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George A Romero: remembering the horror master’s Dead series


George A Romero, known as the father of the zombie horror, has died at the age of 77.

As the director of such undead classics as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, it’s no overstatement to say that he invented the modern zombie movie.

“It’s fair to say that without George A. Romero, I would not have the career I have now,” said Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright.

“R.I.P. to the lovely George,” he went on. “Knowing your movies, I have a feeling you will be back.”

So, in tribute to the horror maestro, we look at his peerless Dead series, starting with the film that started it all…

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Nearly half a century old now, George A Romero’s first film in the loosely connected Dead series still has a visceral, primal power to it.

Shot in stark black and white, and on a threadbare budget that only adds to its punky, lo-fi charms, Night of the Living Dead kickstarted the zombie invasion genre, paving the way for not just Romero’s own sequels, but Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and a hundred other copycat horrors.

There’s so much of Romero’s movie that was radical and game-changing – even the film’s first scene is a bold statement of intent when a young couple visiting a graveyard are attacked by a lumbering zombie – in broad daylight.

But that was nothing compared to the bold casting of African-American actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben, a decision that thankfully looks like nothing now, but was revolutionary in 1968.

Having Duane Jones in the movie wasn’t a superficial gesture of progressive casting – it was integral to the narrative. There’s a potent race-relations allegory running through Night of the Living Dead, and when, in the final minutes, Ben is shot dead when a policeman mistakes him for a zombie, it's harrowing stuff.

The image of a policeman shooting a black man couldn’t have been lost on audiences of the time, having lived through the race riots in Newark, Detroit, New Jersey, Chicago and Milwaukee. Not for the first time, Romero used his zombie fantasy to reflect real-world concerns.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Regarded by many as the best of the Dead series, Dawn of the Dead arrived ten years after Night and was Romero’s first zombie flick in colour.

Although just as gory, Dawn of the Dead has a more comedic tone than the first film, acting as a crisp satire on America’s love affair with consumerism.

Although no actors from Night of the Living Dead reappear and despite the contrasting filming styles (where the dark and claustrophobic Night builds like a traditional thriller, Dawn is all rapid cutting and day-glo colours, with a jaunty score that’s more Carry On than Halloween), Dawn is considered part of the same series as Night, and fans like to think of the two as existing in the same narrative universe.

Day of the Dead (1985)

A small group of military officers and scientists dwell in an underground bunker as the world above is overrun by zombies in Romero’s third Dead film.

This is the Dead movie that introduced us to Bub, probably the best-loved zombie of the series. Bub is a zombie that has some rudimentary intelligence in him – he remembers some parts of his past life and actually listens to music.

Like Dawn, there’s a strong vein of black comedy running through Day of the Dead, and it feels and looks larger in scope, no doubt helped by the $3.5 million budget (Dawn only had $1.5 million).

Still, according to Romero, his first screenplay was even more ambitious, with the writer/director planning "the Gone with the Wind of zombie films". But when the proposed movie’s budget of $7 million was cut in half, Romero was forced to compromise his vision. :(

Land of the Dead (2005)

The living dead have taken over the world, and the last humans live in a walled city to protect themselves as they come to grips with the situation, in Romero’s belated fourth film in the series.

It seems as if it was the success of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Romero tribute Shaun of the Dead that helped ignite interest for the zombie master to return. And in fact Pegg and Wright both pop up – as zombies, naturally – in this gory horror which was blessed by the biggest budget (around $19 million) of Romero’s career.

In this future world, both zombies and their victims have started to evolve. The undead don't simply shuffle around mindlessly any more, eating people. And the humans don't simply smash their brains in. The zombies have learned to communicate on a basic level, and have even adapted to life in a predominantly human world. A zombie even picks up a machine gun in this movie, which is definitely not good for the humans.

The movie has a 74% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the website saying, "George A Romero's latest entry in his much-vaunted Dead series is not as fresh as his genre-inventing original, Night of the Living Dead. But Land of the Dead does deliver on the gore and zombies-feasting-on-flesh action."

Diary of the Dead (2007)

Although this had “of the Dead” in the title, Romero insisted that this film wasn’t a direct sequel, but was instead a “side-story”, set in the same universe at the earlier films.

"[It’s a] rejigging of the myth”, he said, and certainly Diary of the Dead is stylistically very different to anything that had come before.

Told from the perspective of a young documentary filmmaker who sets out to make a mummy film but who finds himself recording the breakdown of society as the dead start to rise, it feels like a fresh reboot of the decades-old franchise and, if you didn’t know, you’d never guess that this film was directed by someone in his late 60s.

Survival of the Dead (2009)

A direct sequel to Diary, featuring a group of AWOL National Guardsmen (who appeared briefly in the first film), Survival of the Dead would prove to be Romero’s movie swansong.

Sadly, the movie was savaged the by critics and the planned sequel, Road of the Dead, never happened.

Survival of the Dead currently has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the site saying, “[the movie] offers glimmers of Romero's savage wit, but not nearly enough to make up for his unusually uninspired directing and a lack of new ideas.”

What are your favourite George A. Romero movies? Let us know @Cineworld.