Why Romero’s ‘Dead’ Films Still Speak to Us

The recent passing of George A. Romero, one of the most creative and influential filmmakers to grace the horror film genre, was devastating news to his generation-spanning fans.

Romero died at 77 after a bout with lung cancer. If all the Pittsburgh-based Romero ever did was direct the low budget, independently made 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” (originally titled “Night of the Flesh Eaters”), his legacy would already be set in stone.

In shaping a black and white vision of the world under siege by flesh-hungry corpses, Romero didn’t merely give us a taboo-bursting, skin-chomping horror fest. His film is also noted as one of the best social commentaries about America during the Civil Rights Era. “Dead” provides a troubling depiction of racism and human cruelty that hasn’t aged a day.

Romero took the notion of a “zombie,” portrayed in earlier films as someone under hypnosis or a variation of a “ghoul,” and added the specific touches of a living corpse. Romero’s “dead” were devoid of their former consciousness, succumbing to mindless cannibalism.

Night of the Living Dead (1/10) Movie CLIP - They're Coming to Get You (1968) HD

“Night of the Living Dead” marked Romero’s startling film debut, followed by notable works that, while varied in quality, are driven by his probing of societal norms, injustice and the political climate.

Every Romero film, ranging from “Creepshow,” his gleeful, 1982 recreation of E.C. Comics excess (and one of the earliest, most significant movies to capture the comic book aesthetic) to his under-appreciated “The Dark Half,” 1993 Stephen King thriller that explores an author’s duality and relationship with the zeitgeist, is playful and smarter than expected.

Romero’s stylish but never busy direction serves his every project. In a climate where genre filmmakers are introduced as the new Master of Horror, Romero loomed over all of them. He inspired and encouraged countless devotees to follow in his footsteps.

A serious question to consider in his passing: will subsequent zombie movies truly count now that Romero has passed away? Make no mistake, Romero’s zombie films are the ones that matter the most. Of all the monsters in cinema, zombies, as a concept, have progressed as slowly as they lurch in their movies.

The most innovative additions to these rotting corpses are making them “fast,” as in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and Zac Snyder’s 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake. The other innovation? Milking them for laughs, as demonstrated in “The Return of the Living Dead” parts 1 and 2, “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland,” “Warm Bodies” and “Fido.”

We now have a “Zom-Rom-Com” sub-genre. Big deal. When someone can make a love story musical with zombies and introduce the Zom-Song-Rom-Com, then I’ll be impressed. For now, let’s be frank: vampires and werewolves have darted past zombies for decades in expanding the levels of creativity and deeper meaning to the established lore.

There’s no reason for horror fans to thumb their noses as Marc Forster’s thrilling, massively budgeted “World War Z” for providing PG-13 violence. If anything, having the camera turn away from the grisly bits was a fresh decision.

Had Forster’s film been more faithful to its Max Brooks source material, it may have been genuinely radical instead of simply better-than-expected. Snyder’s deeply cynical “Dawn of the Dead” redo is one the better early 21st century horror remakes, which puts it above such bottom feeders as “The Uninvited” and the Ryan Reynolds-starring “The Amityville Horror.”

Aside from the 71-minute German zombie thriller “Rammbock” (2010), any recent zombie film (the clever comedies included) is simply re-playing the notes that Romero, the master conductor, first composed in 1968.

RELATED: 7 Best Modern Day Zombie Movies

Which brings me to Romero’s 2005 “Land Of The Dead [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray],” the first zombie film he made since “Day of the Dead” 20 years earlier. Romero was 69-years old when he made this, his most expensive film (for him, the $15 million budget provided by Universal Studios was lavish).

It’s the best of Romero’s late-period zombie films.

Existing in the same universe as Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” and 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” Romero’s film introduces a world where, as one character puts it, “it’s like God left the phone off the hook.”

The remainder of the human race have spawned militias and tight-knit gangs. A cluster of rugged heroes, well played by Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento and others, battle the undead on a daily basis. There’s no end in sight to their sad existence. On the other hand, as mankind becomes a parody of itself, the zombies appear to become conscious of their long-gone existence as living beings.

Land Of The Dead (2005) - Why We Love It (HD)

“Land of the Dead” sports a great black and white opening, nodding to the look and feel of Romero’s original. A striking shot of silhouetted zombies lurking in the woods does the same. He cheekily brings us into his new tale via an inactive neon sign that reads, “EAT.”

We then see the funny, startling sight of zombies becoming slowly aware of the lives they had before their undead state. From the start, Romero’s zombies are sympathetic stand-ins for the downtrodden, over-looked Have Nots.

Meanwhile, a fancy high rise apartment called Fiddler’s Green houses the wealthy elite who live in luxury away from the mayhem on the streets below. Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman is the leader of Fiddler’s Green, working around the clock to keep the poor, struggling survivors at his feet while he basks in his lush apartment.

FAST FACT: “Land of the Dead” earned $20 million at the U.S. box office in 2005, just above the remake of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Man of the House.”

Romero’s film has the pluck, momentum and wit of a great John Carpenter film. There’s a stunning shot of the dead rising from a lake, which is right out of “Carnival of Souls” (a film Romero has admitted influenced him) and the dialog has real snap. One of the humans notes this about the zombies: “they’re just like us … pretending to be alive.”

Later, a character gets an incurable bite by a zombie and, rather than take his own life, considers, “I’ve always wanted to see how the other half lives.” A great choice was not only focusing on the journey of Baker’s character but also Eugene Clark’s “leader’ zombie, arguably the film’s real “hero.”

Everyone’s firing on all cylinders here. The actors (including Baker, who has rarely registered this strongly in a film role) convey the weary demeanor of their scenario, as does Romero’s vision of a post-zombified USA.

Make no mistake, Romero's zombie films are the ones that matter the most.Click To Tweet

Instead of the mall setting of “Dawn of the Dead,” this one utilizes Fiddler’s Green as a rich haven/distraction for the wealthy, offering an illusion of safety. Not every scene works and there’s more chaos in the last act than the movie really needs. There’s also a lot more humanity here than one would expect from a film about the undead.

Scream Factory’s  2-disk “Land Of The Dead [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” is mightily impressive, sporting a pre-menu Romero tribute. The loads and loads of extras include generous footage of the director joyously discussing and practicing his craft.

The extras include both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut (longer by just a few minutes), two full length Making Of documentaries, deleted scenes, the trailer, lots of shorts on how they did those goopy special effects, interviews with the actors (the best of which comes from a reliably animated Leguizamo) and a featurette on Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s day of filming their cameos on the set.

Land Of The Dead (2005) - Bonus Clip 1: John Leguizamo On The Collaboration Between Cast & Crew

Regardless of what side of the political fence you sit on, Romero’s films are valuable works of satire and allegory. His zombie films are unique in the deeply personal perspectives they offer about what was troubling him and how he’d funnel it into a zombie tale. Somehow, he’d fashion movies that are politically charged but fall short of feeling heavy handed or sanctimonious in their talking points.

In the aforementioned extras, Romero admits that “Land of the Dead’ was targeting George W. Bush’s administration and that Hopper is a stand-in for Donald Rumsfeld (though Leguizamo counters that Hopper was playing Bush). Truth be told, the Kaufman character, the implications of Fiddler’s Green and oppressed masses rising up don’t need 2005 political references to validate them.

Whether his zombies roamed a racism plagued countryside, stalked a consumerist mall, were tortured in a military complex or munching on the privileged brats, Romero’s use of reversing traditional “hero” roles and addressing abuses of power make his zombie films essential.

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