Romero's Rules: The Origins of The Slow Zombie

By David Konow

Fast zombies rule the big screen these days, but horror fans agree that the slow zombie can be even more menacing. Here's how George Romero and his collaborators came up with the concept of the undead cannibal in Night of the Living Dead.

Many of us thought that pop culture's latest infatuations with zombies would be over and done by now, but the undead are still going strong with the TV show The Walking Dead and, more recently, the movie World War Z. We seem so overrun with the zombies in media these days--it almost feels like we're on the bottom of that CGI shot in World War Z where tons of zombies pile up on top of each other like sand falling through an hourglass.

Considering the original Dawn of the Dead was an important movie for my generation growing up, I’m not crazy about fast moving zombies, which have been in vogue since Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later as well as Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake. Many speculate that fast zombies were first inspired by video games, and as an article in Wired confirms, they’ve gotten progressively faster in the last ten years.

The data is clear: In Night of the Living Dead, zombies moved 1 SPS, or Speed In Steps Per Second. In the original Dawn of the Dead, they moved 0.4 SPS, while they sped up to 4.4 SPS in the remake of Dawn. In 28 Days Later, they were jammin’ at an estimated 3.9 SPS, while they’ve slowed down to 1.9 SPS on The Walking Dead. It’s also interesting to note that in the World War Z novel they moved 0.7 SPS, while in the movie they beat the zombie land/speed record at 6.7 SPS.

Call me old fashioned, but I’m of the school that zombies shouldn’t have to move fast to be scary, and as director Tom Savini once told me, “You’ll never see a fast moving zombie in a Romero film because as far as he’s concerned, they’re dead and would continue to die. They would continue to rot and get weak, they wouldn’t gain super powers. But to keep it more interesting, that’s what they did in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, they made them faster, stronger, and more of a threat.”

Romero said the same thing to AintItCool in a 2010 interview: he just doesn’t get fast moving zombies, and he still prefers “these plodding, lumbering guys from whom you can easily escape unless you fuck yourself up somehow and are too stupid to do the right thing. That’s just more fun for me.” I also think slower zombies are scarier. For me, a good, slow lurch beats a speeding zombie any day.

We truly have George Romero to thank for the modern zombie, because he first reinvented the monster with Night of the Living Dead. Before NOTLD, the undead standard was set with the 1943 movie I Walked With a Zombie, directed by Jacques Tourner (Cat People). I Walked With a Zombie's eponymous undead usually just creeped along in a daze, and every once in a while they’d strangle somebody. But they were nowhere near as fierce as they became in the Romero films.

As John Russo, who co-wrote NOTLD with Romero, wrote in his book Scare Tactics, “What we did was give the old zombie legend a new twist. We made our zombies into cannibals–eaters of human flesh. And in our movie there were lots of them. They were weak and slow – moving as individuals, but they had strength of numbers on their side. Conceptually what we had done was cross the zombie myth with aspects of the vampire and werewolf myths to come up with something new.”

Not that this was intentional, mind you. When Romero and Russo got together to come up with an idea for a horror movie, they were working on separate typewriters in different rooms. A cemetery seemed a good place to start a horror story, and Romero came up with an opening with people getting attacked in a graveyard, but it wasn’t clear who was attacking them. Russo suggested they could be dead people, and then they went back to an earlier idea of aliens coming to earth looking for human flesh to eat, which is where the cannibal element came from.

Romero’s zombie films also pushed the envelope for gore. The extreme violence in his films was inspired by EC Comics, like Tales From the Crypt. By the late sixties, the ratings board still hadn’t cemented their power, so NOTLD was able to get away with a lot for the time. With Dawn of the Dead, Romero even bypassed the MPAA and the film was released in theaters unrated and uncut.

As with many horror flicks, a low budget dictated the form of the film. Romero and company couldn’t afford to have people coming out of graves, so they decided only the recent dead could come back, or people who had been killed as a result of a zombie attack. Budget was also why NOTLD was shot in black and white. “It would have cost three times more to do it in color,” Russo says. “The make-ups were a lot easier because we were working in black and white.”

Romero shot NOTLD with a single camera, an Arriflex 2C, which he called, “a beautiful little camera you could hold in one hand,” and the film ultimately cost $114,000. Again, like we’ve seen in many horror films, limitations became assets, and it proves you don’t need tons of money, or the latest in CGI technology, to make an effective zombie film. (Although it has to be said that KNB does amazing work with today’s make-up technology for The Walking Dead.)

With the original Dawn of the Dead, the zombies were much more anthropomorphized, and we actually felt sympathy for them. When Romero had an open call for zombies for the Dawn shoot, it was practically a come-as-you-are party, and people showed up in all kinds of garb that helped create their onscreen undead persona. The zombie dressed up as a nun was supposed to be killed in the film, but Romero just couldn’t bring himself to kill a nun. That’s another problem with today’s fast moving undead: they can go by too quick to register (and resonate) with the audience.

John Harrison, who composed the music for Day of the Dead and was Romero’s Assistant Director on Creepshow, told me, “The appeal of the zombie is that they’re essentially us. George Romero’s zombies have been particularly effective because he’s always made sure they’re not simply extras with funny make up. He’s given them characters, and you can identify them in all his movies, the nurse zombie, the Hare Krishna zombie…” (Harrison was also the handyman zombie in Dawn of the Dead who got the screwdriver in his ear.)

In addition, Romero’s movies made it much more fun to for its heroes to slay zombies. It's influenced a culture where zombie film fans train and stock up for a zombie apocalypse for fun, and even participate in zombie-themed running competitions. In the best undead movies, “You don’t feel like you’re a victim protecting yourself from the zombies,” Savini says.” You can actually be a hunter, it’s almost like the rednecks in Night of the Living Dead, ‘Let’s go a-huntin! Let’s go hunt us some zombies! Let’s go out and have some target practice,’ ‘Oh yeah, zombies! Sure! We’ll mow ‘em down.’”

And for the actors playing the zombies in pre-CGI days, creeping around as the undead was pretty fun too. Extras love lurching around and playing dead on camera. As Savini recalled, on the Dawn of the Dead shoot, “We were havin’ a ball, it was Halloween every day.” So if you’re making your own zombie movie, it would be smart to follow the Romero game plan, and just tell your actors to slow down, be themselves, stiffen up, and do their best dead.