A few weeks ago I had a hankering to revisit the films of the late, great, George A. Romero; specifically his two Zombie masterpieces: ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978). I have very few film buff credentials (being more of a casual absorber of the silver screen), but even I know that these two films arguably defined the zombie genre cementing Romero in history as the undisputed zombie master. They created lore, established tropes, and even their production carried some legendary stories such as Romero himself grabbing the reels as soon as editing on NotLD finished and scouting movie theatres for somewhere that would agree to screen it.
Sadly Romero passed away in 2017. It wasn’t only a loss for the world of cinema, but for the gaming world too. At the time I reflected that every zombie themed game could trace its roots to the work of Romero, either directly or indirectly. My own teenage interest in Resident Evil 2 led me to his films and, whilst to the outside observer his work could be dismissed as decadent gore for the sake of it, the themes he set up are what makes the zombie genre (and zombie apocalypse) so grotesquely captivating. Having revisited the films, it seems like a good moment to stack up how the gentle torrent of zombie themed games that erupted in the 90’s stacks up against Romero’s original work; in short, are we playing the zombie apocalypse in the way George A. Romero imagined it?
Unlike many horror movies & franchises, zombies are much more of a backdrop than the focus of his films; the menace they project is as much from their indifference as the fact that they want to gruesomely devour you. Unlike the Alien or Michael Myers, Romero’s zombies act on mindless instinct rather than some malicious intent. They’re an unstoppable tide sweeping across humanity with the odds steadily ramping up against the survivors; the more they kill, the more uneven the numbers get. The viewer becomes steadily more aware that the survivor’s situation is hopeless. At the end of Dawn of the Dead the remaining survivors fly off in the helicopter, but watching it’s clear that this is just another postponement; they’ll stop for fuel, supplies, or even hole up for a while, but eventually the zombie threat will finish them off.
So Romero’s films are about the survivors and how they react to this increasingly bleak scenario. In NotLD a small group barricade themselves in an isolated house and we see how each of them deals with fear; some just stop functioning, some are in denial, some take action, and some focus on self-preservation. In DotD the isolation of a small farmhouse is cruelly exchanged for that of a shopping mall. Initially pleased with their situation, the protagonists gradually realise the emptiness of their prison, surrounded by almost endless supplies but unwilling to leave, they sink in to despair and loneliness. He shows the breakdown of societal norms; the band of roaming bandits looting and stealing, or the chaotic police clearing of the building in the opening and ensuing racially charged massacre by an unhinged officer. The films also carry a more more satirical edge at times as we see hunting parties bagging zeek as merrily as a prize buck and the scenes of morose undead shoppers still shuffling around the mall.
From a modern perspective it’s also interesting to note what’s missing from Romero’s zombie apocalypse. Heroism and Hollywood self-sacrifice are absent; there’s no Brad Pitt from World War Z here. There’s also surprisingly little combat; zombie rules are established, but it’s not a gun-toting action romp and the tide quickly turns against the humans when combat does break out. In summary they’re stories about fear, panic, isolation, loneliness, and the human reactions.
… of course they’re also delightfully cheesy by modern standards…
Zombie video-games have now been recreating, adapting, and evolving Romero’s zombie apocalypse for over two decades with little sign of slowing up. It’s an influence that the man himself would have been aware of; even appearing as a cameo in the zombie mode of one of the CoD. games. It’s a wave that began in the mid-90’s with the arrival of Resident Evil. The original game was set in a lonely isolated mansion who’s corridors were home to the shambling undead, unashamedly inspired by Romero’s work on NotLD. The sequel continued in a similar vein; Leon & Claire isolated and alone in the protective stone walls of the RPD police station. Of course the early RE games couldn’t be ranked sophisticated in terms of their plot and dialogue, but they do manage to capture some of that sombre isolation. It’s telling that the only real uplifitng moment in the soundtrack (prior to the end credits) is when Leon and Claire meet up in the S.T.A.R.S. office representing a small respite from the loneliness of the soul-less walkers in the corridors. Even the ‘safety’ music, in my opinion, conveys morose reflection rather than celebratory relief from the dangers outside.
Visually there are also links to Romero’s work. The zombies of the first trilogy of RE games are specifically the slow, grey skinned zombies of DotD. You can see parallels in Marvin’s visual transformation to that of Roger in DotD as both ‘turn’, and of course the moment when undead arms grab at the player through boarded up windows mirrors a scene in NotLD. The link between these games and films was so strong that Romero actually directed a 30 second RE2 commercial (Only aired in Japan) and was approached to write the screenplay for a Resident Evil movie.
For better or worse however, Capcom moved Resident Evil away from zombies towards bioweapon monsters and zombies often found themselves the subject of more action heavy, often FPS, titles. The late 90’s saw a slew of zombies being used as guilt free moving targets from the light gun blasting of House of the Dead to the behead the undead modes in the Timesplitters series. Games moved away from the human aspect of an outbreak towards a focus on combat and action. Nowhere is this more obvious than Capcom’s Dead Rising; a company that once managed to capture a bit of Romero’s trademark bleak vision, lifted the Mall setting from DotD to make an arcadey comedic zombie slaying romp.
In this way, many games have evolved away from the original inspiration yet others have managed to hybridise with other sources. Left4Dead captures some of the bleakness of Romero’s work and that sense of ‘postponement of the inevitable’ at the end of a scenario rather than victory, but takes runners and hoards from 28 Days Later rather then the shuffling individuals of the living dead movies. Then of course World War Z is inspired by the movie, inspired by the book, but takes a structure from L4D… sorry, I’m getting off topic…
Luckily for Romero fans, there is still a special place for his brand of Z-pocalypse in the gaming world. Unsurprisingly the fan-made “No More Room in Hell“, (can’t wait for that sequel!) with its title lifted directly from a DotD line, presents a suitably Romero-esque bleak an increasingly hopeless zombie apocalypse. The sense of wafer-thin survival on limited resources is superb and things can turn from sort-of-just-about-managing to overrun nightmare in the snap of a barricade board. Of course it didn’t hurt that there are specific levels modelled off both ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Day of the Dead’. Telltale’s original ‘The Walking Dead’ season forces the player to live through those human reactions to the unfolding horror, and the indie classic, Project Zomboid, manages to make isometric hole-ing up in a farmhouse a grim and tense experience. Yes, Romero’s zombie are alive… or dead… and well in the gaming world..
…and yes, I need to track down a copy of Day of the Dead to complete the movie trilogy…