Wednesday, May 5, 2010

King Of The Dead: A Romero Retrospective

George A. Romero is considered by many horror fans to be one of the most accomplished and widely influential filmmakers of the genre, his specialty being the congested yet ever-popular sub-genre of zombie films. With his now-classic independent horror film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968, Romero established himself as a rare and indispensable innovator of the seemingly tired horror genre. By effectively mixing violent terror and campy sci-fi nightmare scenarios with genuine social commentary and quality film-making, Romero produced a horror film unlike any others of its time. Romero would build upon his legacy in the years to come, directing such major films as ‘Creepshow’ and ‘The Dark Half’, but what the films he will forever be associated with are those which comprise his acclaimed ‘Dead’ series. Although the ‘Dead’ films take place in the same universe, each installment is unique in its own regard, retaining their own separate merits and faults, distinguished by their methods of inspiring terror and fear. With a new Dead film, Survival of the Dead, lurking on the horizon, now would be an appropriate time to take a look back on these genre defining films.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Romero’s first film, produced on a meager budget of $114,000, has remained a fan favorite and midnight movie staple since its original release. Throughout the years the film has been widely praised for its serious, realistic tone, its documentary style black-and-white film stock and cinematography, and its bold yet refreshing observations on human behavior in times of crisis. What the film is arguably best known for is its ground-breaking depiction of violence, considered tame by today’s standards but horrifying in the 60’s. Theaters which screened the film upon its initial release would distribute barf bags to the audience members. It’s also worth noting that this film was brave enough to utilize a black man as its hero in the height of the civil rights movement.

Dawn Of the Dead (1978)

Romero’s follow-up to Night is often considered to be not only the best of the ‘Dead’ series but also one of the greatest horror films ever made. In it, four police officers take refuge in a shopping mall during a zombie invasion. Dawn of the Dead retained a great deal of its predecessor’s best qualities, including its role as a social critique (this time as a condemnation of American consumerism), but it took its depiction of violence and carnage to another level of extremity, thanks in no small part to the make-up effects by industry legend Tom Savini. Bright red blood can be found in almost every frame of this movie, and the blue zombie make-up, new at the time, makes them look truly realistic and grimy. The violence can be excessive at times; resulting in moments which can be either terrifying or hilarious, depending on the perspective of the viewer. For example, in the opening scene of the film some poor guy’s head explodes in grisly detail after a crazy cop shoots him on a rampage. I guess that’s a pretty easy way to get the audience’s attention. The 2004 remake is also pretty good, but needless to say not as good as the original.

Day of the Dead (1985)

This film is hated by many fans simply because it doesn’t share the non-stop action and carnage of its popular predecessor. Instead, its main focus is on character, specifically on the human response to constant isolation and imminent death, one which will almost inevitably be of sheer panic and eventual self-destruction. It’s more similar to Night in that regard. In the film, several survivors of a zombie invasion, comprising of a mixed bag of scientists and army personnel, hide from the zombies in a military bunker underneath the Florida everglades. Throughout the film the soldiers, specifically the psychopathic Captain Rhodes, demand respect and immediate results from the unruly scientists, who want only to find a solution to the zombie problem. The film is slow-burning and talky, but it results in an exciting climax which features some of the most insane kills in the history of zombie fiction. The terrible 80’s synthesizer soundtrack and bizarre side-characters with wacky ethnic accents nearly ruin the tone of the film, but it is salvaged by one of the most loathsome villains in film history, Captain Rhodes, who steals every scene he appears in with his psychopathic rage and unpredictability.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

This one isn’t technically part of the ‘Dead’ series and it wasn’t directed by George Romero, but because it considers itself to be an alternate sequel to the original Night, and because it’s so awesome, I feel it deserves a mention. Return tells the tale of two inept medical warehouse workers who accidentally release a gas which triggers an unexpected zombie awakening. Unfortunately for a group of partying teenagers (a strange mix of Brat packers and Lost Boys), the zombies interrupt their wild graveyard rave. Bogus! With hilarious writing and improve style acting, as well as the constant 80’s cultural references and unique zombie design (especially the classic ‘Tarman’), this a truly enjoyable zombie classic. Stay clear of its sequels.

Land of the Dead (2005)

It took Romero 20 years to produce the fourth installment of his Dead series, and many fans believe it wasn’t worth the wait. Land of the Dead tackles both social and political issues while retaining a constant sense of suspense and excitement, but the viewer is somewhat distanced by the over-stylization absent from Romero’s previous films. The film revisits the familiar idea that zombies have the ability to learn and will eventually adapt to the conditions around them, but some of the scenes in which a giant zombie pumps another zombie’s gas is just too silly to take seriously. That being said, Land of the Dead is a solid zombie flick, but it is not the same caliber film as its three predecessors.

Diary of the Dead (2008)

Filmed in the handheld style of Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead follows a group of aspiring filmmakers who document themselves as they run away from zombies. The film is exciting and continues the familiar social commentary one would expect from a ‘Dead’ film, but it lacks originality, perhaps because zombie films are so common nowadays and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. Although it is by no means bad, the film simply doesn’t live up to the first three of the series.

The new Romero film, Survival Of The Dead, will be released on May 24th.