When you go to film school—as I’m told I once did, though it’s all a bit of a blur now—you’re eventually introduced to the work of George Romero. And because film schools, like all schools these days, are often intensely politicized, you’re taught that Romero matters because his work is a biting critique of America’s ideological ills, particularly the intersections of late capitalism and rampant imperialism.
These claims, of course, are bunk. Romero, who passed away this week at the age of 77, was one of the previous century’s most significant American artists precisely because he cracked the thin crust of ideology and dived deeper inside, to the dark places where our most pernicious demons lie awake, waiting for us. Another great American artist pulled off the same trick, with very similar results: I.B. Singer, Romero’s kindred spirit.
At first blush, the lord of zombies from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Yiddish master from Leoncin, Poland, seem to have little in common. But feel your way past the thrills that both deliver in abundance and a common sensibility is obvious, one that disdains both collective convictions and individual happiness.
Americans, sadly, are conditioned to see the two as polar opposites. The world, in the sophomoric imagination of this blissfully adolescent nation, oscillates between the mindless thuggery of rigid -isms on the one hand and the sunny optimism of individual happiness on the other. You don’t have to have seen more than a handful of Hollywood movies to know that the hero’s journey is always from the shadow of some terrible predator—the Nazis, the Commies, the aliens—to the sweet liberty of passion, frequently romantic. But Singer and Romero knew better, and understood that both were a poisoned promise: Ideology, with its blinders, reduced all of humanity to a narrow scope of thought and feeling, while humanism, with its obsession with personal happiness above all, exploded all the structures that mankind needed to live productive and meaningful lives. What we need is something different. What we need is a cosmic humility that reminds us that no matter how fiercely we may rebel, our lives will always be a long and joyous struggle to connect with our creator. It’s the sort of worldview that religion offered its adherents but that these days is all too uncommon.
This is the insight Singer and Romero share, and both reached for the same exact metaphor when describing what happens in a world bereft of metaphysical bonds: hunger. For Singer’s fornicating Jews, the hunger is for flesh; for Romero’s undead ghouls, it’s for brains. Both have endless appetites, and both go on devouring whatever happens to be in their way until there’s nothing left on which to feast.
Lesser artists would’ve joined in on the feeding frenzy and resorted to facile satire. Predictably, several critics enthusiastically applauded Romero for doing just that, as if he was nothing more intricate than an American Swift with a taste for blood. But Romero was a moralist, not a satirist, which is why his creations, even the most decent among them, are never allowed respite: The safety they seek isn’t physical; it’s spiritual, and, in a godless world, it’s always out of reach.
The writer Ptolemy Tompkins glimpsed this sentiment when he recalled how moved he was upon seeing Romero’s early masterpiece, a nightmarish tale of a small band of strangers in a creaky house as zombies roam outside. “To look out on the material world,” he wrote, “and see it as a place that holds no anchor for our interior selves, our inner sense of identity or me-ness, is to place oneself in the position of the people in the abandoned farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead.”
We’re all just as doomed, and it’s that sinking feeling—nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—that drums up such terror. The undead are innocuous. What, after all, can zombies do when we’ve already allowed our own insatiable appetites for destruction to drag our civilization from the cusp of transcendence to an abyss of mindless consumption? Romero’s creatures are a lot like the protagonist of Singer’s “The Last Demon,” a poor devil who lingers in a small shtetl long after its inhabitants were wiped out in the Holocaust. “Why demons,” he muses, “when man himself is a demon? Why persuade to evil someone who is already convinced?” With no people left to torment, the demon sips the ink he finds in a Hebrew book, the letters giving him sustenance and a little taste of the humanity lost.
There’s more than a drop of despair in the story, just as there is in the endings of so many of Romero’s films, so often left ambiguous and foreboding. It’s a wonderfully foreign sensibility to most Americans, for whom the conclusive victory of good over evil, in story and in life, is paramount. And yet it’s never without its humor: A demon or a ghoul left behind to tell the story of mankind’s demise is necessarily an amusing narrator, tasked with pointing out to our insufferably conceited species all of our comically obvious flaws. Romero perfected this idea with Bub, the undead hero of his Day of the Dead. A zombie captured and trained by an immoral scientist to suppress his hankering for gray matter, Bub is grief-stricken when someone kills his master. Soon, sadness turns to rage, which then percolates into vengeance. It’s the sort of heartfelt gesture of which no human in Romero’s world is capable, and, viewed in the right mind-set, it plays for laughs: There’s something wonderfully absurd about the sight of a zombie who has forgotten that he’s a man-eating monster pick up a gun and stumble off to fight the bad guys. There’s comedy in our downfall.
Not that we see it: Future generations of students watching Romero’s movies in film schools or reading Singer in college literature classes will likely be asked to view them as nothing more illustrious than astute social commentators who share our obsessions with gender and class and race and sexual desire. There’s no escaping it. As George Romero and I.B. Singer have told us again and again, the most ravenous monsters, it turns out, are us.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.