George A. Romero's 'Dead' Series: A Retrospective

The impact of George A. Romero's Horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, has not lessened in the 40 years since its initial release. By combining stinging social and political commentary with many of the most horrific images that have ever been captured on film, Romero has struck an everlasting nerve in audiences across the generations. Here, we take a look back at the terrifying series that first brought zombies in to the mainstream back in 1968.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The film that started it all. Before NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, zombies were nothing more than mindless slaves that toiled at their master's command. No, these creatures were much, much different...

Johnny and Barbara head out into the country to lay a memorial on their father's grave. Barbara is fearful of the cemetery, and Johnny taunts: "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" Just then, a disheveled corpse reaches out and attacks Barbara, killing Johnny in the process. Barbara escapes to a remote farmhouse, where she discovers a small group of people holed up for safety. They work to board up the doors as more of the flesh-eating ghouls begin to surround the house, but who will survive the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?

Why has NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD endured all these years? What makes it the Horror classic that it is today? For one, it is still terribly frightening. There is some primal fear about being eaten alive that strikes a chord in each of us. It is also extremely violent and grotesque for the time, depicting the ghouls as they rip the flesh off of the bones of their victims before receiving damaging blows to the head. The danger is all around us. The monsters are ourselves. There is no Transylvanian count nor man-made monstrosity out to get us. It is your neighbor, your son, or your daughter. The ghouls banging at the door are only half of the problem, as fear and paranoia drive men against each other in the struggle for survival.

Although it was never originally intended as such, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a powerful social commentary that addresses issues ranging from the inadequacy of government officials during times of crisis to more apparent themes like the racial strife of the 1950's and 60's. At the time, it was practically unheard of for an African-American to star in the lead role of a motion picture, but here we have a smart, resourceful, and courageous anti-hero of sorts in Ben. Ben is willing to help the others, but only so long as it improves his chances to survive. Beyond that, Ben shouts demands at his white co-stars, slaps a white woman, and shoots a white man -- progressive motions that put NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD years ahead of its time. It also begs the question as to whether or not Cooper would have acted with the same hostility if Ben had been a white man? The horrifying images of bodies being dragged with meat hooks and burned in funeral pyres instantly recall the historical references to Southern racism, a very somber and depressing end to an already nihilistic film.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would go on to become one of the highest-grossing Independent films ever made, and widely-considered to be amongst the finest cinematic achievements in America. It is an undisputed classic in the Horror genre, and acts as both a horrifying monster movie and a terrifying microcosm of the social and political turmoil of the Vietnam War era.

Rating: 10/10.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is credited as being the grandfather of all zombie films, DAWN OF THE DEAD is truly more responsible for initiating the insurgence of zombie gore films that proliferated in the late 70's and early 80's. The enormous scale of the production and incredible special effects make this a genre classic that earns its place besides the original.

The world is in a state of panic now that the dead have begun to walk the earth. Four lucky survivors make their escape to the local mall, where they have all of the supplies they need to start over and defend themselves from the encroaching threat. All goes well, until a group of marauders decide to crash the party, unleashing the ghouls into their shopper's paradise!

What better setting could personify the increased capitalism of 1970's society than the Monroeville Mall? The flesh eating ghouls return to the mall out of "Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Here, Romero takes a playful stab at American consumerism. Just as the ghouls have an insatiable hunger for human flesh, so do we for wanton goods and clothing. Once Peter and the gang rid the mall of its zombie presence, they go back to living lives of excess, proving that it is never too late to be fashionable -- even at the end of the world! Romero carries over many of the same themes from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as well, in terms of ineffectual government response in times of crisis and the overt racism that is portrayed in the police raid of a downtown housing project.

The cast is made up of unforgettable characters played by Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross, who give us a range of emotions from childlike excitement to sheer terror and utter disbelief. Foree and Reiniger become the Heroes of Horror as the two headstrong gunmen, cunning and daring, if not a little impulsive. Although the Walkers in his films may be slow, Romero builds a tremendous amount of tension in their overwhelming numbers and by having his characters' erratic actions lead to stupid mistakes and suspenseful moments of near-death.

With DAWN OF THE DEAD, Tom Savini earns the title of "Special Effects Master" by creating some of the most terrifying, realistic, and memorable moments the genre has ever known. The methods of dispatch he puts on display here are amongst his most creative, if not the most bloody. Examples include the zombie whose head is lopped off at the top by the helicopter blade and a quick screwdriver to the ear for another. The pallid, blue-skinned zombies have a distinctive post-mortem appearance that is quite unlike any of the creatures to follow in the coming years.

This is Romero's true masterpiece, the zombie epic by which all others are measured.

Rating: 10/10.

Day of the Dead (1985)

We have survived through the NIGHT and DAWN, but what new horrors will be unleashed on the DAY OF THE DEAD? A small group of scientists and soldiers have managed to survive the zombie apocalypse by boarding themselves up in a secret underground bunker, far beneath the earth's surface. Here, they search for answers as to what drives the dead to return, and what can be done to stop them. As a power struggle emerges between two rival factions within the group, the real monster is revealed to be man.

Romero's philosophical quandaries are more thought-provoking than ever, digging towards the meaning of life, the concept of civilization, and the true definition of "human" through the guise of a zombie shocker. Although it is often argued that his thematic approach comes before the actual horror, this simply is not the case. There is plenty of gore to go around, and the implication of mankind being reduced to a handful of snarling military men and a few scared scientists is terrifying enough. What is left to live for when all of mankind has been destroyed? What does it mean to be the last woman on Earth? Is man defined by his actions or intellect? These questions (and more) are raised throughout the script. The last is personified through the character of Bub the zombie, and undead specimen that Dr. Logan has conditioned to respond to items from his previous existence. If zombies are given back the ability to think and reason, does that make them human?

Any talk of Romero's supposed aversion towards his female characters can be dismissed with Sarah, played by Lori Cardille. Sarah is an intelligent, strong-willed woman, and an excellent lead. Richard Liberty is splendidly over-the-top as Dr. "Frankenstein" Logan, a man that has become so obsessed with his work that he identifies more with the dead than the living. The military men, led by the disreputable Captain Rhodes, are inhumanly cruel and controlling, quickly discerning themselves as the film's true villains. Joe Pilato creates one of the genre's most hated and despised characters in his intense performance as Rhodes, a character who is fully deserving of the fate that befalls him. Sherman Howard's Bub instantly becomes the most recognizable zombie in all of Horror through another winning performance.

Tom Savini goes well beyond expectation, and even surpasses his work in DAWN OF THE DEAD as the director of special makeup effects. Each zombie is given its own unique appearance, with a wide range of putrid skin tones and debilitating battle wounds. A few bite marks aren't enough in DAY OF THE DEAD; Savini has his zombies tear bodies apart with guts and grue spewing out all over the floor. The first zombie that we see has had its lower jaw ripped out, leaving its disgusting tongue to writhe through its throat. Another scene has Frankenstein remove all but the cerebral cortex of a corpse's brain, which is still attached to its body! DAY OF THE DEAD is the goriest of the three original DEAD movies, and displays some of Savini's finest work.

Contrary to many opposed beliefs, DAY OF THE DEAD overcomes its lessening pace through an intelligent character drama that serves as the forefront to the payoff in the end. Increased action and killing mean nothing when the audience is unable to relate to the characters, but Romero draws an immediate response in each and every death. Although it still falls behind the two preceding films in the series, DAY OF THE DEAD is highly underrated, and an excellent bookend to the Holy Trilogy of zombie movies.

Rating: 9/10.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

An unfortunate distribution error left the cast and crew of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD penniless after the film entered the public domain in 1968, but the 90's brought about a big-budget remake that allowed George Romero and company to recoup some of their lost earnings. After spending much time over the past decade designing the makeup for such creatures, who would be better suited to direct the remake to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD than the great Tom Savini? Savini does an excellent job in his first feature film, keeping mostly in line with the original with the exception of a few character alterations and the grisly special effects. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is best known to Horror fans for introducing Tony Todd into the genre in one of his finest performances as Ben. Todd brings a strength and seriousness to the role that legitimizes the remake. Tom Towles and Patricia Tallman are very good as well, in an all-around great casting job. Forsaking the stylized designs that he used in DAWN and DAY OF THE DEAD, Savini instead goes for grim realism in the look of the undead, complete with pasty skin and cataracts. Some of the events in the film have been rearranged to maximize impact, while also giving something fresh to the fans. This includes a powerful new ending that stacks up against the original. Although it rarely strays from Romero's earlier version, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990 is a worthy remake of the 1968 classic.

Rating: 8/10.

Land of the Dead (2005)

In an ever-vigilante attempt to stay socially-relevant, George Romero creates a class struggle between the rich and the poor which is also personified in the battle between the living and the dead in LAND OF THE DEAD. Both human and zombie are only looking for the basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which have been stripped away from them by a tyrannical overlord that has seized control from his ivory tower, Fiddler's Green (perhaps in reference to SOYLENT GREEN, which seems to have heavily influenced the plot).

Romero makes many poor decisions in LAND OF THE DEAD that fans are sure to disagree with, the first being the further humanization of the zombies. We saw in DAY OF THE DEAD that Romero's zombies had regained their basic motor skills. Here, they begin communicating, using tools, and strategizing, which is a huge stretch for creatures that are supposedly "dead,' and very difficult for audience members to accept. What is worse, Romero, whose films served as the pinnacle of special effects makeup throughout the 70's and 80's, has begun the downward slide into computerized imagery, particularly for the gore sequences. While it is less apparent in LAND OF THE DEAD, his subsequent films would be ruled by these cost-saving (but visually abhorrent) techniques. Only the practical makeup effects handled brilliantly by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger call back to the greatness of the past three films.

LAND OF THE DEAD presents us with no compelling characters to carry the story, just a group of mismatched rogues for whom we care nothing. The closest that we have to a hero is Simon Baker playing Riley Denbo, but all of his whining and sniveling gets him nowhere. Instead, it seems that we are meant to align ourselves with the zombies, who are the only characters that are portrayed in a sympathetic light, but this group only serves to annoy as well. The lead zombie, aptly named "Big Daddy," looks and acts nothing like the zombies we have come to expect in a Horror film, and even without the benefit of conditioning (as with Bub in DAY), he has rebuilt his intellect to near-human levels. This breaks continuity within the series, and would have worked better if overwhelming hordes of mindless zombies were left to overthrow Fiddler's Green.

There seems to be an utter loss of direction in LAND OF THE DEAD that severely detracts from the film. The dead are left forgotten in the background as the living front their feeble uprising. Romero injects enough of his trademarked social commentary to credit the script with some intelligence, though LAND OF THE DEAD falls far behind NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY.

Rating: 7/10.

Diary of the Dead (2007)

If George Romero had made this three or four years sooner, it may have still been relevant, but DIARY OF THE DEAD comes in way too late in the long line of "found footage" films that became popular in the 2000's. DIARY follows a group of college students as they document their first-hand account of the zombie apocalypse using a hand-held video camera. Unfortunately, Romero gets the format entirely wrong in every conceivable way. Instead of producing an ultra-realistic nightmare as we had seen in [REC] from the same year, he gives us a poorly-staged and utterly contrived zombie bore lead by unbelievable characters and lackluster special effects.

In the first of many offenses, Romero allows his characters to edit their footage, which entails adding slow-motion effects, scene transitions, and even narration. The editor has even chosen to emphasize the scares using blaring sound effects! Romero's characters are given painfully unnatural dialog, which makes them come off as being bad actors rather than genuine people. The zombies are killed in a variety of glamorized ways that simply would not happen in a real-world survivor setting. Worst of all, the cartoon gore is comprised almost entirely by computerized effects! How does this, in any way, reflect reality? Why choose this format only to then go back and fictionalize the events? The only answer seems to lie in the editor's commentary, itself. Debra repeatedly stresses how it was impossible to discern fact from fiction with 400,000 spins on the truth available for download online. Perhaps this, too, is some elaborate prank being played by the filmmakers, calling back to the Wellesian War of the Worlds radio drama that Romero references as well? Even in that remote possibility, DIARY OF THE DEAD never displays enough intelligence to credit it as being a satire.

DIARY OF THE DEAD shows an extreme disconnect between concept and execution. Romero may have entered this project with good intentions, but the result is truly horrifying.

Rating: 6/10.

Survival of the Dead (2009)

A band of rogue militants that are attempting to escape a world overrun by the undead find themselves caught in the middle of a feud between two families when they land on a remote island in the latest entry of George Romero's epic zombie series. Here, Romero quarrels with the idea of whether or not the living dead can be domesticated and eventually cured, or whether they must be eradicated to avoid any future outbreaks. This debate fuels the ongoing struggle between the O'Flynns and the Muldoons, a battle which takes center stage over any of the zombie mayhem in the film. While it cannot be argued that Romero has not attempted any new and interesting ideas in LAND, DIARY, and now SURVIVAL, the execution of each of the films always falls short. The sixth installment never manages to generate any forward momentum, and the social commentary that is worked in to the plot is never fully developed or used to effectively impact the viewer. To put it bluntly, the film is completely uninteresting. There is no one left for the audience to relate to or sympathize with between the thieving soldiers and the two warring families. The man once known for discovering Horror's greatest make-up artist has settled for cheaply-made computerized effects once again, effects which are entirely unconvincing and immediately take the viewer out of the action. Still, what the gore lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity, with numerous attack sequences filled with head explosions and multiple maulings by the rampaging ghouls. As hard as Romero fans may try to dispute it, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD continues the downward trend of declining interest and bland filmmaking that has plagued the director's most recent efforts.

Rating: 6/10.

2 comments:

  1. "Day of the Dead" is Romero's supreme masterwork, it is THE greatest horror movie ever made ! ! !. By the way, i actually thought Savini's 1990 remake was better than Romero's original, "Land of the Dead" is a very under-rated movie as well.

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  2. I like both films, but the 90's NIGHT didn't have nearly the impact of the original, and although the make-up effects were technically superior, they were not as raw and terrifying in my opinion. DAY is a fantastic film, and I frequently find myself bouncing between DAWN and DAY as being my favorite in the series. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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