No horror movie scenario is more ubiquitous these days than George Romero’s zombie apocalypse. While most horror fans know that Romero didn’t conceive his living dead as “zombies”—zombies, to him, were the voodoo slaves of Bela Lugosi in poverty row quickies like WHITE ZOMBIE and KING OF THE ZOMBIES—fewer realize that the filmmaker doesn’t believe his famous monsters are even a necessary component of his zombie films. In the 2009 documentary NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE, Romero explained: “The zombies, to me, could be any natural disaster. They could be anything. My stories are about the
people that deal with it, don’t deal with it, deal with it improperly, deal with it stupidly. The stories are about how people screw up.”
With that in mind, here are seven films that capture the horror of Romero’s Living Dead films… without zombies:
APACHE DRUMS (1951)
This forgotten B-western, directed by the legendary Val Lewton (producer of CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), revolves around a motley group of pioneers who become trapped together in Apache country. Holed up in an old presidio and surrounded by Mescaleros, the pioneers nervously wait to see if the cavalry will arrive before the Indians attack and kill them. As tension builds over the course of one very long night, the would-be heroes start fighting over ideological differences—prompting the audience to wonder if the “savages” might be more compassionate with each other than the pioneers. Using the primal beating of a drum to generate suspense, Lewton fuses the themes of John Ford’s immortal western STAGECOACH and the foreboding atmosphere of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.
THE BIRDS (1963)
In the same way that characters in Romero’s Living Dead movies struggle to explain the apocalyptic events, so the characters in THE BIRDS desperately try to rationalize the reality of chaos. In Daphne du Maurier’s source story, written in the early days of the Cold War, some citizens of London try to blame the Russians for poisoning the birds against them. In Hitchcock’s film, at least one resident of Bodega Bay tries to place the blame on Tippi Hedren’s character, suggesting that she is some kind of witch. The implication of both versions is the same: In a crisis, people always look for someone to blame. That’s the dark side of human nature, and perhaps the biggest threat to our survival.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
It’s no secret that John Carpenter’s breakthrough film was inspired by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The filmmaker has said that he set out to fuse Romero’s vision with the siege setups of western films like UNCONQUERED, RIO BRAVO and THE ALAMO. The film basically reverses the sociological implications of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD by uniting a group of unlikely heroes—Carpenter calls them “bad guys in the best b-movie tradition [who still believe in] honor among thieves”—against a common threat. The gang of killers that lurks outside of Precinct 13 is as faceless as Romero’s horde of zombies (or, for that matter, Carpenter’s The Shape), which gives this film a distinct horror movie feel.
THE TRIGGER EFFECT (1996)
Writer/director David Koepp’s second film basically transplants Romero’s supernatural horrors onto a natural world. When an extended blackout in Southern California forces people to cope with a suddenly pre-industrial society, once-friendly neighbors begin throwing out the basic rules of civilization and competing violently for necessities like medicine, transportation, and (above all) a sense of personal security. It’s scenario that’s very familiar to fans of zombie movies: Under pressure, everyday people quickly become monsters.
CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron’s apocalyptic thriller, based on a novel by P.D. James, presents a brilliant variation on Romero’s revolutionary concept of the death of death-as-we-know-it. Instead of eradicating death, CHILDREN OF MEN eradicates the possibility of new birth. Threatened with the apparent inevitability of extinction, the human race becomes noticeably less humane. Like Romero’s work, this film reminds us that life is not just about physical survival, but also about psychic survival. It’s not just who will survive, but what will be left of them.
RIGHT OUTSIDE YOUR DOOR (2006)
This indie horror film from writer/director Chris Gorak survives on one very simple but very effective idea. When terrorists detonate a dirty bomb in downtown Los Angeles, authorities urge residents to lock themselves in their homes, put tape to the windows (to keep the bad air out and the good air in), and not to open their doors for anyone. Horror fans will no doubt expect angry neighbors to come knocking on the hero’s door, and present him with a moral quandary, but the story is even simpler than that…. and more heart-wrenching.
THE MIST (2007)
Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” is another great example of the man-against-nature siege story, and it’s no surprise that director Frank Darabont (creator of THE WALKING DEAD) was able to milk its story for everything it’s worth. Countless reviewers have commented that the giant bugs in THE MIST are far less frightening than the 21st century religious zealots who start scheming about sacrificing an innocent child to an angry god. Once again what the crisis reveals is how people, in moments of terrifying desperation, screw up.