“They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara!”
Before the Night of the Living Dead, zombies were typically portrayed as corpses revived from the dead, with pale faces and darkened eyes, responding only to voodoo. Romero created what you might call the “modern zombie”. Of Living Dead’s approach to zombies, Romero explained that “All I did was I took them out of ‘exotica’ and I made them the neighbors … I thought there’s nothing scarier than the neighbors!”
Many believe Living Dead is still the best zombie movie ever made – people dressed in the clothes they died in and walking in a trance, with glazed eyes, killing their victims and eating their flesh, became the new standard for zombies. As exciting as fans considered Night of the Living Dead, New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, considered the actors “nonprofessional, the film grainy, and the dialogue and music hollow.”
Despite the lack of respect from critics, it’s clear that without the influence of the original Living Dead, we wouldn’t have the Walking Dead or many other modern masterpieces of zombie cinema. Nowadays, the film is dissected for perceived subtexts about everything from race relations to the plight of women in patriarchal society to…you name it!
Dawn of the Dead is the sequel (although it contains none of the same characters) to Night of The Living Dead that Roger Ebert called “one of the best horror films ever made – and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying.” The movie expands the ideas of its predecessor to show a larger scale societal collapse brought on by a zombie infestation.
What’s more, the film offers even more heavy-handed (although effective) social commentary by placing a virtual army of zombies in a shopping mall. Romero takes liberal jabs at mindless consumerism. As the zombies choke on the intestines of their living victims, society itself chokes on its own excesses.
Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004, and the new version was mostly well received.
Following the events of Dawn of the Dead, zombies have essentially taken over the entire world, and what remains of the military and government of the US is holed up in isolated bunkers. The surviving soldiers and scientists struggle to get along and trust each other as Dr. Logan, the lead scientist, conducts experiments to determine whether the zombies can be “tamed.”
This film, more than any other Romero zombie film, successfully evokes sympathy for the zombies themselves, and demonizes humanity (particularly with the stance it takes on the military industrial complex.
Budget wise, Romero has said that he wanted this to be the Gone with the Wind of horror films, but his $7M budget was cut in half (though this still dwarfs the $650k budget of the original Dead film) and he was forced to adjust his vision accordingly.
Day of the Dead is (in this blogger’s humble opinion), the strongest of Romero’s earlier zombie movies, and it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves. One remake was released a few years ago, with another in production, and it’s getting even more attention now because it’s been made streamable online (visit this website for more details) and also thanks to the recently released special edition Blu-Ray disk.
2005’s Land of the Dead deals with a zombie assault on the remaining humans in the US, who have holed up in Pittsburgh and live under a semi-feudal government. This time zombies have learned how to communicate and plan their attacks, and they launch an assault on the protected area between Pittsburgh’s two rivers and an electric fence where humans have hunkered down. This one was another critical and commercial success for Romero.
This 2007 classic was independently produced, and follows an immigrant man who kills his family before taking his own life. His recently deceased wife and son come back as zombies, and go on a murder spree killing doctors and police officers, while some students learn about the resulting mass rioting and unrest and decide to turn it into a film project. Reviews for this one were mixed, though they often noted that Romero’s ability to couch social commentary in horror films remains unmatched.
This film was the biggest critical and box office disaster Romero has experienced. Survival of the Dead is about two feuding Irish families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. When the O’Flynn’s learn that the Muldoons are keeping their infected family members alive in the hopes of a cure, all hell breaks loose, and the National Guardsmen who arrive (veterans of the previous film) help set up a crazy blood bath from which only a few escape.
While Romero has dabbled in other horror genres, his idea of zombies that are infected with some kind of plague and which must be “killed” again, as well as the apocalyptic settings in which these monsters duel for survival against humanity, have set the standard for most zombie films ever since. In recent times, Romero has effectively passed the torch to filmmakers like Danny Boyle, who in 28 Days Later, made the zombies faster and meaner – another evolution that is catching on in similar shows and films. In The Walking Dead, the zombies have found their own highly successful television series, while in Shaun of the Dead, dark humor and Romero-esque social commentary again holds sway.
Whatever future appearances of the undead that we’ll see on the small and big screen, it will be mostly thanks to George A. Romero’s influential interpretation of the zombie phenomenon back in 1968.