George A. Romero’s name is nearly synonymous with the zombie genre, whose impact on contemporary media culture is impossible to ignore. But what gets lost in the era of zombie apocalypse is just how eerily prescient his work was.
Take the final scene of Night of the Living Dead (1968). What should have been a happy ending instantly turns into a story of racial terror. The black hero and lone survivor Ben (Duane Jones) emerges from the farmhouse basement only to be mistaken for a zombie and murdered by a white militia. As the credits roll, still images reverently follow Ben’s body, carefully framing the carefree faces who hook and eventually burn an innocent black body along with all the zombie “others.” Clearly, this reflexive response to a misperceived black threat bears haunting resonance today. But even more portentous was its 1968 release: as Romero and cowriter John Russo were driving the film to New York for distribution, they first received the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Though Night spoke to the near future and propped open the door to black horror casting that followed, Romero has always held that he cast Jones without considering his race.
Alone, we might agree that this political relevance was an (un)happy accident. But consider also how Dawn of the Dead (1978), shot in Pennsylvania’s first indoor mall, satirized mall culture just as they began popping up around American suburbs. Or take Land of the Dead’s (2005) portrayal of wealth inequality that ends in an assault on luxury condominiums by the masses, a timely three years before the 2008 financial crash. One might even argue Romero’s work predicts the rise the othered, eminently-killable video game zombie, such as when Dawn depicts both an officer’s racist killing-spree as he indiscriminately shoots the dead and POC alike, and rednecks joyfully drink beer while recklessly hunting zombies (to the background chorus of “I’m a man,” nonetheless).
Now, we could chalk up these coincidences of relevance to chance. But, at some point, we stop calling such coincidences simply “lucky” and start calling them “genius.”