Romero’s Dead Trilogy

This week sees the American release of Shaun of the Dead, possibly the finest zombie movie in the past decade, and in large part a loving tribute to George Romero’s trilogy about the living dead. In light of this, and the news that the fourth film is in motion, it seems like a good time for us (finally!) to take a look at the originals. Romero was inspired in part by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, which had already become a 1964 movie, The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price (and would be made again as The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston). In the short story (made into a movie more than once, it was vampires rather than zombies which took over the planet, but the idea of a new society replacing the old through infection remains intact.

In terms of years between installments, this is definitely one of the more leisurely series of films ever made. 17 years passed between Night and Day, as Romero tried (usually finding little commercial success) to break out into other fields as a director, with the likes of Knightriders and There’s Always Vanilla – though to his credit, he has never sold out in the manner of Wes Craven. His non-zombie horror movies, such as Martin and Creepshow have been more kindly received, but the lure of the walking dead keeps pulling him back.

It’s refreshing to see that Romero has lost none of the downbeat approach; indeed, if anything, the films grow less optimistic in turn. Sure, Night ends with – and I trust I’m not spoiling it for anyone – the hero being shot and callously discarded, dying not at the hands of the zombies, but his fellow men. However, there’s still a sense that we are somewhat in control. In contrast, Day, despite its final uptick, is a request to the last of humanity: please turn off all lights before leaving the planet.

Since Day in 1985, we have seen remakes of the first two, and an entire trilogy in the Return of the Living Dead spinoff series. Meanwhile the closest Romero has got to zombies is a rejected script for Resident Evil [see our review on] and a Japanese ad for the game. However, after many false starts, it looks like Land of the Dead is underway at long last, and Dennis Hopper is signed to star. Has George still got what it takes? Only time will tell, but it’s already the most-anticipated horror movie of 2005, quite easily. It’s startling to think that by then, it’ll be 37 years since audiences first heard the immortal line -“They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” – and were ushered into a new generation of horror.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Rating: B-

Dir: George Romero
Star: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne

The story of its creation is well known; a group of industrial film-makers out of Pittsburgh, with little feature experience, took $114,000 and created a movie that made more than 100 times its cost at the box-office, and is arguably the single most influential genre piece in the past fifty years. It’s largely reponsible for separating the zombie from its voodoo roots, while its pessimistic and graphic approach has now become an indispensable part of the horror canon.

The script, by Romero and John Russo, doesn’t hang around. Barely are we introduced to Barbara (O’Dea) before she’s chased by a zombie, taken refuge in a house, and met Ben (Jones). He bickers with Harry (Hardman), another fugitive who wants to hide in the cellar, make a futile attempt to head for sanctuary, and watch TV bulletins on the escalating catastrophe. It’s simple but effective, even now, though much of its success is due to happenstance. Romero used b&w for cost reasons, and casting a Black lead was apparently not a conscious choice, despite the racial undertones it generates.

This forward-looking approach to skin colour is in contrast to the 60’s chauvinism on view; the female characters do little but hang on their men’s coat-tails and whimper. The film does sometimes grind to a halt e.g. Barbara’s detailed recounting of events we saw in their entirety, not 20 minutes previously, illustrating Romero’s lack of experience handling drama. The gore – extreme for its day – is now almost the least-effective element, and little will shock a modern audience. On the other hand, the inclusion of media reports helps immeasurably, and remains a textbook example of how to do it right. Almost four decades on, the subject may have been done to death, yet there’s no denying the film’s place in cinematic history.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Rating: C+

Dir: George Romero
Star: Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree

We presume this follows on almost immediately after Night, though things have clearly got worse, with society on the edge of anarchy. Four people, including a pregnant woman (Ross) and two SWAT team members, escape by helicopter; they land on suburban mall and take refuge there, sealing it against the zombies outside and clearing out those inside. However, the biggest danger might not be the undead…

Let’s be honest: even in the shortest of the three version (the 116 minute European version), this is overlong. It doesn’t so much make its point – Look! The zombies are in the mall! We’re just like them! – as belabour it endlessly, with all the subtlety of a mugging. In case we don’t grasp the concept, Romero drives it home again and again: the living dead on escalators, falling into fountains, on ice, or just shuffling around. Their threat is defused to such an extent he has to pluck a deus ex machina out of nowhere, in the shape of a biker gang, to give any impetus to the third act. This is probably inevitable, when you employ Dario Argento, the king of great-looking nonsense, as a script consultant.

Fortunately, there is still a lot worthy of praise, just as long as Romero sticks to his core idea: reanimated corpses that want to eat you. Most notable are an immensely unsettling opening in a TV station, providing a microcosm of society’s collapse, and the film then takes us on a SWAT team raid where things go from bad to worse. It’s segments like these, and Tom Savini’s marvellous FX work (it still stands up almost twenty years later), which stick in your mind, long after the heavy-handed attempts at social satire are forgotten.

Day of the Dead (1985)

Rating: B+

Dir: George Romero
Star: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Richard Liberty

Despite characters that border on the painfully stereotypical – oh look, an alcoholic Irishman – this is easily my favourite of the trilogy. About half way through Dawn, Romero decided zombies were no longer the threat, and this film runs with the idea beautifully; until the end, they merely seal the pressure-cooker, wherein humanity’s last remnants (for all they know, anyway) tear each other apart. Sarah (Cardille) is trying to find a way to ‘cure’ zombies, apart from a bullet to the head – exactly the approach favoured by Capt. Rhodes (Pilato) and his men, tasked with keeping the scientists safe. They now want to bail, with only the wits of project head Dr. Logan (Liberty) keeping things even barely in check.

Military and science face off; the rest of us are on an express elevator to hell. The tone is much more even than Dawn, and also mercifully skips clumsy jabs at society, preferring instead a compelling bleakness. It put off a lot of viewers at the time, but now seems ahead of its time. Even Logan, who initially seems the most grounded, eventually turns out to be no less disconnected from reality than the obviously insane Rhodes. It’s almost like Romero is suggesting the human race’s time is up, and we might as well step aside, since we have nothing left to offer the planet. Add Savini’s again spectacular FX, and you have an under-rated classic, that doesn’t justify the accusations of slow pacing sometimes levelled at it. Indeed, the biggest problem I had with the film, was watching it directly after Shaun (for the second time) – that was like seeing Excalibur immediately after Holy Grail, but is hardly Romero’s fault.