Though there are sketchy plans for a George Romero museum someday in his adopted home of Pittsburgh, a place where everyone could appreciate and celebrate the work of the horror pioneer, you needn’t wait for the brick-and-mortar version.
There’s a Romero museum of sorts in theaters right now. It’s called The Dead Don’t Die (it opened Friday), written, directed and very intentionally curated by Jim Jarmusch, whose movie is a dryly comic homage to Romero and his classic Night of the Living Dead, half a century old, but as persistently alive as any of its re-animated characters.
The Dead Don’t Die is made in the spirit of Night of the Living Dead, and it’s full of Easter eggs (how’s that for a resurrection reference) for devotees of the 1968 classic, which Jarmusch credits with inventing the modern zombie movie, and expanding the possibilities of horror movies in general, giving them fuller access to the realm of social commentary.
“For me, Romero is the post-modern zombie master because he made them something else. In the old days, the zombies were like a voodoo thing, where you could take over someone and they would do your bidding, and it was a control thing. With Romero — no control. And also, he did a very interesting thing, which is that the zombies are both the monster, but they are us. They come from within society. They are not Godzilla, you know? They are us,” Jarmusch said.
He highlights that point in The Dead Don’t Die, set in a small Pennsylvania town (ID’d as somewhere in the vicinity of Evans City, where Romero shot, which is about a half-hour’s drive from Pittsburgh), policed by an avuncular sheriff (Bill Murray) who is stoic in the face of the outbreak, and often pauses to identify the undead by name (“I know those kids”), as they stagger down the street, past the same diners and motels they frequented when traditionally alive.
The folksy, small-town atmosphere in The Dead Don’t Die – Romero by way of Thornton Wilder — emphasizes a point that Romero first made in 1968. In making the zombies locals, he blurred the line between us and them, protagonist and antagonist.
“One of the things that Romero accomplished with Night of the Living Dead, and even more so with his increasingly ambitious series over the course of his career, was that he really drew attention to the fact that the zombies are us. Not some monster, but a reflection of ourselves,” said Adam Lowenstein, professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh, which recently obtained an extensive collection of what it describes as “personal and professional materials from George Romero that span the past 50 years or more. It ranges from screenplays (both produced and unproduced) along with script notes, props, promotional materials and video (both test shots and produced footage)."
The university is already processing the collection and will make the material available soon for scholarly research. There is very preliminary discussion of a formal museum, but more definitively, a multimedia exhibit is expected to open in 2020, to take the measure of Romero’s work and influence. Pitt also plans on opening a Horror Studies Center, with the Romero Collection as its centerpiece.
Which was seismic, Lowenstein said.
“I think [Night of the Living Dead] is a major accomplishment, because part of what makes horror work is the idea that a monster is other than us, and threatening to us, and something to be afraid of that’s outside of who we are. What Romero did with his treatment of the zombie was bringing that horror much closer to home,” said Lowenstein, echoing Jarmusch. “We see in his movie that we really have much more to fear from each other, than from the supernatural. Obviously, you see that quite clearly at the conclusion of Night of the Living Dead, with the metaphorical lynching that ends the film, where the [black] protagonist is killed not by the zombies, but by the rescuers.”
Jarmusch makes a nod to that famous ending in The Dead Don’t Die, staging a scene in a farmhouse (intentionally selected to resemble the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead) in which a racially tinged encounter goes a different way.
It’s one of many embedded tributes to Romero, who died in 2017, that are buried in the movie.
“There are all kinds of little details for the Romero nerds. The exact same ’68 Pontiac, for instance. Also, you hear the phrase ‘Kill the head’ a lot, and that’s from the original. We have the [Pittsburgh-area] place names, the fact that all the information is coming through TV and radio. We even called our company Image Eleven, after [Romero’s] Image Ten, and imitated their logo. With permission!” Jarmusch said. “Also, there are some Mountain Dew references, which was a big Romero thing. He was into Mountain Dew and cigarettes. Tremendous drugs of choice.”
Jarmusch is also an admirer of the Romero method of making movies. Both men are true independents — Jarmusch’ brand and track record give him access to bigger budgets, but he won’t make a movie without a guarantee of final cut.
Working outside the corporate system as an independent comes with financial constraints, he said, but it also affords a filmmaker freedom. No studio, he said, was likely to make a movie with a black lead in 1968, certainly not a movie that ended with such a rueful, anti-commercial conclusion. Jarmusch, taking a cue from Romero, made Isaach de Bankolé his lead in The Limits of Control.
Jarmusch also likes to work with a tight circle of friends and frequent collaborators, and that, too, is a habit shared by Romero, Lowenstein said.
“One of the things I’ve learned is how much he approached the making of his films as a community building endeavor. By casting friends and acquaintances and children of people he knew, rather than saying, ‘I’m going after the biggest star I can get, to help make the movie work financially. The films are about community, and the act of making them was an act community,” Lowenstein said.
Pitt plans to celebrate the Romero Collection with activities this fall. Also in October, Fathom Events will release a restored version of Night of the Living Dead in theaters. The restored version was recently added to the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
That is a status the film merits, said Jarmusch. He became newly impressed with Living Dead’s genius while making The Dead Don’t Die and was struck by weird undercurrent of sympathy that he felt for the zombies, which sits so uneasily with the existential need of the “living” to destroy them.
“The zombies are also victims, because they didn’t choose to be re-animated. They usually come back because it was some screwed-up things humans did,” said the director, whose own plague in Don’t Die commences when “polar fracking” tilts the earth’s axis, prompting the corpses to claw their way out of their graves, and head down Main Street.
“They can be used really easily for a metaphor for some kind of social or environmental ill, and that’s a big reason why they have become so popular and adaptable,” said Jarmusch, who said he is a particular fan of the Korean zombies-on-a-bullet-train movie Busan.
Romero himself was a big fan of Shaun of the Dead, but he wasn’t enamored of every zombie iteration.
“It’s no secret that he didn’t care for the fast-moving zombie,” Lowenstein said.
The endlessly terrifying, amusing and malleable zombie that Romero created will be around as long as movies are made, Jarmusch predicts.
“I like genre movies because I like to do my own take on things, and I think a lot of artists do. It’s like Sam Peckinpah said [of genre films]: It’s a frame, within which you are completely free.”