The history of zombies in horror cinema can be divided into two eras. There’s the period before Night of the Living Dead, in which the idea of the walking dead largely hinged on concepts appropriated from Haitian culture, with the deceased rising and taking actions under the direction of a magician like in White Zombie or Plague of the Zombies. Then there’s the period after Night of the Living Dead, when the concept was decoupled from its folkloric origins in favour of the newly-minted folklore of the zombie apocalypse.
Romero’s Dead movies effectively form three trilogies; there’s the first three which are the truly seminal work, then there’s the second three from the 2000s – Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead, which came about in a time when Romero had become so typecast as a director that he couldn’t get a non-zombie project off the ground and he leaned into it, thanks in part to the revival of the genre in the wake of 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Though Land of the Dead was pretty good and the other two had their moment, it’s safe to say the second trilogy is not what Romero’s legacy is largely built on – for that, you need to dig a bit deeper.
Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead more or less entirely changed the way zombies were depicted in cinema forever after, presenting a narrative which is simple enough to become archetypal but nuanced enough that there’s depth to it beyond the basic survival horror premise. Unfortunately, it’s been quite badly treated over the years in terms of home media releases or downloads as an upshot of a blunder by the original distributor causing the film to enter the public domain in the US.
Along with releases of the original movie of variable quality, there’ve been other meddlings with it – an ill-advised 1990 remake, multiple superfluous colourised versions, and the dreadful 30th anniversary version by John Russo, Romero’s original co-writer, who edited in utterly unnecessary freshly-filmed scenes. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection have at last put out a decent version on Blu-Ray, prepared from a fresh scan of a print owned by the Museum of Modern Art and also including Night of Anubis, the somewhat shorter workprint cut.
Something which must have been shocking at the time, and remains potent even though you know full well it’s coming, is the fakeout concerning the protagonist. In the opening act of the movie we’re lulled into thinking our main character is going to be Barbra (Judith O’Dea), who we accompany with her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) on an extremely poorly-timed cemetery trip. Then, between her initial escape and the final stand she ends up spending most of the film in a catatonic state, with the focus shifting to Ben (Duane Jones), a black actor tapped to lead a mostly-white cast in what was astonishingly progressive casting for the time.
Romero, for his part, simply insists that Jones gave the best audition for the role; whilst claims of “colour-blind” casting in filmmaking are often a bit dubious, in some respects it’s actually more forward-thinking of Romero to have cast Jones in the role where the script didn’t specifically call for Ben to be black. In addition, Romero claims that he didn’t make any adaption to the script to account for Jones’ race, with most of the changes to Ben’s lines actually being proposed by Jones himself – Ben had originally been written as a blue collar trucker type, which Jones didn’t feel he was naturally suited to, and Romero was happy to allow him to adapt the role accordingly.
Given the casting, numerous people have interpreted the movie as one form or another of social commentary on the era, particularly especially when considering the core cast as a whole. Alongside Ben and Barbra you have the young not-quite-hippie types, you have the middle-class white squares who think hunkering down in a bunker will do anything beyond prolonging the inevitable, you have a media trying to explain a complex and poorly understood situation to a frightened public, and at the end you have heavy-handed militias shooting first and asking questions later; it’s all highly applicable to the America of 1969, and pretty applicable to the one of 2020 at that.
It’s a bit of a problem that Barbra ends up silent and passive for much of the movie, but this is less of an issue than it would be since there are several other women present with differing (but each equally believable) responses to the traumas they are facing – as it stands, Barbra’s reactions are believably within the spectrum of shock and trauma.
I suspect her dissociated state is also meant to make us wonder whether she herself has become infected; there’s a bit where Helen (Marilyn Eastman) lights a cigarette and Barbra stares fixedly at her lit match until Helen extinguishes it, which might be meant to tie into the zombies’ dislike of fire. Barbra’s not been bitten, but then again audiences at the time wouldn’t have known about Romero-style zombie infections spreading through bites specifically – it may be a red herring which would have fooled audiences at the time but which isn’t even picked up on by us now that the film’s mythology has become ubiquitous.
There’s an extent to which the movie is a bit of a throwback as well as a leap forward, a somewhat more hardcore take on the SF-horror flicks of the 1950s – the soundtrack, for instance, was largely borrowed from decade-old schlock material including Teenagers From Outer Space and The Hideous Sun Demon, and the overall atmosphere feels more reminiscent of, at the latest, the start of the 1960s rather than the psychedelic end of the era.
However, there’s an important respect in which it sets itself apart from the science fiction-horror hybrids of previous decades. In your typical 1950s B-grade monster movie involving some great societal turmoil caused by a monster or monsters, you’d have plot points like the military being called into defend the people (to varying degrees of effectiveness), or a clever scientist character unravelling the mystery behind what’s going on and using that information to come up with a solution to the problem that military force by itself hasn’t been able to crack.
That isn’t the case here. The military talks a good game but has no idea how to deal with the situation; militias and vigilantes fill the gap, with terrible results. Our heroes never learn anything definitive about why this is happening, only bizarre and far-fetched theories, and even if they did learn why it was happening, they’re in no position to do anything about it. All the messages they receive from the media do nothing except increase their desperation and terror and hopelessness. Sure, they become aware that there’s a rescue station nearby, but it may as well be on Mars for all the chance they have of getting to it. Sure, they know that destroying the brain is essential for putting down the zombies, but they can’t do that to them all. There’s a great bit where Romero focuses on Barbra’s reactions as she listens to the radio report that reveals that the zombies are eating the bodies of their victims – it clearly isn’t anything she wanted to know about.
The most that the survivors get out of the information they discover or receive is false hope, quickly dashed. It is a shattering rebuttal of the positivism of previous American cinema in this vein, the idea that there is no ill that cannot be cured through human ingenuity. Instead, Romero presents a crisis where all the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have toppled and people must address the basic, objective matter of personal survival, and then maybe come up with a plan later.
Although Romero wasn’t planning a whole Dead series at this point in time, Night of the Living Dead provides a strong foundation for its sequels, and even subtly sows some seeds which critics of the sequels sometimes miss. For instance, while some have criticised the idea of zombies using intelligent problem-solving as seen in Day of the Dead or Land of the Dead as being inconsistent with they portrayal int he rest of the series, the fact that two zombies early on know that they can shut off the lights on a car by smashing the headlights with rocks surely suggests some awareness. And then there’s that one particular zombie who realises that she can use a trowel to accomplish what her little limbs can’t…
Dawn of the Dead
Though Night of the Living Dead was a box office hit, it would take the intervention of Dario Argento to help get its 1978 sequel off the ground. Riding high at the time off the success of Suspiria, Argento offered funding to Romero and would help develop the story with him – he’s credited as a script consultant – and also offered the services of Goblin (oft-miscredited as “The Goblins”), the prog rock band whose soundtrack work had been big factors in the success of Suspiria and Deep Red. In return, Argento wanted the rights to edit and distribute the movie for the non-Anglophone markets: he would be released in them under the name Zombi, which would then (in the sleazy manner of Italian cinema at the time) spawn a range of unofficial sequels following on from Zombi 2, AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Dawn of the Dead, then, exists in various different cuts. As well as various other versions assembled by other hands over time (including a Frankensteinian cut which tries to include all the footage that has been included in any version of the film, which runs to over 150 minutes), there’s three basic cuts, all of which have had Blu-ray releases together in various sets (my version of the film hails from Arrow).
There’s the Argento Cut, AKA Zombi, running to some 119 minutes. There’s what’s sometimes called the Director’s Cut but is better called the Extended Cut, a 137 minute cut which is generally understood to be, if not the actual rough cut assembled by George Romero for an initials screening at Cannes, at the very least is closely based on it. Then there’s what’s called the Theatrical Cut, but which I prefer to call the Romero Cut – the version George Romero finally edited for release to cinemas in the English-speaking world. There’s two basic reasons to call it the Romero Cut: the first is that this is George Romero’s preferred version of the movie, so calling the Extended Cut the “Director’s Cut” is a huge misnomer, and the second is that “Theatrical Cut” is misleading because, of course, the Argento Cut got a theatrical release too.
Regardless of which cut you watch, you’re still getting the same story, just as archetypal as that of Night of the Living Dead from a decade previous: the zombies have kicked off, it’s not looking good, and TV producer Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) and her partner Stephen Andrews (David Emge), who flies the TV station’s traffic report helicopter, are planning to steal the chopper and flee Philadelphia. They are accompanied by two absconding SWAT officers – Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a buddy of Stephen’s, and Peter Washington (Ken Foree), who Roger invites to come along in the wake of a harrowing raid on an apartment block which leaves both men sickened and disillusioned with their work.
Holing up in a shopping mall, we get the social commentary dialled up: after clearing the zombies which have overwhelmed the place, they have their own little kingdom of materialistic luxuries, but their idyll comes to an abrupt end when a biker gang invades to loot the place, allowing in the zombies as a consequence. Roger is already dead; Stephen gets himself killed in a foolhardy attempt to defend the material goods are no more rightfully “his” than they are the biker gang’s; only Francine and Peter survive to get away into an uncertain future.
Whichever cut of the film you watch, you get the same basic story and themes as outlined above. Between the Romero Cut and the Extended Cut there’s not much difference, to be honest; in essence, the Extended Cut is a longer, less tight, occasionally overlong or unfocused version of the Romero Cut. This is the major reason why I believe the story that it’s generally the same as the version shown at Cannes is accurate: it simply resembles an early draft of a method of telling the narrative that the Romero Cut is simply better at.
What’s more eye-opining is watching the Argento Cut after becoming more used to other versions of the movie. What’s immediately apparent is that Argento put a much bigger emphasis on the soundtrack music by Goblin, which is almost wholly absent from Extended Cut and only had three tracks made it on to Romero Cut. In fact, in some scenes this smothers the dialogue a little, but it feels like this was somewhat intentional – for one thing, this cut was for non-English speaking markets where all the dialogue would have been dubbed or subtitled anyway, and for another the dialogue which suffers the worst is the multi-way screaming match at the TV station at the start, so if anything this actually adds to the effect of total confusion that scene is going for.
A bigger problem is that either Goblin didn’t quite cook up enough material, or Argento got too keen on some of their bits and overused them. Certain themes keep getting hit repeatedly and it risks becoming monotonous. In addition, Argento largely removes all the library music used by Romero, which included some delightfully shopping mall-esque muzak that really fit the setting. Still, when Goblin are on form they’re great – they really add a lot to the biker raid sequence in particular.
Argento’s edit of the film slims down some of the scenes which provide comic relief, exposition, and character development in the Romero Cut, and when you see the overall effect this has you can understand why so many of the Italian zombie films which followed Zombi were the way they were. The big difference is that whereas the Argento Cut is a condensation of a longer story – so there is still an inner depth to the plot and characters, just one which we have to watch a little closer to pick up on, in so many of those imitations the same depth doesn’t exist.
Most particularly, whilst these sections are trimmed back, the truly important ones are there – the vitally important “the protagonists fuck around in the mall after clearing the zombies out” sequence, though truncated, is still present. That being the case there isn’t a whole lot in the Romero Cut that the Argento Cut doesn’t at least textually nod to, though it is somewhat easier to follow the scenes in the Romero Cut.
My personal take is that the Romero Cut or Extended Cuts tell a superior story, and are the ones you should look to first – but if you are familiar with them already, and so don’t need the exposition or character development scenes because you already have a handle on what they’d have conveyed anyway, then the Argento Cut is worth a watch if you want a high-octane, high-gore, faster-paced tear through the same basic story. The character development and exposition (and the comic relief) are more welcome in the longer cuts, since they help with the pacing, but the shorter duration of the Argento Cut makes this less necessary, and Argento is able to keep the dial cranked up high for most of the movie without the viewer becoming outright jaded.
Day of the Dead
The third movie in the trilogy loops back to the old-time 1950s monster movies which influenced Night of the Living Dead in some ways, since it presents a scenario which many of them would resort to: there’s some sort of terrible crisis, the military’s conventional methods can’t deal with it, it’s down to their science advisors to try and understand what’s happening and make some sort of breakthrough. However, whereas back in the day SF-horror movies tended to take an optimistic view of this sort of thing, here every link in that chain is dysfunctional in various different ways.
Whereas the previous two films focused on people who had just been trying to survive, this time around Romero takes the action to the heart of the sort of continuity-of-government institutions which would have been expected to handle this sort of crisis. The story unfolds in an underground base in which government scientists and military personnel exist in an uneasy alliance.
Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), who has taken charge of the military side of the operation after the death of former leader Major Cooper, is reactionary by nature and, more sympathetically, is enormously pissed off about how many of his men have died trying to capture and corral zombies to use for research purposes; he declares that he’s going to take a much more draconian approach to discipline in the bunker from now on, and declares that he’s going to give the science team only a limited amount of time to demonstrate actual progress before he gives up and pulls his men out, leaving the scientists to fend for themselves.
The science team is led by the Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), who combines the friendly but unworldly demeanour of a stock “eccentric but friendly scientist” character from a 1950s monster movie with a certain discordant untidiness. Logan reckons Rhodes is bluffing about quitting the base – where would the soldiers go, after all? – and is optimistic about his chances, having made some progress training “Bub” (Sherman Howard), a captive zombie, in certain behaviours and coaxing out what seem to be residual memories.
Caught in the middle of the tensions between Rhodes and Logan are other members of the science team – Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), John the helicopter pilot (Terry Alexander), and radio operator Bill McDermott (Jarlath Conroy). Sarah’s been helping John and Bill in their scouting of the surrounding area and attempts to find other survivors, and she’s been left rather out of the loop on Logan’s research – and when the nature of the tasty treats that Logan has been rewarding Bub with come to light, all hell breaks loose.
The horror end of science fiction and the sci-fi end of horror have offered us, over the time, a number of major hypotheses about How Shit Goes Wrong for the purposes of their story. The oldest and most famous one could be termed the Frankenstein Hypothesis, in which scientific research conducted without regard to ethical concerns or pragmatic consequences results in disaster.
Another one could be termed the Quatermass Hypothesis – I don’t know that the Quatermass stories necessarily originated it, but they were a major popularisation of it (and the more Quatermass-influenced Doctor Who stories, particularly under Jon Pertwee, are arguably a further popularisation of it). Under this concept, pure scientific research is by and large a force for good, or at least for a greater understanding of the universe which has great potential for good, but the aggression inherent in military thinking corrupts it and results in dire consequences.
It is perhaps no surprise that this came in vogue in the wake of World War II; the so-called “research” of Dr Mengele and the like in the Nazi camps was of almost no scientific value, largely because it was an attempt to come up with evidential support for a militaristic ideology. It is somewhat less evident in American monster movies of the era – some movies from the era do follow this notion, but others take a more deferential attitude to the military and have scientists and the military work in a more co-operative fashion. Conversely, British SF would regularly go for the throat in this approach – was there a single classic Doctor Who serial in which the military option turned out to be better than whichever more ethical approach the Doctor proposed? If so, I can’t remember one.
Day of the Dead posits a new idea – we could call it the Romero Hypothesis – wherein both scientists and the military end up exacerbating a bad situation, both through conflict between them and through their own worst tendencies coming to the fore. In their demands for immediate, practical results, the military demand simple solutions in a scenario where the complexities do not allow for them; in the pursuit of pure blue sky research, Logan loses sight of any practical purpose of his work, along with any sense of ethical boundaries in the pursuit of knowledge.
At first the movie nudges us into taking the scientists side, since the military lads have at best backslid into becoming sniggering, undisciplined slobs, and at worst are going full-on fascist. Outright racism in the ranks is not just tolerated by Rhodes but endorsed, as are rapey threats towards Bowman. That said, the movie doesn’t forget the soldiers’ humanity entirely. Rhodes’ fraying patience is clearly contributed to by the fact that the men under his command have been picked off bit by bit for the sake of Logan’s research, and there’s a strong argument that they’re past the point when they can expect to get useful results in any sensible timescale and they’d be better off all just hunkering down and working on a pure survival basis.
Moreover, the science team is not blameless. Rhodes’ contemptuous description of Dr. Logan as “Frankenstein” turns out to be all too apt, as Logan’s attempts to domesticate Bub (along with his other projects) end up sailing well beyond any sense of scientific ethics. At a lesser extreme, Bowman’s desire to figure out exactly what is causing the dead to rise at least retains a sense of ethics, but there’s also a certain quixotic aspect to it – she’s angling after an answer which may be vastly beyond the capabilities of a few lone researches to figure out, if it even is amenable to scientific interrogation in the first place, and she herself admits that she may never find the required answers on a time scale which is at all useful as far as the immediate problem of survival is concerned.
The Romero Hypothesis, then, would be that both scientific and military institutions rely on the rest of society to guide their sense of ethical boundaries, and in the absence of external oversight both are just as capable of losing their ways. These are big ideas, and whilst the movie descends into an action gorefest before it develops them very far, it does a fine job of raising them. The exploits of Bub, the zombie who’s capable of learning provided you reward him with tasty treats, are outright endearing, and in general the Logan stuff is particularly good at convincing you that it’s possible to be cruel to zombies.
As far as the action goes, Day of the Dead treats the audience to some great gore effects, including a “dude tore clean in half by zombies” shot that is often imitated but has rarely been equalled. As far as the characters go, despite being subjected to kind of needless rape threats from the soldiers (which don’t get much further than talk, fortunately), Dr. Bowman still manages to be the most proactive of Romero’s female leads in this trilogy: Barbra spends a lot of Night of the Living Dead in a catatonic state, and whilst Francine is far more proactive about making her voice heard and joining in on the planning in Dawn of the Dead, her pregnancy and the tendency of the men to zoot off leaving her without a gun hampers things. Here, Sarah is pretty much the viewpoint character, a voice of reason caught between military toxic masculinity and ivory tower waffling.
Nonetheless, much as Survival of the Dead or Diary of the Dead seem much more pedestrian in a market clogged with zombie movies (Land of the Dead managed to stand out a bit on the strength of the depiction of a city-state of survivors, a novel concept for a genre which tends to concentrate on depicting small, rag-tag groups of survivors), Day of the Dead feels like a lesser sibling to the other two films in the first trilogy. Night of the Living Dead revolutionised the genre, Dawn of the Dead was the peak of its 1970s evolution and catalysed a 1980s boom period for it, but Day of the Dead was just one more zombie film in a field which was already swarming with a horde of them. Hell, it didn’t even make the video nasty list in the UK, whereas the other two both made the list of “less obscene” movies which would be subject to potential confiscation but not give rise to obscenity prosecutions.