George Romero’s influence on the zombie genre is unquestioned. His films have defined the default characteristics, behaviors, and look of these undead creatures to the point that any exception or deviation simply proves the rules established by Romero (the linked video provides a comprehensive look at these rules and their evolution). When they run, such as in 28 Days Later (2003), or talk, such as in Return of Living Dead (1985), they are still variations of Romero’s zombies. All of this without ever calling them zombies in the film that codified it all, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Calling them “ghouls,” Romero was influenced by everything from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) to the film Invisible Invaders (1959), and it was only when the Italian Argento brothers secured European rights to the Night sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) and rebranded it Zombi to promote the spiritual sequel Zombi 2 (1979) that the Romero characters began to be associated with the word.
My previous research explored the zombie’s evolution leading to a perfectly empty signifier that all manner of political and social allegory can be poured into (2013). Because of its relatively unknown and mysterious non-Western origin, as well as the no singular source of origin (such as Dracula is for the vampire) the zombie functions as a universally malleable “utility tool” that provides diverse satirical social commentary. The deviations themselves become places where the allegory can shift, because the elasticity of the Romero zombie springs back to its shambling core when the next version emerges. There are true successors of everything Romero, such as The Walking Dead (2010-present), which not only contains creatures that resemble Night’s ghoul creatures but also never mentions the “z” word either (primarily calling them “walkers”). This would imply that the Romero movies do not exist in this narrative universe, or characters would surely call them zombies, and points to the universal empty signifier that the zombie represents as it does not even need to be named to serve as an near infinitely malleable allegory.
As the zombie horror subgenre progresses and evolves there will undoubtedly be countless variations and deviations from Night’s ghouls, but Romero’s ability to codify and cement long lasting characteristics of these undead creatures is an impressive legacy for a creature that doesn’t speak and an origin film that never says its own name.