ULS hosts virtual lecture on George Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’ film


Image courtesy of Adam Hart

The Pitt community had the opportunity to dive into zombie movie legend George Romero’s work on Tuesday during the lecture series “The Zombie Rebellion: the Evolution of George Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead.’”

By Jessica McKenzie, Senior Staff Writer

Pittsburgh film legend George A. Romero repeatedly proved himself a master of contemporary horror throughout his career. From “Dawn of the Dead” to “Night of the Living Dead” and countless other zombie classics, Romero branded the modern-day undead over the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

The Pitt community had the opportunity to dive into Romero’s work on Tuesday during the University Library System’s recorded Zoom lecture, “The Zombie Rebellion: the Evolution of George Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead.’” 

Adam Hart, a visiting researcher at Pitt, explored the genius behind Romero’s 1985 film using the Hillman Library’s extensive George A. Romero archival collection. Hart’s lecture was followed by a discussion from Tom Fallows, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Global Campus and Romero scholar.

The event is part of the ULS’s horror studies webinar series. According to Hart, the archive includes a multitude of work from the course of Romero’s life, most of which never made it past the draft phase.

“Romero was writing constantly for 45 or 50 years 一 he was just writing constantly for the entire length of his career, coming up with new ideas and developing scripts,” Hart said. “We have hundreds of drafts of scripts that he never published.”

Audience members had the opportunity to see multiple versions of the “Day of the Dead” screenplay that exist in the ULS Horror Studies Collection.

“Day of the Dead” is an apocalyptic thriller about a group of military personnel and scientists in an underground bunker that becomes invested with the undead. The film hit the big screen in 1985, but it was a project Romero was working on as early as 1979, during the golden age of his hit film, “Dawn of the Dead.”

According to Hart, Romero’s versions of “Day of the Dead” fluctuated in plot, depending on the budget cuts he had to make when producing them 一 but the central themes of political rebellion remained the same. He said the film is about the ways the U.S. political system exploits large sectors of the population, with the zombies representing the working class.

“Romero had originally envisioned this kind of giant epic with zombie armies and warring political factions, and a rebel group of religious zealots who are trying to overthrow these exploitative oligarchical sadist rulers as the one sort of surviving remnant of civilization,” Hart said.

During the presentation, Hart argued that while studying Romero’s archive, one can see Romero never intended to scare his audiences with gore. Romero has plenty of work that has nothing to do with zombies in the archive, rather he focused on the horrors of the real world.

“Romero’s movies are less about the eating of flesh, but about starting over. About undoing the entire rotten civilization and getting a clean slate,” Hart said. “‘Day of the Dead’ is an incredibly bleak worldview of disillusionment with both those in power and those who resist, but it’s fantasies of a new path of a new start.”

Ben Rubin, coordinator of the Horror Studies Collection, curated Romero’s archive in Hillman in 2019. Rubin said Pitt is a great home for Romero’s archived work, such as “Day of the Dead,” because ULS encourages people to use their resources for research. He is hosting the webinar series so that more people know the expansiveness of the Horror Studies Collection.

The Horror Studies Collection webinar series will continue into October, with the event “Expanding the Horror Canon: Exploring Queer Horror” scheduled to take place over Zoom on Oct. 5.

“The ULS is not a museum that just is going to have the material 一 it’s here and it’s great for people to come see but we actively want them to make use of this,” Rubin said. “We are able to invite researchers 一 people can come into the building and have access to a tremendous amount of research.”

A longtime ULS employee for the archives and special collections, Rubin is an avid horror fan. When Pitt gained access to Romero’s archive, Rubin said he seemed like the perfect fit for horror studies.

He said after studying Romero’s archive, it is clear that Romero tried his hand at many genres, but films like “Day of the Dead” just gained the most attention from fans.

“Out of the 19 or so films that Romero made, really only six of them are directly zombie related,” Rubin said. “He didn’t necessarily want to be the ‘zombie guy,’ but with ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Day of the Dead,’ fans associated him as the sort of grandfather of zombies.”

Fallows, a devoted fan and scholar of Romero for decades, spent his portion of the lecture discussing the business aspects of “Day of the Dead.” He said the film stood out because in production, it was one of the first times Romero had access to a flexible budget for his film projects, largely due to the iconic success of “Dawn of the Dead.”

“‘Dawn of the Dead,’ was a little bit of a gamble for United Film Distribution Company, but it was a gamble that paid off,” Fallows said. “It was a big surprise success.”

The success ultimately earned Romero the necessary budget for “Day of the Dead” and future films.

“There were almost limitless possibilities in the independent sector of possibilities that Romero never had before,” Fallows said. “And even while making ‘Day of the Dead,’ Romero was thinking about bigger projects.”

According to Rubin, one of the reasons why Romero’s legacy is so strong is not only because he created the modern-day zombie, but also because of his relation to Pittsburgh, as a Carnegie Mellon University alumnus.

“The film industry in Pittsburgh really wouldn’t have existed without Romero,” Rubin said. “He really built that sense of community here in Pittsburgh, but I think Pittsburgh really loves to promote and help their own 一 so even though he wasn’t born in Pittsburgh, he became a Pittsburgher, and was embraced as such.”