In the lead up to our midnight 35mm screening of George Romero’s landmark horror film Night of the Living Dead (Tickets) this weekend, we’re looking back on the rest of his career. Here are four of our favorite Romero films and one that we could do without.
Though best known for establishing what we all collectively understand to be a “zombie”, it may just be that George A. Romero’s best film is actually about a vampire; or rather, a suggested vampire. Made in 1974, just two years before his opus Dawn of the Dead, Martin tells the story of a young man who is under the impression that he is over 80 years old and immortal. Of course this could simply be an overreaction to being a socially awkward teenager with homicidal tendencies but it sure seems real. He goes to stay with his uncle (cue beautiful shots of Romero’s beloved Pittsburgh) who also believes he’s a vampire and takes it upon himself to correct it. Replacing the living dead with the undead, Martin taps into the shifting socio-political climate of the industrial collapse in America during the mid-1970s and how youth were trying to find their place in the world. It’s a hauntingly beautiful film and terribly sad; nearly every other vampire film since sits in its shadow.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead might be the scariest bit of exposition ever put in a movie. Romero opens his magnum opus in a panic stricken news station, where the people we trust to be calm and well informed are running around like scared cattle. Through the shouts and the arguments, you start to gather what’s going on: the dead have risen and they’re eating everyone, and no one — the police, the government, the science community — has any idea what to do about it. So they run.
Dawn of the Dead follows a quartet of runners who hijack a traffic helicopter and eventually land on the roof of the world’s ugliest shopping mall. Loaded down with an endless supply of wares, the group sets up shop, isolating themselves from the crumbling world around them. Eventually, though, safety from the undead gives way to boredom, which opens them up to attack from something even more dangerous — other survivors.
Though it’s often praised for its anti-consumerist social commentary, the thing that makes Dawn of the Dead one of the most beloved horror films of the last century is just how dreadful everything is. Even when you feel safe, death looms around every corner. How any of these characters sleep, I’ll never understand.
Romero’s collaboration with Stephen King and make-up artist Tom Savini is a love letter to EC Comics, the publishing firm that put out Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and other macabre comics in the 1950’s. The film captures that childhood fascination with death and decay with a kind of funhouse atmosphere full of monsters, psychopaths and nightmares come to life. The stories play out like little morality plays, with beings from the other side enacting vengeance against those that harm others.
Day of the Dead (1985)
While Dawn of the Dead covers the decline of civilization during the zombie apocalypse, Day of the Dead takes a look at life after the fall. In an underground Florida research center, a team of scientists and some military grunts attempt to co-exist while the world rots above them. The search for a cure turns into a quest for rehabilitation, where a seemingly mad scientist starts keeping zombies as pets and training them to obey commands. His research starts to rub the military the wrong way when they discover that he’s been keeping his undead buddies alive with warm flesh from fallen friends.
With much more sophisticated and gruesome make-up work than Dawn of the Dead, Day is horrifically violent, containing one of the most visceral zombie chow-downs in movie history. Blood and guts isn’t the only appeal of Day. The movie builds an intense sense of isolation and desperation quickly, crafting a spooky world where all that’s left is white noise on the radio.
Season of the Witch (1972)
Now that we’ve gone through Romero’s best, it’s time to honor one of his worst, Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives). The premise is enticing enough: a group of bored suburban housewives start practicing witchcraft in order to spice up their mundane lives. The reality of what we see, however, isn’t so seductive or very enthralling. As part of the 1970s second wave of feminism horror films to come out at the time (think Stepford Wives and I Spit on Your Grave), Season of the Witch doesn’t really pull through successfully with the cultural commentary. The one thing you will take away from it is the overly repeated Donovan song, appropriately titled, Season of the Witch.