Zombies might seem like an unlikely subject for the film debut of a director who got his start on a local children's television program in Pittsburgh called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. George Romero's first feature, Night of the Living Dead, was loosely based on a science fiction novel about vampires but quickly morphed into a movie about flesh-eating ghouls who rise from the grave to terrorize the countryside. The black-and-white film was shot with local actors at a cemetery and a farmhouse near Pittsburgh. With a production budget of just $114,000, the filmmakers were forced to use mortician's wax for zombie makeup and chocolate syrup for blood -- but they made sure the chocolate syrup flowed freely. Critics mostly hated the movie, which is now regarded as a classic of its genre. Pauline Kael wrote soon after its release that the film was "one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made -- and when you leave the theater you may wish you could forget the whole horrible experience."
In contrast to Frankenstein and Dracula, zombies are a staple of horror films with virtually no literary antecedent. They originated in Creole folklore as ambulatory corpses that perform slave labor for voodoo masters. There are occasional reports that these creatures actually exist; if so, they have more likely been drugged rather than resurrected from the dead. Their place in popular imagination owes almost entirely to the movies, notably the Night of the Living Dead, its sequels and its many imitators.
To the extent the Hollywood dream factory functions as a kind of collective unconscious, zombies represent an aspect of our psyche that emerges undisguised only in our nightmares: the soulless self, a creature of mindless and insatiable appetites, shuffling through its daily rounds without a spark of insight or awareness. Romero himself was aware of the broader implications of the zombie archetype and played upon it in some of his later films. In Dawn of the Dead, for example, a ravenous zombie horde descends on a suburban shopping mall as the humans barricaded inside go on their own looting spree.
A zombie is the person we discover ourselves to be in those rare moments of illumination that interrupt our habitual sleepwalking. "When we realize that we are asleep we will see that all history is made by people who are asleep," said the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. This may have been what Jesus was getting at when he told a would-be follower who wanted to go bury his father, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead." Christians believe that Jesus will come again to raise the dead, and perhaps that is so, but maybe all he really needs to do was to wake people up.