By Brandon Engel
While he can’t take full credit for creating zombie lore, George A. Romero he has been more influential than any other filmmaker in fleshing out the modern zombie mythos as we know it (i.e., that zombies: subsist entirely on human flesh, move at a slow pace, can’t form coherent sentences, and can only be killed with a bullet to the head).
Although he’s had a hard time finding financial backing in recent years, Romero’s influence is still resonant, and for this he deserves special recognition. Here is a look at his zombie film series, and how it has helped to shape the subgenre as we know it today.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Although it was shot in black and white on a meager budget, the film is still regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time. While the zombie-apocalypse provides the backdrop, the focus of the film is really on human relationships. The story revolves around a group of strangers who stake out in an abandoned house in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. The film examines how issues like the scarcity of resources and conflicting self-interests amplify tensions in the face of catastrophes. If the group wishes to survive the zombies, they must first survive each other.
The film also reflects the increasingly sensational mass media coverage of the Vietnam war, both in it’s gruesome on-screen depictions of violence, and also in the way that it integrates mass media (televised news specifically) as a crucial narrative device. The film is also notable for featuring an African-American male (Duane Jones) in the lead role.
Another thing that should be noted – the film’s dismal ending, which appeared all the more dismal to viewers because the release of the film coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., although Romero himself has always maintained that it was never his intention to push the race issue in his film. There are several other issues that scholars debate about the gender politics of the film, with one of the female characters inside of the house Barbra (Judith O’Dea) catatonic and utterly helpless for most of the film. Is it misogynistic, in and of itself, or was it a comment about the degree to which women are conditioned to feel helpless in a patriarchal society.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Arguably Romero’s strongest zombie film, this film addresses wanton consumerism and materialism in the United States in the seventies by placing the majority of the film in a shopping mall overrun with aimlessly puttering zombies. The film also marked an important early collaboration between Romero and special effects guru Tom Savini, who even plays a memorable cameo in the film as the leader of a biker gang that engages in battle with the zombies inside the mall.
Once again, we have a black male (Ken Foree) in the lead role as a military special tactics expert. In the face of the global economic collapse in recent years, the social commentary about mindless consumption feel largely dated (what the general public wouldn’t give to be able to afford to consume mindlessly these days), the special effects and pacing are still great, even though the runtime itself is slightly protracted.
It’s also worth noting that Italian horror guru Dario Argento contributed to the film as a “script consultant,” and some releases of the film feature a score by Italian rock band Goblin, who contributed the scores to many of Argento’s most memorable films (including Suspiria). The film is also commendable because it attacks the race issues in more overt ways, with footage of the white, opulent zombies in the shopping mall contrasted sharply from the impoverish black zombies living in the projects.
Day of the Dead (1985)
What happens when you pit zombies against the United States military, and which group actually provides a greater threat to society? That’s the question that Romero posits with this film. Although Day of the Dead was a box-office disappointment compared with Romero’s earlier efforts, it still a favorite among Romero cultists. Day is still shown regularly through Robert Rodriguez’s new El Rey TV network, and the film was even remade in 2008.
In this installment, we are not in a shopping mall or a rickety old house, but in an underground military complex, where some zombies have been kept to be experimented upon.
This is perhaps the Romero zombie film that is most successful at eliciting sympathy for the zombies themselves! The most sympathetic figure in the film is Bub (played by Howard Sherman), a highly sensitive zombie who is forced to endure the torments of Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato).
Land of the Dead (2005)
With around two decades between this film and it’s predecessor, some fans were shocked to hear that there would be another installment of Romero’s famed series. This one takes on the George W. Bush presidency, and features Dennis Hopper as the evil politician who uses the zombie crisis towards his own end politically.
In the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, several military outposts have been established throughout the US. In Pittsburgh (Romero’s hometown) the citizens live under a sort of feudal government, overseen by Hopper’s character. The problem, though, is that the zombies are becoming more intelligent. So intelligent, that they’re capable of social organization. The zombie leader is known as “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark).
Once again, we have the issue of race and social standing introduced, as the zombies (under the direction of a hulking black zombie) launch an uprising! So it becomes largely about notions of upward mobility, and the demoralizing effects of being relegated to a lower social caste. The film is commonly looked at as a comment on xenophobia. The film is also notable for featuring Asia Argento (the daughter of the aforementioned Dario). As always, the zombies look positively pleasant when juxtaposed against their vile, opportunistic human counterparts.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Part of what distinguishes this film is that it’s a sort of mock documentary (a la The Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust) which revolves around an independent film production unit which captures “authentic” footage of the zombie apocalypse. It eschews conventional Romero production tactics in favor of shaky, hand-held camera work, and it also, surprisingly, makes extensive use of CGI. It’s a noble attempt from George Romero to contemporize the aesthetics of his zombie film.
The film is also notable for its critique of the inefficiency of major media outlets during times of crisis, and it comments upon how mass media production itself has become democratized in the digital. Just as the central characters of Night of the Living Dead relied upon TV broadcasts, the characters in Diary obtain much of their information from the internet. They are of course, independent media producers themselves, collecting data and footage independently. When measured against other films that employ the “shaky consumer grade camera” aesthetic, Diary easily surpasses Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity. By no means, however, was it Romero’s strongest outing as director.
Survival of the Dead (2009)
It’s an ironic title for several reasons. “Dud of the Dead” or the less imaginative “Death of the Dead” might have been more apt. It failed to chart at the box-office, and the critics tore it to shreds in much the same way that band of zombies tore Joseph Pilato to shreds 25 years earlier in Day of the Dead.
This film takes place on an Island off the coast of North America that’s overrun with zombies, and the consensus is that it just didn’t deliver anything new.
This one focuses on two Irish families, who are feuding. One of the families formed a militia to defeat the zombies, and the other family has endeavored to create a sort of “zombie colony,” where their freshly undead loved ones can be kept in quarantine until a cure is found. This film, more than any other Romero zombie film, offers it’s own meditation on the inherent stupidity of war.
Although the failure of Survival seriously impaired Romero’s chances of getting investors for another zombie film, it could be just as well. That market has become oversaturated with garbage in recent years anyway. And besides, with the strength of the first three dead films alone, Romero secured himself a place in the annals of horror that no one else could ever occupy, no whatever how many turkeys he makes now.
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