What’s the worst fate you can imagine in horror fiction? If we’re to believe the genre, there’s something worse than death — the life that comes after it. Becoming the monster means losing your humanity and giving in to man’s baser urges. Some subgenres have turned this trope on its head by embracing that notion. Vampire films such The Lost Boys (1989) and more recently Kiss of the Damned (2012) have argued that becoming something else can be fun. Ghost films such as The Frighteners (1986) and Beetlejuice (1988) have portrayed death as a simple inconvenience, but one that can also lead to wonderful kinds of mischief. And a number of movies including Teen Wolf (1985) and Ginger Snaps (2000) have linked death to human biology as a process similar to puberty, and, oddly, treat it as somehow less traumatic. The one remaining subgenre that seems persistent in its attempts to link life after death as the ultimate form of karmic punishment is the zombie film, although, this seem to be in opposition to the intentions of its own creator. First appearing in its modern iteration in George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), the zombie has come to represent a mindless descent into complacency or conformity. It’s the idea that there really is nothing for us after we die; we simply rise from the grave to lumber through the same monotonous tasks we already do, just now without the capacity to hand in our resignation and quit. Romero himself played with this idea in Night's sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). In Dawn, the zombies converge on a mall because base materialism ruled their lives to such an extent that it was the only place they could conceive of going after rising from the grave. Other directors also expanded on the idea to take it in very different directions. Andrew Currie’s Fido (2006) explored the notion of the zombie as service worker and pet, an idea also alluded to, but never fully explored, at the end of Shaun of the Dead (2004), while Alejandro Brugues’ Juan of the Dead (2011) used the creature as a way to take jabs at Cuba’s foreign policy by having the government cast the zombies as American-sympathizing dissidents. But taking this approach to zombie fiction is neglecting an important component to the evolution of the zombie, specifically in the work of its creator.
Romero’s series of living dead films has been one of the few instances where zombies actually evolve over the course of time, both in the nature of what they’re capable of and the way in which they’re portrayed. In Night they’re simple husks wandering in search of food, and in Dawn their mental acuity has only been elevated slightly to allow for greater use of tools and recognition of patterns (the Hare Krishna zombie ultimately recognizing Flyboy’s escape route). These films present the zombies as mostly unintelligent, mindless creatures driven solely by the desire to feed, not unlike animals. Romero’s third and fourth entries into the series, Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead respectively, are where the director brings the zombie back to life.
Day of the Dead contains what has to be considered the most sympathetic portrayal of the living dead ever produced, Romero or otherwise. Prior to Day, all zombie films revolved around a plot central to human characters, but the actual protagonist in Day is a zombie, Bub. Romero slyly frames the film around the institutionalization in American society of the military-industrial complex, outwardly casting a science vs. military narrative to propel the plot forward, distracting the viewer from the film’s actual narrative — a warped take on identity and the construction of family.
In the film, Bub is created, nurtured, and raised by the mad scientist Logan/Frankenstein. One could argue that this would lean more into the realm of a deity-to-man relationship but this would neglect the level of affection Frankenstein displays for Bub. In fact, Bub is the only character in the film that Frankenstein seems to hold any level of affection for. He scolds his colleagues when they initially question Bub’s intellect, and he looks down on Captain Rhodes and his soldiers as being inferior to Bub. Frankenstein and Bub exist in the film as a strange play on a surrogate parental bond between a father and son. Instead of simply viewing Bub as a zombie, he brings Bub back to life by giving him a name and identity not unlike a father would his son. And this relationship allows for the only moment in the film when the audience is genuinely allowed to empathize with a character. It’s true we’re probably meant to feel exasperated along with Sarah in her dealings with Rhodes, but there’s a disconnect in the cold, clinical way in which she handles many of her emotions that prevents a true emotional attachment to the character. It’s only after we witness Bub discovering the body of his surrogate father Frankenstein that we’re able to fully connect with a character, and it’s the first time an audience has been asked to empathize with the zombie over the human. More than any other character in the film, Bub registers genuine shock and hurt after losing someone; he even acknowledges a sense of irony when, after shooting Rhodes, Bub salutes him — another concept lost on the humans in the film, especially Rhodes’ crew of monosyllabic monsters. These are both concepts humans have almost completely disregarded by the midpoint of Romero’s last film, Dawn. Effectively, Bub has traversed the path from human to zombie and back again by the end of the film while his human adversaries have themselves become the zombies by stubbornly lumbering forward in pursuit of "life."
Now while Bub may represent Romero’s perspective of the transformation from zombie to human on the micro level, his film Land of the Dead (2005) widens that perspective to the macro. Again we’re asked to sympathize with zombies over humans, and again the story is framed initially as a human vs. human conflict. We’re led to believe the film is about Riley, and to extent Cholo, squaring off with the character of Kaufman, leader of a post-apocalyptic enclave known as Fiddler’s Green. But the actual conflict isn’t between the humans and Kaufman, it’s between the zombie Big Daddy and Kaufman. Kaufman’s henchmen run regular raids on Big Daddy’s territory, regularly murdering his fellow zombies. Like Bub, Big Daddy registers shock at the killings, but instead of pain he immediately turns to anger. That anger leads to a slightly amusing development as Big Daddy quickly turns revolutionary, a Zombie Zapata to lead his group against the bourgeois human oppressors in Fiddler’s Green. The film’s final act ultimately hinges on the zombies overthrowing Fiddler’s Green and Big Daddy offering the audience catharsis as the lone character allowed to punish Kaufman for his hawkishness.
These two films take a very different approach to the portrayal of the zombie. Whereas most films tend to view the zombie as a slow, mindless animal, Romero has continually posited that the zombie may actually just be the next step in human evolution. Over time the zombies in Romero’s films have seen a return of the kind of emotional intelligence we associate with human interaction, and they did so after conquering man’s last true enemy: death. In the world of George Romero, becoming a zombie isn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone -- the spiritual decay that comes with savagely clinging to life is.