The Films Of George Romero
I know you’re shocked that you’re getting the next installment of the zombie inspiration essays as opposed to some bitchy emo tirade. So am I, I fully expected have something stuck in my craw by this point that I had to get out or I’d start randomly punching people smaller than myself. But no I’m feeling relatively centered and all I can think about right now is the living dead.
With being said I give you my personal rundown of George Romero’s Zombie and Zombieesque library. These aren’t reviews. I’m going to be talking about what I liked and didn’t like about them but as with most things in the zombie genre I feel a little too close to the source material to be objective.
One other thing, while the theme of this series is the Zombie I am treating the term in the broadest possible way. I consider the Infected in the 28 Days series and the monsters in The Omega Man and I Am Legend to be in the same vein as zombies.
So please bear that in mind as you read these and enjoy!
Zombies are fictional creatures, typically depicted as mindless, reanimated corpses with a hunger for human flesh, regularly encountered in horror and fantasy themed works. Some depictions are inspired by Haitian folklore, while others, like the ones in George A. Romero's film Night of the Living Dead, do not have that same direct connection. Zombies have a complex literary heritage, with antecedents ranging from Richard Matheson and H. P. Lovecraft to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein drawing on European folklore of the undead. The popularity of zombies in movies has led to them sometimes having been taken out of their usual element of horror and thrown into other genres, for example the comedy film Shaun of the Dead. The "zombie apocalypse" concept, in which the civilized world is brought low by a global zombie infestation, has become a staple of modern popular art.
George A. Romero didn’t invent zombies.
Yes I know that may be heresy to my fellow zombie fanatics but unfortunately it’s the stone cold truth. There were zombies in many forms before the release of 1968’s immortal and unkillable Night of the Living Dead. In we want to be completely honest Night was inspired by an earlier work of fiction, the novella I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I will be talking about Legend when I get to the “Zombies In Literature” part of this series.
(Not the firm title and I reserve the right to change it and anything else I feel like in my work whenever the fuck I feel like it)
There were also zombie type movies before Night such as White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, and Last Man on Earth (the first film version of I Am Legend but not the last). But none of these were the Romero Type Zombies we’ve all come to know and love. For me and the vast majority of zombie fans George is where our Fandom begins and even if we’ve moved in other directions he is the first prophet of our future flesh eating overlords.
So without further adieu we get on with the movies.
Night of the Living Dead 1968 (NIGHT)
I talked about my experiences with NIGHT in the first part of this series but there are few more things I want to touch on before moving forward into Georges later work. We’ll make this short.
It has often said NIGHT is at its core a cold war movie with Ben representing and Mr. Cooper representing the left and right forces pulling at the fabric of the United States at the time. Of course the dead represent the communist menace but by the time I became a fan none of that was really relevant.
Night also addressed racism in a very real and direct way. Ben was black and the ostensible hero of the piece while Mr. Cooper, the villain, was white. The great tragedy being the inability of the cultural enemies to work together thus ensuring their mutual destruction. That both of them had half of the answers to the problem always leaves me screaming at the screen as the dead are smashing at the boarded window but Ben and Cooper can’t stop fighting each other.
In the post 9-11 world the issues poked t in the movie once more became relevant. The issues of self reliance, self defense, and fear of “Those Other People” have been thrust back into the forefront of the American experience. If anything its more significant in this day and age where the monolithic Soviet Union has been replaced by an entire religion as the thing American’s fear.
NIGHT gives a complex story wrapped in the skin of a rocking horror movie. There is a reason it shattered the paradigm and changed the genre forever. NIGHT did it right and it holds up to this very day.
Dawn of the Dead 1978 (DAWN)
DAWN is my number on single favorite movie of all time. The first time I saw it was at my great uncle Jerry’s house. We were visiting and he slipped a tape in the VCR. Uncle Jerry was the cool uncle. He always had the best electronics and toys. He taught me how to drive a speedboat and it may have been at his house where I first saw a girl naked.
If you’ve seen the original DAWN you know it opens not with the dead or with unsuspecting people but in a Philadelphia news studio in the midst of the fall of civilization. To this day those initial scenes as the structure of American life falls apart still have he ability to rattle me.
Of course the heart of DAWN, other than some truly awesome zombie scenes, is the lampooning of the consumer culture of the late 1970’s. This might actually be more on the nose now than it was when the movie was first made. The survivors clear and fortify a mall in which they spend months surviving.
And surviving is the key word.
Sure Peter, Steven, and Fran are safe inside of the mall (Poor Roger bough the farm during the clearing of the mall) but they aren’t living. You’d think they’d be happy because they’re safe and sound. They have plenty to eat and drink. And for some damn reason power never shuts. Yes there is some vague reference to being on a nuclear grid in the novelization but in the movie everyone just accepts that the power stays on.
While the humans are trapped like rats in a cage the dead have the freedom of the out of doors. Yet the dead only wat what the living have and the living only want what the dead have.
In the end two of the heroes, Fran and Peter because poor stupid Steven couldn’t keep his anger in check, escape the mall in their fuel deficient helicopter Fran had insisted she learn to fly following an invasion by a roaming biker gang. The side effect of the actions of these agents of chaos is to give both the living and the dead exactly what they really wanted all along.
Plus we have a pie fight with the dead… SCORE!!!
DAWN made me want to write zombie fiction. It was DAWN that inspired my first zombie fan fictions in which the heroes won the battle for the mall and weren’t forced to abandon their fortress. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they HAD to get out of the mall or it would be the end of them as surely if the zombies had gotten them in Philadelphia.
Day of the Dead 1985 (DAY)
DAY showed us for the first time in a Romero flick a modern American city overrun by the living dead. That the city is Fort Meijer’s Florida which at the time had one of the largest communities of retired people in the country is so filled with delicious irony that I may explode from eating all of it. Okay, I don’t eat irony but when this was pointed out to me it blew my mind.
George, I love you, you magnificent bastard!
Where NIGHT was about the red menace and DAWN was about consumer society DAY is all about the growing power of the government in the lives of Americans. I rewatched DAY about a month ago and t scared the shit out of me. It wasn’t the zombies this time, although when the land in the town looking for survivors the horde still makes my heart skip a few beats. No it was the structure, it was the way freedoms were curbed and the non-military people were relegated to the near level of serfs.
Almost thirty years later this movie is eerily prescient.
DAY is about a group of scientists and soldiers living in an underground base on an island off of the coast of Florida. The situation on the island is extreme. The scientists are fighting a losing battle trying to breakdown the cause of the outbreak while the most senior and brilliant of them has completely lost his mind and has decided instead of fighting the dead they need to be domesticated. Moral amongst the soldiers is almost nonexistent and upon the death of their commanding officer, his death is never really explained and there is a suggestion he was killed by the man who replaces him.
Captain Barnes if the biggest son of a bitch in any Romero movie, yeah I said it and I’m going to stand by it. The man is a vile human being. He threatens murder and rape. He uses his power to get exactly what he wants from the terrified people in the bunker. To him the barrels of his guns are al of the authority he needs.
The star of the movie is Bub.
Bub is a zombie trained by the insane head scientist. Over the course of the movie the doctor actually manages to domesticate the zombie who develops a nearly dog like level of affection and attachment to the crazy old man/ It’s no wonder I cheer every time Bub hunts down and kills Barnes after Barnes murders the scientist.
In the end, much like in DAWN, a few of the living escape in their helicopter. This time it’s the chopper pilot, the radio operator, and the lone female scientist. Unlike in DAWN however we get a final scene of the chopper and the survivor’s safe on an isolated tropical island.
While not my favorite of the Romero movies DAY may very well be the best made. The story is unique for its time, the production values are high the acting and effects are top notch, and the dark feel and atmosphere of the movie is down right chilling.
Night of the Living Dead 1990 (NIGHT 1990)
I am NOT a fan of remakes, especially when it’s a movie I love. For every Rob Zombie’s Halloween you get a hundred Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. When I heard that they were remaking Night of the Living Dead I was 14 years old and in the first real stages of becoming a solid writer. On one hand I was excited, in the years between Day of the Dead and the Night remake we lived in a universe bereft of serious zombie movies. The best we had were the Return of the Living Dead films. These were ostensibly horror comedies and while they are really good they just never filled the hole in my zombie heart.
But I loved the second Return movie a lot!
(I’ll be touching on the Return movies, specifically the first two, in a future installment)
NIGHT 1990 was produced by George Romero and directed by the king of gore Tom Savini. While the story is essentially the same as the original Savini’s take brings new freshness. Where NIGHT 1968 was a dark terrifying tale of survival horror NIGHT 1990 was fun.
And that is a good thing.
If the remake had been the zombie equivalent of Gus Van Zant’s Psycho I would have demanded my money back even though technically the theater shouldn’t have sold me the ticket in the first place. But NIGHT 1990 is and was a rocking horror action movie.
The cast didn’t hurt either.
Tony Todd is a genre god. Cast as Ben in NIGHT 1990 he is best known for being The Candy Man. Not to mention the dozens, maybe hundreds, of other supporting and starring roles to which he’s brought a strength and gravitas most actors wish they could must once much less over and over again. Pair him Patricia Tallman, who would later go on to star in Babylon 5, as Barbara and the board was set for something special.
In the end NIGHT 1990 was a love letter to the fans, and we were lucky to get it.
Land of the Dead 2005 (LAND)
We had to go 20 years between Romero zombie movies. Just thinking about that is making my head spin. I had to go 20 years without a zombie movie from the master. Oh there were good movies such as Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead 2004, and 28 Days Later and we will talk about them. But in the end what I wanted was to hear Georges voice again.
I was not disappointed.
There are diehard fans of George’s work who hate Land of the Dead. I am not one of them. So many people flooded the internet with hate toward the movie that a lot of people still think the movie is bad even though they’ve never seen it.
LAND is about the world a decade after the rise of the dead and the fall of human civilization. Dennis Hopper plays Kaufman the ruler of a walled city holding out against the hordes of the hungry dead. In this world human like is cheap and the gulf between the common people living on the streets and tenements of the city and the rich upper class who live in the ivory tower of Fiddlers Green is massive.
In the build up for the movie George talked about how it was about the homeless problem in America. The people in the city venture forth every night to scavenge for supplies from the dead town and cities. In these excursions they treat the zombies not as a threat but an irritant and in many cases as sport. But the depredations of the rich versus the poor, especially between Hoppers character and John Leguizamo’s character Chollo, are a serious smack in the face.
LAND get’s panned by the “True” zombie fan because of its high production values and an emphasis on character development as opposed to gore. But you know what the movie holds up. Forget it’s a Romero movie and just look at it as a zombie movie… it’s good, period.
Final word, it’s best if you don’t look at LAND as the fourth in the dead series. It’s actually the final film of a new trilogy even though it’s the first one made. I will explain this after I finish my breakdown of the flicks.
Diary of the Dead 2007 (DIARY)
I need to say this right up on Front Street. I like the “Found Footage” genre of movies. I liked The Blair Witch Project and I loved Cloverfield. So it’s impossible for me to be unbiased when it come to the way this movie was shot. For the record I think it’s the best of the genre.
Okay, moving on.
DIARY is the reboot to the series. It moves us back to the first day of the rising of the dead with a focus on how the government controls the traditional media and outlets such as YouTube serve as the main conduit for information. In the movie a group of college film students are on a shoot in the wilderness when the dead rise and they have to find family, friends, and safety.
Sigh… I like DIARY but in the end I think it’s the weakest of the Romero films. There are too many things going on and too many characters for me to connect with them. I like it, I’ve watched it several times, and I will continue to watch it. It’s not a bad zombie movie it’s just not the best in the genre.
Although Samuel the deaf Amish farmer is hardcore!
Survival of the Dead 2009 (SURVIVAL)
SURVIVAL is the latest, but I hope not the last, Romero zombie film. In this one George goes back to a small story based around a few central characters. In the movie a small island off the east coast of the United States has survived the rise of the dead and is split into two factions. One side wants to eliminate the dead and cleanse the island of their presence. The other side thinks the dead can be rehabilitated and once more made into useful residents.
Of course this does not end well.
In the end the island collapses under the weight of the dead. Everyone who doesn’t escape the spit of land settle back into continuing their feud but now as the very dead they were fighting over.
I like SURVIVAL. It’s a rocking little movie and worthy addition to the cannon of Romero films. It’s not a great movie and the lack of a real budget rears its ugly head in a few scenes can be a little jarring but it’s a fun watch.
And now we need to talk about the idea that there are two distinct Romero trilogies at play here. Obviously NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY are a complete body of work and I don’t feel like they are missing anything. The three movie move from point to point b to point c without missing a step. That final on the tropical island is the perfect ending. It leaves us with a sense of hope for these people.
The newest three movies are an out of sequence trilogy linked by a single character played by Alan Van Sprang. Follow me on this for a second. In DIARY he plays the renegade commander of a National Guard Unit that robs the kids in the RV of all their supplies but is decent enough not to take their vehicle of hurt them. In SURVIVAL he commands a much smaller group of soldiers living on the road and off the remnants of the fallen civilization. He is one of the only people who make it through the holocaust on the Island. Finally in LAND he is one of the commanders in the Army of the Green and dies when the dead overrun the humans beachhead on the other side of the river.
If you question that these movies are not worthy of the name Romero watch them in that order. I promise you it’s a whole new experience. You might not love them but they are a much better watch.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts
I wouldn’t love the zombie genre if not for George Romero and I’m pretty that goes for a lot of you. For that matter I think it’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be a modern zombie genre without him. He is the godfather of all that came after. George took several tangentially related threads and wove them into a rope of mythology an entire movement has been able to hang from.
I don’t want to meet George. Like Stephen King and Kevin Smith I consider him one of my creative inspirations. There was another man I had on that list from the age of 7 or so but I actually met him and it didn’t end well. In the end I think it’s best to keep your heroes at arm’s length.
Next time we’ll talk about the non Romero zombie movies. Until then stock up on canned goods, bottled water, ammunition, and remember if they come scratching at your doors and windows shot for the head!
Unless they are Girls Scouts or Jehovah’s Witnesses… well unless they are Girl Scouts at least.