Revisiting George A. Romero’s Early Dead Films
This is a special guest post from Brandon Engel
He’s a celebrated filmmaker and comic book producer. And although he is credited with the creation of the modern zombie movie, George A. Romero asserts that all he did was, “make them neighbors.” While zombie-lore had usually borrowed thematically (and insensitively) from Voodoo mythology up until the release of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Romero started the trend of depicting zombie outbreaks that resulted from a contagion outbreak or epidemic. He also popularized the trend of using zombie lore to comment upon societal ills. This alone was enough to launch a horror legacy. Zombies were no longer contained within scary castles, or creepy caves, or remote islands. Zombies now could then be any where, and any one. This groundwork set the stage for filmmakers like Danny Boyle who created 28 Days Later, a film where a virus is the catalyst for the zombie outbreak. Zombie flicks like Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies created yet a new genre known as the Zombie Comedy (or zom-com, if you prefer). In the spirit of Halloween, here is a look at the first three installments of what has become known as Romero’s Dead saga.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Romero’s legacy began with this low-budget, black and white horror movie shot with friends, family and other volunteers. The film grossed $12 million domestically and became an instant cult classic. The plot was simple, but the execution was effective: five strangers, including stars Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea, are attacked by living dead monsters at an abandoned farmhouse. The group must struggle, not only against legions of the undead, but also against one another. Though criticized for its graphic violence, including what could have been the world’s first graphic zombie group-munch sequence, the film changed the genre forever.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero’s second Zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead was the second in his Living Dead series, but contained no shared actors or characters from the first film. This film moves from small scale zombie invasion to global, with a virus that turns those it infects into flesh eaters. The main characters, played by David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Gaylen Ross, barricade themselves in an abandoned mall but eventually are overrun by Zombies. One of the most memorable sequences from the film features make-up artist Tom Savini as the leader of a biker-gang staking an in-mall war against the zombies. The film ends with the two survivors flying off in a helicopter, their future unknown. Like its predecessor, the heavy gore content was criticized by reviewers, but box office profits showed the demand for the more graphic horror.
Day of the Dead (1985)
The third film in this series begins after the Zombies have overrun the earth. The remaining uninfected, played by Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, and Richard Liberty,humans are hiding on military bases and small colonies under military government. A small group of scientists try to cure zombies of their infection, their only success is creating a docile zombie who remembers a bit about its previous life, but still needs human flesh to survive. In the end, as with the previous movie, the group is overrun and the remaining survivors escape in a helicopter to find a new place to hide. While the film was a box-office disappointment, it performed quite well on the VHS market, is a popular screening choice on niche satellite networks available through some Direct TV packages, and it’s also a consistently high Halloween streaming pick on many websites like Netflix.
Zombies began in horror movies as a slightly laughable, easily avoided villain alongside more menacing ones. George Romero however, changed these benign corpses into undead menaces. Not only were normal humans not safe anywhere, but anyone could find themselves a member of the Zombie community by way of one bite or a virus. Romero morphed zombies from a comedic horror character into a situation that seems frighteningly plausible. Worst of all, he offers us no conclusion, no solution to a Zombie ridden situation. The plausibility of his plots are perhaps, the most frightening thing of all, much to the delight of horror lovers and the chagrin of everyone else.