George Romero's War of the Worlds

The alien ship in War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds was one of a handful of science fiction projects that Romero undertook in the post-Dawn era, of which Copperhead received the greatest part of his attention and energy. For Romero, science fiction was not just a lateral move into other brands of creature features, but a leap into higher budgets and narrative ambition. It was in this period that he conceived of Day of the Dead on an epic scale, and in which he worked with Stephen King on plans for a full-scale adaptation of The Stand. Among those projects was his first collaboration with a Latent Image partner in a decade, Rudolph J. Ricci’s Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Moon, a goofy musical parodying alien invasion movies. There was a project written for the stage (though the scope seems better suited for film than the stage) transmuting Tales of Hoffman into a space opera. That project, Hoffman: Through the Mansions of the Moon, would also have been a musical, with Romero’s frequent collaborator John Harrison writing the music.

Romero wrote a full script of War of the Worlds in 1986, as his plans for Pet Sematary were falling apart and he had not yet begun working on Monkey Shines. There was interest from Paramount, which placed the film on their release schedule in 1987. But in 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation was a surprise hit, and the studio decided to capitalize on the trend by cancelling Romero's project and instead producing an ongoing television show that debuted in 1988. Romero got far enough in production for there to be designs for alien machinery and for the setting, and for there to be draft revisions. It would have been Romero's highest profile film to date, undoubtedly his highest budget, and his first studio film. It would also have been his best chance to branch out of the horror genre in the minds of both financiers and audiences. Had he gotten to make it, it seems extremely possible that the second half of his career could have taken an entirely different shape. Those implications aside, it is also one of Romero's most entertaining scripts!

Romero's War of the Worlds: The Night They Came radically re-conceives H.G. Wells' story and its various adaptations (including the infamous radio broadcast created by Orson Welles, one of Romero's artistic heroes), that moves it from the countryside into a crowded metropolis. All the action takes place in and around a single skyscraper into which a malfunctioning alien ship crashes at the start of the script. The cross-section of characters includes reporters, scientists, businesspeople and various office drones, and a janitor, Zack Howard, who is the film's most heroic figure (if not necessarily the main character). Romero planned the adaptation to have two parts, although the archive givess no indication that the second script was ever written. The first part is structured around a core group of characters attempting to survive that single ship, with the second part presumably being a special effects extravaganza in which entire planet fights back against the legions of alien spacecraft on their way to Earth. As for the aliens, they are not the spindly large-headed creatures of previous versions but rather formless blobs that are encountered inside bulky contraptions that the humans at first mistake for robots.

The group, trying to survive and fight back while urgently figuring out the baffling nature of the threat, eventually discovers that the little blobs operating that terrifying machinery are a hive mind, a single entity spread out across geographically disparate pieces that can break apart and join back together again. They can also take control of human bodies, killing the host but possessing brain and body. In the script’s climax, the corpse of parapsychologist Dorothy Lyman – the character who has done the most speaks to the human survivors in broken English:

Now and future time…..I am being this planet….this habitat. You are many. I am all. I am ever. I am undead. […] I am….above you. I future create habitat you. I not harm when you serve I need. I harm when you harm I.

To which Zack Howard responds “KISS MY ASS, MOTHERFUCKERS!” A very human response, and the sort of thing that for Romero usually compounds into greater and greater conflicts. Here, however, that first impulse to violence seems to be more correct than it usually in a Romero script. We can’t know how Romero would have resolved the invasion in  “War of the Worlds – Part II: The Day of Combat.” But the end of this first part, we see something almost wholly unique in Romero’s work: cooperation. Allan, a reporter, wonders if the coming battle would be familiar to humanity: “Salvador. Nam. Huddled in some alleyway….waitin’ for the bomb that has our name on it….askin’ ourselves this very same question. Do we stay or do we run? Is it our war or somebody else’s?” Janet, a fellow reporter and Allan’s sometimes girlfriend, gives the stirring, heroic message in response, declaring that “This is our war. This is everybody’s war.” The script ends on a rousing note with the three survivors resolving to fight the invasion together.

Zack, a black character very much in the mold of Ken Foree's Peter from Dawn, recognizes that they mean to enslave humanity, and that understanding comes out of the pain and trauma of American racism. “Those things talkin’ ‘bout we gonna be their slaves, man. My grandaddy was a slave.” The aliens that claims that they won't hurt humanity unless they resist are actually offering neither peace nor coexistence, but rather dominance and exploitation. But their very mode of existence is itself a threat: the de-individualized hive mind in which every part is interchangeable and expendable, and in which any person can be killed and possessed, is just as dangerous in Romero’s thinking as are their laser cannons. Lack of individuality is equated with slavery, and with death. It is another kind of zombie – referred to repeatedly as “the undead” by the aliens – in which one’s body becomes a vehicle for someone else’s agenda.

That imperial domination becomes even more explicit in the second draft. In the revision, a character named Tommy Peterson is possessed and offers a variation:

in soon time…. more of i will arrive this planet. you…. are many. i am more. i am all. i am forever. […] i future allow nourish you. i future create habitat you. i not harm you when you serve i. […] i not am enemy. you need understand…. one law only. i am…… sovereign…. you exist…. only to serve. now you go. speak this law among others.

This fear of humanity becoming a permanently subservient underclass is, of course, grounded in a history of atrocities committed by humanity, and specifically by America. Zack makes it explicit: we will all become slaves, white America’s crimes being revisited upon itself by another “sovereign” empire.

Only three years earlier, Romero had written versions of Day of the Dead in which zombies had become that permanent underclass. Here the aliens threaten humanity with a future akin to zombiedom. Zombies were figures whose trace remnants of humanity had already become essential to Romero’s horror philosophy. But whereas Day takes place after humanity has failed to cooperate to overcome the zombie hordes, his War of the Worlds actually dares to imagine the possibility of humans working together. to prevent it. As in Night of the Living Dead, characters fight amongst each other over whether the proper course of action within this besieged building is to go up or down: up to the roof and the possibility of helicopter escape, or down to the street where they can leave by foot. There is dissension and disagreement throughout. But, in the end, there’s cooperation and hope among the three survivors. They will fight to save humanity, together.

There are a few immediate caveats tempering Romero's optimism. First, this is only a group of three people, two of whom are in a romantic relationship. Second, these three have no actual power against the incoming horde of alien ships. It is indeed a hopeful note to end on, but one that is largely theoretical rather than practical. Would the next script have begun with the trio attempting to convince the world’s governments to join forces? Would they simply be soldiers in the war? The first script was conceived with at least one eye towards budgetary constraints, limiting the number of sets and characters, focusing special effects in a handful of flashy scenes. But how much grander would the scale have had to grow to accommodate the scope of the actual battles?

For all of its hopefulness, in other words, Romero still cannot imagine a scenario in which humanity and its governments would successfully work together in harmony to defeat a civilizational threat. That would be punted into the hypothetical second script, along with questions of budget and scope.


-Adam Charles Hart