by Jan Bottiglieri
I think one of the coolest things about #ScaryMovieMonth is that it offers something for everyone because the horror genre itself offers something for everyone. Horror’s very nature eschews limits and conventionality, which allows filmmakers to endlessly riff on its core tropes while addressing the universal terror we all share as beings born naked and defenseless in a hostile, chaotic world (this is something that Hallmark Christmas films, for instance, BARELY address.) I also think most people have at least one horror trope that is their “favorite”—that speaks to them in what feels like a special way.
Zombies are my jam. End times, transmutation, gore, loved ones trying to murder us: zombie flicks have everything! There’s also something particularly terrifying to me about a zombie’s shambling, passionless inexorability. They aren’t misunderstood, they aren’t evil, they can’t be won over, they don’t even hate you. They simply won’t stop until they’re slurping human brains like ramen noodles, and they will never NOT want to do that. Once they get you, you’ll want to do that too, and on and on like an infinity mirror of death.
Reiniger leans into Roger’s contrasts in every scene. Watch him step in front of fellow survivor Stephen (David Emge) to make the killshot Stephen can’t make: confident but not imperious, he’ll save your life without being a jerk about it, exactly the kind of guy you want by your side in a zombie apocalypse.
Peter volunteers to sit vigil over Roger’s final moments, with his back (literally and figuratively) against the wall as Roger gazes up at him with eyes somehow both haunted and soft. “I’m gonna try not to come BACK. I’m gonna tryyyy….not to,” Roger slurs. In what is for me one of the most genuine and heartbreaking gestures in cinema, Reiniger lets his hand rest lightly against Foree’s chest, above his heart. It’s a motion that feels intimate and natural but conveys volumes about who Roger is as a character, especially in this moment. It’s heartbreaking because we know, and we know Roger knows, what comes next… but there’s nothing more relatable than the way Roger hangs on to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time we’re wrong.
We’re not. When Roger does transform, Reiniger rises stiffly, dead eyes darting, a complete physical contrast to the scene before—clearly, this is no longer Roger. Romero cuts away before Peter ends it, but don’t mistake that for mercy. We and the characters in the film have come to care deeply about Roger, so Romero focuses on the situation’s real horror: Fran and Stephen’s shared grief when they hear the gunshot. In a film full of explicit, violent death, the most affecting death occurs off-screen.
I think that’s the fear the zombie trope addresses: that the real horror of living is its unavoidable grief and loss. Don’t fool yourself into thinking of happiness as any kind of permanent state: whatever you love, you stand to lose. Whatever hope you allow yourself makes you vulnerable. Being alive means accepting death as around us, in us, all the time. Zombies embody our fear that we won’t be able to let go of our losses, of the countless deaths of living; that the grief of mortality, our own and others’, might literally eat us up until we’re broken, hungry shamblers too.
It’s fitting that, in DotD’s faux family group, Roger is the child. Parenting, of course, means constant loss. We do everything we can to protect our children, only to watch them, inevitably, be stolen by time—if we’re lucky. Isn’t that strange? We count ourselves lucky to watch them grow, stage by stage, out of our arms and away from us, and when they’re not home anymore, we fold their tiny blankets into boxes and wonder what happened.
Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead shows us what to do in the face of this inexorability: band together. Find our tribe. Never give up. Practice until we can make that kill shot against darkness, and use our skills at living to protect each other. Learn to fly a helicopter. Learn to keep our fear and grief at bay so it can’t stop us from loving whatever’s left.