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In the waning years of the sixties, George A. Romero ushered in a revolutionary new horror subgenre of zombie pics. Stephen King praised him for taking the horror "out of Transylvania" and bringing it to modern-day America. Romero's first Dead film appeared in 1968, the same time as civil unrest, Black Power, student protests, the Vietnam War, fear of nuclear annihilation, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. -- all coupled with the idealistic innocence of the previous year's Summer of Love. Romero realized that his archetypal zombie narratives -- with extreme blood, violence, and gore -- could also provide subtextual commentary on societal themes. He recognized that the epitome of horror can be found in humanity itself. As Romero said, "I also have always liked the monster-within idea. I like the zombies being us." This tribute documents how the modern zombie era was ushered in, emphasizing unrelenting terror and assuring us that nothing would ever be the same again.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) - 'They Won't Stay Dead'
Romero's debut feature -- the first of a canon of zombie classics -- marked the rise of independent horror. These zombies were indiscriminate flesh-eating ghouls, not produced by voodoo rites or outer-space mutants, who lumbered stiffly out of their graves toward a barricaded house in rural Pennsylvania. Romero himself defined them as average-Joe "blue-collar monsters." The terror came from their relentless attack on fugitive survivors hiding to escape the zombies' infectious bites. The low-budget black-and-white film was made documentary-style, with natural lighting and a handheld camera to accentuate the besieged farmhouse occupants' visceral fear. Soon the threat was coming from inside the house too, with a struggle for power between a resourceful Black man (the lead!) and an impulsive family man. It showed violated bodies and families torn apart by the living dead, illustrating how nothing was sacred in contemporary society. (An adolescent girl killed her own mother with a garden trowel and then ate her.) Audiences were struck by the film's despairing tone, tragically ironic ending, and depiction of a lifeless dehumanized society.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) - 'When There's No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Walk the Earth'
It would be another decade before Romero's sequel, which further redefined the genre. This was the most profitable of all of Romero's zombie films and the one that was received most favorably by critics. Four survivors sought refuge in a deserted suburban shopping mall from ravenous zombies -- and from a gang of postapocalyptic bikers. The satirical film was a indictment of seventies consumerism, as it showed the group looting the mall and living the American Dream in a barricaded storage area, distracted by their material luxuries while undead danger lurked nearby. The biting social satire equated zombies with brainwashed automaton consumers slowly shuffling their way through malls as soothing Muzak played. Why did the zombies congregate there? As one character explained, "Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Romero said in an interview, "I've always felt that the real horror is next door to us, that the scariest monsters are our neighbors."
Day of the Dead (1985) - 'The Darkest Day of Horror the World Has Ever Known'
Now known as the zombie-film master, Romero completed his trilogy in the mid-eighties. This third film was regarded as the most dialogue rich and the goriest in the original trilogy. (Its climax was nonstop dismemberment, disembowelment, and beheadings.) Although not well received originally -- and the lowest-grossing film of the three -- it has since become a cult classic after revisionist thinking. In an era of Reaganite militaristic politics obsessed with science, this claustrophobic tale tells of sadistic experiments performed on zombies in a subterranean bunker. Military officers and mad scientists -- particularly Logan (Richard Liberty), dubbed Frankenstein -- attempted to domesticate and integrate zombies back into society, until the living dead revolted. The film cleverly set the genre on its head again with zombies as misunderstood and oppressed.
Land of the Dead (2005) - 'The Dead Shall Inherit the Earth'
This fourth film of the Dead series was a symbolic class struggle and posited the apocalyptic collapse of human society. Masses of poverty-stricken residents in Pittsburgh were forced to live in the empty, embattled streets. Although protected by mercenaries, society was overrun by undead walkers nicknamed "stenches." Meanwhile, the elite lived in fortified Fiddler's Green, bordered on three sides by rivers and lorded over by a powerful super-capitalist (Dennis Hopper). Although this film was written before the events of 9/11, it was released during the era of the War on Terror. To update its significance, some of the dialogue was revised. (E.g., "We don't negotiate with terrorists.") It wasn't a subtle film, presenting the idea that the zombies -- led by the more evolved and intelligent Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) -- could be trained to shoot guns, use weapons, and besiege the corrupt city. Zombies were portrayed as more human than the humans: "They're just looking for a place to go."
Diary of the Dead (2007) - 'Shoot the Dead'
The fifth low-budget film was considered an updated, 21st-century reimagining of Romero's first film. Romero designed it for the YouTube and media-saturated generation. The entire movie was a film within a film. After discovering a worldwide zombie uprising, film students made The Death of Death, composed of first-person video footage (from surveillance cameras, news footage, digital camcorders, YouTube, cell-phone cameras, etc.), then uploaded it to the Web with scary music added. Sole survivor Debra (Michelle Morgan) spoke for her dead boyfriend, Jason Creed (Joshua Close), who believed the government lied about the causes of the zombie resurrection and vowed to show the world the truth.
Survival of the Dead (2009) - 'Survival Isn't Just for the Living'
The sixth film in Romero's Dead series was, in effect, a tangential sequel to the fifth film -- and a major box-office flop. It still presented the thought-provoking idea that the human race might become zombified if it continued to fight itself. The film's major theme was whether zombies, cared for as loving kinfolk, could co-exist with humans by learning to eat nonhuman flesh. The theme followed the patriarchs of two families (the O'Flynns and Muldoons) who led a deadly Hatfield-McCoy feud on an island over their differing views on co-existence with zombies.
Check out Tim Dirks's earlier column "The Evolution of Zombie Films."
You can also read Tim Dirks's reviews of Romero's full Dead series.
Hosted by George A. Romero, AMC FEARFEST 2011 runs through Mon., Oct. 31. Click here for the full AMC FEARFEST schedule.
Since 1996, Tim Dirks has been reviewing and writing about films on Filmsite.org, a major film portal (that he founded and continues to edit) for everything related to film history and the greatest films of all-time. His column about Movie History appears monthly here.