Wherein Erin & I watch 4 George Romero films in one night . . .
That’s right, suckas, 4 Romero zombie flicks in one night. It was zombietastic: good company, good margaritas, good pizza and delicious molten brownies. As for the films? We watched Night of the Living Dead, the 30 Anniversary Edition, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead. All of them were fun to watch in different ways, none of them are brilliant films, but if you are interested in the genre, Romero’s work is almost required viewing to get a sense of how the current zombie mythology and movie structure began.
Night of the Living Dead, 30th Anniversary Edition
At no point should you ever watch the lame-ass 30th Anniversary remake. John Russo, who co-wrote the original screenplay of Night of the Living Dead shot additional footage and cut it into and around the original. These scene are, and I’m being generous here, incredibly stupid in a mind-bogglingly, poorly written and acted and shot way that makes you want to hit your head against a hard wall as you cry out “what the hell was John Russo thinking!?”
John A. Russo gets a giant FAIL for this travesty.
However, all the bits in between his crappy scenes and beneath the uninteresting score, were enough to show that even though the movie may have lost some of its shock value, Romero’s original film still has quite a bit of life in it. I’m planning on watching the original original in the next week or so and will get back to you on the particulars of that movie but do yourself a favor, skip this version.
Day of the Dead
Ah, the mid-Eighties fashion sense and the electric drums and synth heavy soundtrack! Remarkably unremarkable characters except for the Jamaican helicopter pilot and Bub.
Bub, the zombie.
Bub, the zombie who likes music, salutes at a military man and learns how to use a gun. Yeah, you read right, a zombie packing heat. Bub is reason enough to watch this movie because it’s the first time that we see a zombie starting to think and, more importantly, becoming a character that the audience might sympathize or even identify with. In fact, considering just how much you end up hating the military commander, you actually end up rooting for Bub in the final showdown. Romero has always been interested in zombies as a twisted, carnival mirror reflection of ourselves. Day of the Dead amps up the human evil to an even higher level, making you root for the zombies to punish the bad humans. In some ways this turn around is interesting, but the movie ends up saving the few “good” people and destroying all the “bad” people, thus giving the movie a blandly moralistic tone that seems out of place in the Romero world.
This is the kind of movie you watch with other people and have fun making fun of it as it plays. There’s some fairly grotesque gore, however, so be warned: you will see intestines falling out of bodies and some intense flesh eating scenes.
Land of the Dead
Packed with bigger name stars than any other Romero movie (Simon Jones, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Dennis Hopper), Land of the Dead is far more action oriented than his previous ventures. Taking place 20 or so years after the zombie apocalypse, we see a city stratified into a few rich folk safe and secure and lots of poor folk eeking out a living by going on sorties into the countryside and bringing back goods from zombie infested towns. Of course Dennis Hopper is the rich muthafucka who runs the place and is only looking out for his own well being. After a bunch of humans take on some zombies, however, Romero offers up a kind of undead Braveheart storyline that focuses on one of the zombies who gets smarter than the average zombie and leads a jerking, twitching, groaning, and very hungry zombie army against the fortified city. A descendent of Bub perhaps?
Great zombie make up and some fun one liners from Simon Jones and company, but the shift in genre from horror to action and the overt and heavy-handed statements about rich and poor obliterate any chance of subtlety or character development. Whereas in Night of the Living Dead you become invested in the characters of Ben and Barbra, by the time Land of the Dead comes around, you almost don’t care if any of the humans survive because there is not much there there.
Diary of the Dead
Shot almost entirely in first person, the basic conceit of this movie is a young filmmaker who is determined to record as much of the apocalypse as possible, even at the expense of his own humanity. While some critics complained that nobody would keep recording through some of the situations that occur in the movie, I disagree and completely accept the plausibility that a young film student could become obsessed with documenting an apocalypse, even at the expense of other people’s safety and being a good person. I mean, have you met any film students? Self-involvement is a requirement.
This is one of the movies that you watch and think to yourself afterwards, I liked that. Kinda cool. Not what I expected. But then, a couple of days later, you realize that, while it wasn’t a bad movie, it was fairly vapid. I feel like Romero was so taken with the commentary about video and observation and new technology that he forgot to take the time to create compelling characters that would pull the audience into the lives and stories of these people. There was no real risk or sense of danger to the movie because we didn’t care about anyone. Worth seeing – certainly more than Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, but only if you keep expectations low and just enjoy the stylistic differences and challenges of telling a story in first person.
Tool use: With the exception of Diary of the Dead, there was a surprising amount of tool use by zombies, going back all the way to the beginning in Night of the Living Dead when several zombies break through glass by picking up rocks and throwing them. Of course, this culminated in both Day and Land with zombies that use guns.
We are Them, They are Us: For Romero, these stories have never been just about scary dead people coming for us. Rather, the zombies serve as an external force that reveals just how dangerous humans can be toward each other. A profound pessimism undergirds these movies, a philosophy that seems to trust humans to only do one thing: screw each other and themselves over. The zombies could be space aliens, or some form disease, or a natural disaster (and, in one way or another, they are all of these and more) because while the zombies are the yummy, worm-ridden, decomposing frosting on the cake, in Romero films, they are not the cake itself.
Creep Factor: I would still place Night of the Living Dead at the top when it comes to creep factor. Sure, it was black and white and sure some of the zombies looked like they were just badly lit extras walking really slowly, but there were enough good zombies moving in herky-jerky and unnatural ways that you get creeped out. The slow but inexorable accretion of the undead coming through the night, coming for to eat you as well as the claustrophobia of being trapped in a house remains more horrifying that even the more contemporary Diary of the Dead, with it’s RVs and guns and Panic Rooms. Then again, neither Day or Land are proper horror films to being with, despite the threat of zombies, and I think the biggest mistake in approaching Romero’s work would be to see every one of his zombie films as belonging to the same genre. Unless, of course, you posit Zombie movie as it’s own genre instead of a sub-genre of horror, which seems to me to be a plausible argument.
There you have it. Four zombie movies by the master of the zombie genre in one night. Fun times and thanks to Erin for being my zombie movie buddy!
Next up on Zombie Watch!, the very not fun movie Deadgirl.