on an old formula.