Romero’s Roots

Thursday , 20, July 2017 19 Comments

Earlier this week, on Sunday, July 15, George Romero passed away at the venerable age of 77.

Alternately ridiculed as a low-budget B movie that leans too heavily on sometimes ridiculous stock footage and lauded as a brilliant cult classic – as a number of media outlets have already commented – it’s hard to exaggerate the impact his iconic film Night of the Living Dead has had on genre media. His influence has been broad, from his own sequels to imitators to comics to books to games and back to TV and film again. His vision could be said to have radically transformed the conception of “zombie” in English genre media, despite the fact he never used the word himself and in fact didn’t think of his creations as zombies at all.

But then, you know all this – Romero’s impact is almost certainly a fixture in the lives of many of you reading this blog, whether you know it or not. So I won’t bore you with what the traditional media will already be going on about.

Instead, let’s ask ourselves: where did Romero come from?

The quick and dirty answer is one that probably a lot of people already know: Richard Matheson’s 1953 novel I Am Legend.

Romero acknowledges this inspiration himself in an interview with Cinema Blend in 2008:

“I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? … And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this. That’s really all [the zombies] ever represented to me. In Richard’s book, in the original I Am Legend, that’s what I thought that book was about. There’s this global change and there’s one guy holding out saying, wait a minute, I’m still a human. He’s wrong. Go ahead. Join them. You’ll live forever! In a certain sense he’s wrong but on the other hand, you’ve got to respect him for taking that position.”

In fact, as Romero tells us elsewhere[1] he based his script for the film on a short story of his own in which he explicitly “ripped off” Matheson’s idea: in a fundamental way Night of the Living Dead is a prequel to Matheson’s novel and the 1964 film adaptation The Last Man on Earth.[2]

Curiously, despite getting a strong enough reception after its publication in 1954 to warrant film adaptations in 1964, 1971, like many of the post-apocalyptic social commentary works of the era  I Am Legend seems not to have tickled the SFF community of the day quite as much. If print runs and translations are any measure, I Am Legend seems to have done quite well – having seen 7 English language printings and 5 foreign language editions (French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and German) in the years between its release and the 1964 film adaptation.

Despite the apparent popularity of the book, and the fact that authors such as Brian Lumley and Steven King cite the novel as the inspiration to write horror themselves, I Am Legend got no love from Matheson’s peers in SFF – in fact, Damon Knight quite thoroughly torpedoed the book in his 1956 essay collection In Search of Wonder. Though I suppose scathing negative reviews were something of a habit of Knight’s at the time.

Lest we forget, horror per se had not yet calved off from other SFF genre fiction into a category of its own, and in any case Matheson was certainly no stranger to the SFF community proper: his first story Born of Man and Woman was published in F&SF Magazine (July 1950) and was very well received, gaining recognition in 1970 as one of the best pre-Nebula stories written. So what’s up?

Well, one thing is that despite the bizarre novel Hugo outcome at Worldcon 1955[3], 1954 was actually an amazing year for SFF. Among the good books published that year were such classics as:

Poul Anderson’s two offerings of the year: Brain Wave and The Broken Sword

Heinlein’s Star Beast

Norton’s The Stars Are Ours

Not to mention:  Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror For Observers (which won the 1955 IFA) and Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (which came in second), and several others.

Matheson was in good company, but I think Knight (and others who demurred in the review pages) were perhaps responding to the idea that Romero echoed – that I Am Legend is a story about revolution, seeing it in the context of the other dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels of the decade. As a metaphor, and in an era when Ayn Rand hit top ten lists with her novel Atlas Shrugged I suppose that wasn’t an unreasonable reading. Except for one thing:

Matheson himself said in an interview in 2001[4] that:

“The idea for I Am Legend came to me when I was about 16. I went to see Dracula and the thought occurred that, if one vampire was scary, a world filled with vampires would really be scary. I did not write the book until 1952. We lived in Gardena, California and I set the story there, using our house as Neville’s house. I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly. My son Richard provided a much more likely one – that it was prophetic because of AIDS. I don’t think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires.”

So then, I Am Legend comes directly from Matheson’s re-imagining of the monster conceit of Dracula[5], quite simply as an exaggeration of it (and as a “scientification” of it[6]). This seems simple enough – but should we take another step back?

Despite its place in the canon as the archetype from which all vampire modern literature emerges, from cloaked European aristocrats[7], through hordes of hungry revolutionaries, right on to extra-pallid, sparkly teenagers, Dracula in fact has antecedents of its own.

Naturally, Stoker explicitly cites his years of research into the vampire mythologies of Europe – folklore studies were in vogue at the time, and studies of this sort were a way for a middle-class gentleman to make himself seem cultured. But the fact of the matter is that in 1897 Dracula was not the first vampire “penny dreadful” and it’s likely that Stoker got at least some of his inspiration from Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which was serialized in the short-lived literary magazine The Dark Blue starting with the December 1871 issue. There are some strikingly similar plot elements between the two stories, including the night-time visitations of the monster to the bed-chamber of its young, female victims and the involvement of the gruff, hard-bitten expert on vampirism and how to slay the creatures.

Both these tales – moreso Dracula than Carmilla – also draw inspiration from the much earlier story The Vampyre, written by John Polidori in 1816 and published in 1819. Here we have the tale of a mysterious European nobleman who attracts the interest of our protagonist – who himself serves as the gateway for the nobleman to reintegrate himself with society after a “death” and ultimately marry, and consume the protagonist’s sister.  A quick read, the story is clearly the point at which the outlines of many later vampire stories began to congeal – and in fact, Polidori’s formulation triggered a bit of a fad across Europe, with plays, operas, imitators, and even echoes in other tales we know well today: such as Polidori’s vampire Lord Ruthven earning a mention in The Count of Monte Cristo!

As some may guess by the dates, and by the fact that Polidori was Byron’s friend and personal physician, he was present for the sequence of events that summer in 1816 that led to Shelley penning Frankenstein[8] – and as it happens, Byron was no stranger to the vampire trope:

During the same “competition” that produced both The Vampyre and Frankenstein Byron penned the fragment of a tale (also entitled A Fragment) that is actually so similar to Polidori’s that it’s hardly any surprise that Polidori’s work was often mistakenly attributed to Byron.[9]

But Byron’s own foray into vampire tales was hardly limited to this one fragment, and in fact he had penned a poem with vampire imagery a few years earlier – The Giaour . This is an interesting connection for three reasons:

First, because it’s in this epic poem[10] Byron first uses the idea of the vampire as being cursed to subside on the blood of relatives, which is deployed in twisted form in his later story.[11]

Second, because of the curious link between this poem and the later story – as in both cases the full, official title uses the word “fragment”, making me wonder if there may have been a mental connection between them for Byron.

Finally, Byron’s epic isn’t even the first mention of vampires in English fiction – it’s merely the link between the later work of Edgar Allan Poe (and other gothic children of the 19th Century) and Robert Southey’s far less commercially successful poem Thalaba the Destroyer.[12] And it’s interesting indeed that Percy Shelly apparently considered it his favourite poem, considering the link to that evening of summer entertainment I’ve noted above.

Now, Southey’s mention of the vampire curse in Thalaba seems to be the first mention of the creature in English literature, but the story of vampires in European literature hardly starts here. In fact, Southey’s mention of the creature is probably part and parcel of a general interest in “orientalism” of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in Britain, which at the time was more focused on Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, India and – of course – mysterious Eastern Europe than on what we would normally call the Orient today.

Southey’s vampire reference is a relatively minor element in Thalaba so, despite the obvious influence Southey’s work had on Shelley, Keats, and Byron (not to mention later writers like Poe and his descendants) it’s more likely that the real root of the gush of English vampire stories in the mid-19th Century lies in actual vampires – and the literature that sprang from them.

Actual vampires? Well, not quite:

In the early years of the 18th Century, Eastern Europe suffered an escalating string of vampire panics that peaked with official exhumations and post-mortem  countermeasures. OK, so likely not actual actual vampires. But naturally, the yellow journalism of the day jumped on the opportunity and the news spread rapidly into the West of Europe, where titillated readers began rediscovering the chills of superstition (assuming they had really ever shed them[13]).

In terms of literature, it is perhaps the German canon that serves as the gateway for British poets, via Goethe’s 1797 poem The Bride of Corinth and the earlier poem The Vampire by Heinrich August Ossenfelder.[14]

Obviously, the roots of vampire stories go far deeper even than this – after all, creatures that come in the night and steal the very essence of life as part of some dark curse or pact that gives them eternal life are common to many cultures and the stories go back centuries if not millennia. So why at this time was the vampire theme so popular in Germany and Britain?

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know – after all, fads wax and wane in time with forces we only barely sense, let alone understand.  But here’s an interesting theory for you:

While it’s common to read Dracula – and the vampire fiction craze it sprang from – as metaphorical of Victorian Britain’s fears of sex and eroticism[15] there are interesting senses in which the story reflects political and social realities as well. Some have pointed out the role Count Dracula plays in representing the tension between a modern, industrial Britain and “old Europe” – particularly the stodgy aristocracies of the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.[16] But considering the period during which the European and later British fad grew, from about the 1830s through to the end of the 1890s, I have to wonder if there may be another way to read it:

Consider the insidious threat a vampire poses – perhaps even from one’s own family.

Consider the themes of contagion and madness.

Consider the theme of a revolt against the natural order.

And consider what was happening in France, in Hungary, in the Habsburg Empire, in Wallachia and Serbia through the middle of the century.

Can we read Dracula as a warning story about the dangers of the “contagious” revolutionary spirit?

I don’t know, I’m just spitballing – but the idea has merit, if only to bring the tale full circle and back to the late George Romero and his brilliant reinterpretation of the vampire/ghoul imagery as a metaphor for revolution.

So maybe this is where Romero comes from.

And, somehow, it seems right.


[1] Specifically in the documentary One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead (2008) which is included in the North American DVD release of the film in that year.

[2] Conceivably also The Omega Man, though this adaptation came out in 1971, 3 years after Romero’s film.

[3] Did anyone really like They’d Rather be Right? It doesn’t seem so. But it was published as a serial in Campbell’s magazine – and could it have been yet another Scientology plot? Who knows.

[4] Admittedly long after Knight and others could have been annoyed with him.

[5] In another interview reported here he recounts how he finally read Bram Stoker’s book while in basic training

[6] In fact, the work Matheson put into devising a plausible “sciency” explanation for the vampires in his novel has been said to be a precursor for the pseudo-realism of later novels such as Rosemary’s Baby.

[7] Including of course the infamous Varney the Vampire! While not the finest of 19th Century British literature, this penny dreadful series enjoyed quite a run

[8] An amusing trivium in this tale, in that it brings things full circle: Shelley invoking science as the motive force (literally!) of her monster, Matheson invoking science as an explanation for mass vampirism.

[9] Indeed, one wonders what part the publication of Polidori’s story played in Byron’s decision to dismiss him in the same year.

[10] See the full text here – and for those who prefer it for poetry, audio is available here.

[11] The concept is inverted entirely in the 2012 film Dark Shadows by director Tim Burton.

[12] This poem is a beast, but filled with amazing fantasy themes beyond just the vampire reference (which is actually a fairly minor part of the thing). It’s a monster to work through, but worth it just for a look into the 18th Century roots of modern fantastic fiction. It’s available in various formats on Project Gutenberg – and I really recommend an electronic text version for this one, because the footnotes are valuable.

[13] Have we?

[14] For those who are interested, Ossenfelder’s poem is quite short and a translation is available here. Goethe’s work is somewhat longer, but still easily digestible – see his text in translation here.

[15] Both in social terms and in terms of the increasing awareness of sexually transmitted disease epidemics.

[16] Insofar as the latter can even be considered European, I suppose.

19 Comments
  • Xavier Basora says:

    Keyvan:

    Very interesting and a gives us a lot of food for thought. Here’s one other thread that seems to be overlooked: His Cuban roots.
    What influences if any did the AfroCuban, Gallego, Catalan,Spanish and English substrates have on Romero’s development of the zombie/living dead? Also was there a strain of voodooism within Cuba that was similar or different to the Haitian one?

    Anyways, this is a really neat article as you’re delving into several canons from different parts of the world and that’s so fascinating

    xavier

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Interesting question about Romero’s background – I’m sure there’s something there that could be built on, but I suspect we’d be putting words in his mouth: Romero has said in several interviews on Night of the Living Dead that he never thought of the creatures in the movie as zombies, that to him they were like the vampires of I Am Legend and distinct from the tradition of zombie movies that was already in place by the late 60s (the canon to that point was focused on the voodoo version of zombies, and revolved around the horror of being enslaved beyond the grave rather than vengeful uprising – though one exception that comes to mind is the British film The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) which combines depopulation of the earth with an alien invasion and (to some extent) a zombie threat)

  • Vlad James says:

    Excellent research and work! Despite a large interest in vampires, and having read several pre-Dracula stories featuring them, I was only aware of a portion of the history.

    With regards to Romero, I’ve always felt that “Night of the Living Dead” was criminally overrated and frankly, an unexceptional bore. However, the first two sequels, “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead”, were very good.

    • Andy says:

      I like all three movies, although I do think the latter two are superior to the first one.

      What I’ve always found amusing about Romero’s movies is that the asshole character in each movie is usually the one who turns out have the best ideas for survival.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      I confess, I’m not a big fan of Night of the Living Dead either, at least in terms of execution. But there are some really brilliant innovative ideas in the film – and I suppose that given he made it with only $100k budget it’s actually not bad. Personally, I’d like to see the story he wrote that the film is based on.

  • deuce says:

    Polidori is a fairly major character in Tim Powers’ THE ANUBIS GATES and THE STRESS OF HER REGARD.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Keyvn

    Your research on vampire has piqued several questions
    1) the etomology of the word
    2) Do Asian and African cultures also have vampire type creatures?
    3) the drinking of blood is the archtype what does fear or taboo does it reprsent?

    xavier

    • Andy says:

      Don’t know about Africa but I believe China and maybe Japan have their own vampires. The “hopping vampire” is fairly common in Chinese fantasy and horror, such as movies like Mr. Vampire. (They hop because their bodies are too stiff from rigor mortis to properly walk.)

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      You like hard questions don’t you!
      1. The word vampire apparently comes to English from Serbian via French and German literature of the 18th Century – in fact, Oxford claims you can find the first English use of the word in The Harleian Miscellany, which was published in 1744. The collection of papers from the Earl of Oxford’s library is hard to navigate, since it’s just the pamphlets and random papers collated, but you can find the reference on p348 of volume 4: https://archive.org/details/harleianmiscella04oldyiala . The theory goes that the Serbian word (and also another uopir if I recall correctly) derive from a group of related words that evolved from terms for witchcraft.

      2. Absolutely. The root concept of vampirism – that there is some supernatural creature which subsides by consuming the life essence of mortals – seems to be pretty much universal and appears all through the world. Some interesting local variants are things like the Soucouyant of the Caribbean, and the Aztec Chihuateteo. There are of course curious vampiric creatures in various African mythologies as well, like the Asanbosan of Ghana. Others have already mentioned the jiang shi, which some people think is a bit weak sauce compared to European tales, but what about the Penanggalan of Malaysia who uses black magic to retain her beauty…and as a price must rip her head from her body and fly about at night seeking victims? An interesting point is the Japanese Nukekubi, very similar in form to Penanggalan but with a very different origin tale usually revolving around shame or guilt. Even Australia has its own vampire tales, like the Yaramayhawho, which (coincidentally?) resembles the “drop bear” joke Australians like to play on tourists, and the Talamaur of the Banks Islands and Vanuatu. Probably the only continent without vampires of its own is Antarctica – but no doubt someone somewhere has written that story already.

      3. Whole books have been written about this, far more than the scope of a SFF blog can possibly cover! You may want to look at “A Brief History of Vampires” by M. J. Trow, or perhaps “Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film” by Erik Butler. They both discuss some of the explanations for the blood (or other essence) drinking trope, ranging from fear of contamination/contagion through punishment for crimes and the price of dark powers, through to an interesting theory that the Victorian vampire craze was about fear of identity theft.

      Whew, that’s far more vampirism than I ever thought to explore in July! But then obon is around the corner here in Japan, and that’s the season for ghost stories.

      One last note though: I’ve always found it interesting that most vampire traditions seem to include some specific plant that can protect against the danger of the creatures: thistles in Malaysia, aloe in South America, the smoke from certain leaves in Australia, and of course garlic and onions in European traditions. It would be interesting to see the intersection between these traditions and also between the tradition and local herbalism.

  • john silence says:

    This research of yours reminds me that I really need to go back to Montague Summers at some point. I’ve tried reading his work years ago, but his prose and his love for having entire pages of text in latin, german, spanish etc… without any translation were a wee bit too rich for me back then.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Some of what Summers wrote is truly stunning. Both in terms of content and in terms of wondering if the people he’s citing or translating really believed it…not to mention whether Summers himself believed it! Curiously, I had a rather hair-raising experience waaaaay back when I was in university.

      True story:
      In the library late one night, procrastinating over some paper I was supposed to be writing, I instead started more or less doing what we do these days on wikipedia: following random references deeper and deeper into the stacks until I was bathed in that glorious musty scent of books born in ages past. I don’t know now how I ended up where I was, but I *do* remember being startled to discover the Malleus Maleficarum (Summers’ translation!) mis-shelved. The book was in bad condition, but intact, and man – those pages were *fascinating* to a budding anthro student back then. I spent the next couple of hours looking through it, and ended up in a carrel way up in one of the lofts with a stack of Latin and Greek dictionaries and a couple of the books cited in the footnotes trying to figure out what the heck something meant.

      I looked up with a start as the lights in the library started going out in banks: THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! – you know what those institutional overheads are like. It was after midnight and I was in danger of being locked in when they closed, as they’d missed me in the labyrinthine stacks when they did the final sweep. I swept up as much of my stuff as I could, left the dictionaries, but *really* wanted to keep digging in the Malleus, so I decided to check it out.

      Sadly, schoolwork called and I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked in the next few days, and in the rush to get it all done I returned the Malleus along with my real references. A few weeks later, when everything had settled and I had more time, I determined to go back and see more of that glorious tome.

      Only to find it was no longer in the library.

      Not checked out.
      Not sent to archives.
      Just not there.

      In fact, the library had no record of it *ever* being there.

      • Andy says:

        I read somewhere that Summers was good friends with Aleister Crowley, which sort of indicates that his “Bring back the witch burnings!” posture was a bit of gag to get a rise out of people.

        • keith says:

          He supposedly took part in at least one genuine black mass! That man was a walking contradiction.
          He really is one of those people, it is impossible to know when to take him seriously.

  • john silence says:

    Speaking of early vampire yarns: Tieck’s “Wake Not The Dead” needs more love.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Oh yes! Very under-loved! Yet another tale about the corruption that comes of defying the laws of nature, and punishment in the form of attack on the family.

      For those who are interested, “Wake Not The Dead” by Johann Ludwig Tieck appears in English in “Popular Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations”, a collection of short fiction and folklore published in 1823. Tieck’s story is in vol 3 available here: https://archive.org/details/populartalesroma03musaiala Of course, the whole thing is a treasure trove of stories for anyone who loves the gothic greats from later in the century.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I don’t know exactly how you did it, but you guys have just managed to thoroughly creep me out.

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