Why George A. Romero's Dead Movies are the Best Horror Series
There was a time before Americans were obsessed with zombies, if you can believe it–the first one we ever saw on screen was a lumbering oaf of an undead man, not unlike Frankenstein's Monster (preceded by the iconic teasing line of "They're coming to get you, Barbara"). Watching The Night Of The Living Dead today, he looks almost laughable. Slow moving, with poor looking makeup (by today's standards), his main threat seems to be that he could push you a lot. As has come to be the standard with zombies, one of them is never too threatening. But when a lot of them are together, they can tear you limb from limb…if the survivors don’t tear each other apart first. These are the essential foundations of George A. Romero's The Dead series.
Made between 1968 and 2009, there are six movies in total: Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Day of The Dead (1985), Land Of The Dead (2005), Diary Of The Dead (2007) and Survival Of The Dead (2009). In a sense they make up two distinct trilogies, none of which carry over any storylines or characters from a previous entry. Romero's second trilogy came together after a sudden resurgence of zombie movies in the early 2000's, with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's first film, a Dawn Of The Dead remake (written by James Gunn!). Suddenly a new generation–my generation–was absolutely hooked on zombies, and with good reason. We were all fucking freaked out by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Some of us (and if not us, some of our friends) went off to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With our sense of security shattered, a zombie plague seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the sense of danger we were all feeling. Society felt on the precipice of collapse, the same as it had when Night Of The Living Dead premiered in 1968.
1968 was a massive year in the history of America. War in Vietnam raged on with thousands of American casualties, with riots on the streets of over 100 American cities after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and violent protests erupting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The violence and unrest at home was a reflection of the senseless destruction and death in Vietnam, a war that would continue on for several more years. As its duty should be, the cinema sought to reflect what Americans were watching on their television night after night. At the Oscars that year, five movies were highlighted that depicted the big changes happening in America.
In Bonnie & Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were slaughtered in a hail of machine gun fire the likes of which hadn't really been portrayed onscreen before, but which was certainly a new reality of modern warfare in Vietnam. Sydney Poitier did double duty in starting conversations about race with Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and In The Heat Of The Night. Rosemary's Baby and Planet Of The Apes found terrifying sci-fi/horror metaphors to reflect the growing national sense of unease. Yet no movie really dealt head on with the turmoil of the times; it was all done through the back door. No movie, except Night Of The Living Dead. Sure, it used a horror premise–zombies in the Pennsylvanian countryside–but no other movie that came out that year looked more accurately like America in 1968. Interspersed with television breaking news updates on the zombie plague, a good chunk of the film is watching what the characters are watching as if we are stuck in that farmhouse with them. And in the end, it's not zombies that take down the main protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), but self-appointed militia who are out to shoot as many zombies as they can find. It's unclear whether they mistake Ben for a zombie, or if they are just trigger happy and taking the excuse to shoot Duane–a black man–and get away with it scot-free. Remember how this movie came out the same year that MLK was killed?
After a ten year break, Romero returned with Dawn Of The Dead. A lot changed between 1968 and 1978. Vietnam was over, but that didn't mean social commentary was no longer relevant. Set primarily in a shopping mall in western Pennsylvania, Dawn increased the size and scope of the picture. This time we see zombies in color, with Italian psych-rock horror maestros Goblin writing the music, and prosthetic makeup artist/legend Tom Savini taking care of the gore. The thematic undertones of the film pick apart American consumerism culture, which seemed to have gone out of control with the popularity of the shopping mall; as if retail therapy was a way that Americans could manage to forget about Vietnam. The luxury and supposed safety of the mall stands in stark contrast to where the film begins: in a housing project in Philadelphia, where the epidemic is spreading, and where the poor and black are left for dead in a basement to eat each other.
You might be sensing that one of the greatest aspects of the series is its ability to reinvent itself. Zombies are like tofu or chicken–they can take the taste of whatever you happen to cook them with. Zombies are agents of chaos, nothing more and nothing less. They are emotionless, and like any epidemic have no preference for what kind of lives they take. They simply get in where they can- usually through the weakest structural points of society. In doing so, they are a perfect vehicle for social commentary. If you want to make a movie about Vietnam, just add zombies and it will work. If you want to make one about consumerism, just add zombies.
For 1985's Day Of The Dead, Romero grapples with the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation, which had ramped up considerably at the time with Ronald Reagan's threatening anti-Soviet rhetoric. The majority of the thing takes place in an underground bunker. In watching the film you get a sense of what it might be like if the earth's surface ever became uninhabitable due to a zombie plague...or nuclear winter. Day Of The Dead also introduced into the series the concept of the zombie that could learn. Bub is the name of the friendly, gentle zombie who the scientists of the bunker start to think might retain some of his human intelligence, or at the very least, have evolved into some sort of new consciousness entirely. In the war between the scientists, who plead for patience, evidence, and compassion, and the soldiers, who just want to rule with guns and ammo, Bub rises to the occasion and leads a zombie uprising. Day Of The Dead is the first of the series to feature the type of nauseating gore that zombie movies have come to be known for now, but had already been going strong from Italian masters like Lucio Fulci or Rugero Deodato. In a way, it's the cleanest, most straightforward of the original trilogy.
After an almost twenty year break from anything having to do with zombies, Romero rode that wave of zombie rejuvenation to the underrated Land Of The Dead. It's the first of the series to feature actors that were known for anything in particular. Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, and Dennis Hopper grace the screen with their big moods and big presence. It's a spiritual continuation of Day Of The Dead- with another plot about zombie intelligence and another uprising, this time putting the phrase "eat the rich" into a stark new light. This time, the zombies even realize they can walk underwater, and they can fire guns too.
Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead finish out this second trilogy. While they are all but already forgotten in conversations about zombie films there is plenty to enjoy about both of them. Diary sees Romero trying to take advantage of the found footage format with a group of film students trying to make a horror film in the woods stumbling upon a real live zombie outbreak. Themes of memory, watching, images and our obsession with gazing deep into our stories for signs of life emerge. For the final film of the series–and easily the worst–Romero makes his focus smaller than ever, setting most of the action on an island off the coast of Delaware where two Irish families are still engaged in an age old feud. Not only is this just about the most ridiculous concept this Mid-Atlantic native has ever heard of before (are there islands off the coast of Delaware? If so, do fresh-off-the-boat Irish families live there?) it's a strange focus for what would ultimately be his final film before his death in 2017. It feels like the first of these films that isn't trying to grapple with some new change in American society. It's simply a family feud story. Yet perhaps that is what makes it an appropriate final film. In the end of our lives, it all comes down to our families, doesn't it? Who is in our lives, who we love, who we hate, who we forgive and who we can't stand. Just add zombies.
The Dead series simply has it all. Humor, gore, grace, commentary, thought provoking dialogue, frights, chills, and more. For forty years, it confronted America with the truth about itself. After his death last summer, Jordan Peele posted a Twitter tribute, a still frame of Ben from Night Of The Living Dead, saying simply "Romero started it." Of course he could simply be referring to the way in which that movie used a genre conceit to tell a story about race in America, much the same way that Peele's massively successful Get Out did. While that is absolutely true, Romero started something much more broad: a declaration that low budget genre films could be about something much greater than cheap thrills. The following decade would see others follow in his path making disturbing films that told a truth about America's dark side that not even the New Hollywood seemed willing to do, from Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left to John Flynn's Rolling Thunder. Peele is right. Romero was the first. He also happened to be the best. The Dead series is his iconic, crowning achievement.