(© Article by Neil Fawcett, added 6-Apr-1999)
This article was originally written for a college newsletter, but was never actually published. It later appeared in the Throttle Box's Night of the Living Dead (look in the Bits and Pieces section).
I've seen it asked dozens of times over the years, almost like some sort of exam question, "What is it about the Romero Trilogy that makes them so enduring?" I don't think there is an answer, at least not a single all encompassing one. Why? Because people simply connect with different aspects of them. For example, on a simple level I've seen people say Night of the Living Dead's low budget black and white appearance is one of its major attributes, while others seem to find this very same quality a reason to dismiss it.
I've also seen people relate each of the three films to the state of society in the era in which they were made. One classic example of this is the analogy that the zombies in Dawn are simply a comment on western consumerism, that we are in fact zombies simply wandering around shops and malls. I personally think this may be reading too much into the films. Certainly some aspects and comments of the society and world in which they were made in come through in the films, but I think by definition most films somehow reflect the society of their time and I don't see the dead trilogy as being any different. In fact in some ways George Romero almost seemed to steer clear of commenting on society. Typical examples are the heroes of his three films. Females are shown in a positive manor, unlike the typical scantily clad women who trip over and scream wildly at the approaching monster. Leading men include many black actors but Romero always seemed to refrain from any real comments on racism, another very clever and positive step.
Another issue often mentioned regarding the dead trilogy is their "gore". This currently seems to be treated as a dirty word, as if it somehow demeans the films, that by enjoying them you simply see nothing more than the gruesome effects. This stereo type seems to have been built up by the many unimaginative horror films that probably owe their very existence to the Romero trilogy. Night of the Living Dead introduced the world to gruesome effects, instead of cutting away from scenes, it actually shows them. In many horror films that followed they seemed to revolve around nothing more than pushing the gore envelope as far as they could and this has done the genre a disservice. People now have the tendency to tar all films showing these sort of effects with the same brush and forget that like any effect or style it can be used well or badly, intelligently or unintelligently, imaginatively or unimaginatively. In Romero's films the gruesome effects are a very important part of the films, not the most important part, but without them the films would lose a large amount of their atmosphere.
In answer to "the exam question", if I had to try and pinpoint a single quality of the films that is the key reason why people get "hooked", it would be their believability. By this I mean it only requires a small "leap of faith" to accept Romero's universe as a possibility. If you can accept that for some unknown reason, be it natural or supernatural, the dead are rising, you have taken the only step necessary to appreciate the true scale of the ensuing nightmare and apocalypse shown in his trilogy.
However, possibly a more social explanation is that this apocalypse is an equaliser. Upper class, lower class, rich, poor, old and young are all in the same nightmare fighting for survival, where the only thing of real value or importance is remaining alive.
If you wish for a more philosophical definition why people are so enthralled in Romero's horrific dead trilogy and why they are so enthused in seeing the world crumble and humanity dying, it could be that you only appreciate life by appreciating death. That by watching Romero's films, in the safety of your own home, you can experience the extreme worse end of the scale, maybe allowing you to appreciate the other end a little more!
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