The patriarch of the modern zombie genre George A. Romero died this week at age 77. He wrote and directed the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead and introduced the world to the flesh-eating undead who are allergic to head shots. Romero’s ghouls became the template for zombies and started a sub-genre with a multitude of horror films and even television shows like the massively popular The Walking Dead series.
Before he passed Romero was producing and had written a new zombie film called Road of the Dead which would feature an island where zombie prisoners race cars to entertain wealthy humans. If that is not a great premise for a film I don’t what is.
While we wait to hear more on Road of the Dead, and in honour of Romero, we take this opportunity to look back at the six “Dead” films written and directed by the horror master and also to rank them from worst to best. With a SPOILER ALERT in effect let’s bite into the best of the Dead:
#6 Diary of the Dead (2007)
With the popularity of found footage horror films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity (also released that year) Romero decided to put his ghastly ghouls in this format. Sadly this tale of college students at the start of the zombie apocalypse is dead on arrival. The characters are less than one dimensional, all the video taping seems forced and actually distracts from the scares, and the plot is bare bones. When a character knocks out a zombie in a mummy suit and says “don’t mess with Texas” it is a particular low point. The only saving grace is a couple of gruesome zombie kills but that’s about it.
#5 Survival of the Dead (2009)
Romero’s last Dead film was a step up from the abysmal Diary but not by very much. In Survival a group of AWOL National Guardsmen who had a cameo in Diary of the Dead get involved with feuding families on an island. Alan van Sprang is cool as the roguish Sarge and Kenneth Welsh is delightful as the crotchety Patrick O’Flynn. The scene where zombie O’Flynn and Muldoon try to shoot each other is quite poignant. Most of the film though, including a woman’s attempts to domesticate her undead sister, is generic and bland though.
#4 Land of the Dead (2005)
Three decades after his last Dead film Romero returned with Land of the Dead. We are full into the zombie apocalypse and there is a feudal-like government in Pittsburgh with a separation between rich and poor. Sadly the film skims over its socio-political themes in favour of your basic zombie action romp.
Simon Baker and John Leguizamo are solid as armored vehicle Dead Reckoning driver Riley and the opportunistic Cholo respectively. And no one plays a scene-chewing villain like Dennis Hopper. The semi-sentient zombie leader Big Daddy was cool and it was interesting to be rooting for the dead heads for a change.
#3 Day of the Dead (1985)
With this entry we move into Romero’s original trilogy and the best of the Dead films. In Day of the Dead a group of soldiers and scientists are hunkered down in an underground base with the undead roaming above. The scientists experiment on the zombies seeking to “cure them” or render them harmless leading to the charming, gun-toting, iron saluting Bub (Sherman Howard).
Lori Cardille’s Dr Bowman is a decent lead and we have another strong black character in Terry Alexander’s helicopter pilot John. Richard Liberty is also fun as mad scientist Dr Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan but the stand out is Joseph Pilato as the racist, homicidal, love-to-hate him Captain Henry Rhodes. When he gets ripped to shreds by zombies it is one of the most satisfying character deaths in the entire franchise. Special effects master Tom Savini did the zombie makeup for this film and Dawn of the Dead (where he appears as the biker leader) and Day of the Dead features some of his most gloriously gory work.
#2 Dawn of the Dead (1978)
And here is where the air gets rare, or in this case rank? Dawn of the Dead, which was remade to great effect in 2008, is a wild ride of a film. With the undead menace spreading throughout civilisation four survivors, two SWAT members and two media workers, barricade themselves in a shopping mall and Romero gets to drive home the point that commercialism turns us all into zombies.
The film is a roller coaster going from the brutal battle between SWAT and the undead in a housing project at the beginning to the quiet moments of the survivors in the mall to the crazy antics of a biker gang hitting zombies in the face with pies. Dawn of the Dead features some sweet zombie kills and a delving into the human condition. It drags somewhat in the second act, though, which keeps it from the number one spot.
#1 Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There is just something so iconic, so visceral, so terrifying about the original Night of the Living Dead. The premise is simple – when the dead begin coming back to life and seeking human flesh a group of survivors hold up in a farm house. Duane Jones gives a powerful performance as Ben as Karl Hardman is lovably annoying as the spineless Harry Cooper. The horror is also heightened by the film being in black and white; don’t waste your time with the colour version. And, a little factoid here, while the undead creatures are what we know of today as zombies they are only called “ghouls” and “them” in the film. Back to the review now.
The movie is full of moments that will be seared into your consciousness: Russell Streiner’s creepy line “They’re coming to get you Barbra”; the first zombie attack in the graveyard; undead Karen Cooper murdering her mother; the undead feasting upon the roasted remains of Tom and Judy; zombies storming the farm house; and Ben being shot in the head at the end.
The film is not perfect – Judith O’Dea’s Barbara is kinda annoying (Patrica Tallman’s version in the solid 1990 remake is a vast improvement), there are some inconsistencies in how the zombies behave and the music at the start is a bit too loud – but these are minor complaints. Almost 50 years after its release this horror masterpiece remains still resonates today and the impact of its legacy can be seen in the US Library of Congress preserving it in the National Film Registry. And like the Night of the Living Dead the legacy of the great George A. Romero will forever live on.
So what’s your favourite Romero zombie film? Feel free to comment below.
For my ranking of eight of the best and worst Stephen King adaptations you can click here.