The Auteurs: George A. Romero’s Original Dead Trilogy

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Night of the Living Dead

For a horror film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) is set in an usual local; not Transylvania, but Pennsylvania. Almost universally panned by critics when released, the film eventually developed a cult following, playing on the midnight movie circuit for more than a decade and becoming one of the most influential horror films since Psycho. The film spawned five sequels, and innumerable remakes and clones. Often imitated, but never duplicated, Night of the Living Dead launched director George A. Romero on the path to become the king of Zombiedom. Although the word “zombie” is never used in the film, the living dead carried with them most of the characteristics to be found in later zombie movies, and pushed zombies towards taking center stage as arguably the centerpiece of popular horror.

Romero has readily admitted that Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) was a big influence on Night of the Living Dead. Like Souls, Night had a mostly amateur cast and crew, and due to budgetary restraints the filmmakers had little choice but to use cheaper black and white film stock over color film. As luck would have it, Night of the Living Dead’s greatest asset is its simple cinematography. The low budget, grainy look and frequent handheld camerawork lend a sense of immediacy and tension to the eerie sets and natural locations.

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Night of the Living Dead certainly encourages auteurist interpretation: Romero both wrote and directed the film, and it has a lot to say about its contemporary social setting. Intentional or not, the film’s carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam. The final images are the most powerful. Still frames show of bodies carried to be burned, others strung up on meat hooks, while rednecks and local authorities take sick pleasure in using the dead as shooting targets. The notoriously downbeat ending has a staying power and to this day, can still conjure up intense feelings of rage and nausea. Daring for its time, Romero also casts an African-American as the hero and the most sensible character is a woman, making the white men come across as ignorant and useless. Topping off the existential dread is Romero’s then-extreme use of gore and unforgettable grisly makeup effects. Night remains a watershed film for not only zombies movies, but also low-budget filmmaking in general. The movie understood its limitations and overcame them with blood, sweat, and tears.

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Luckily Night of the Living Dead was produced before MPAA ratings went into effect, so exhibitors technically weren’t required to keep the kids out. Night, made for approximately $100 000 and dismissed as exploitation, began to attract favorable attention from a younger audience for tapping into the Vietnam-era and nihilistic anxiety. By 1979, it had grossed over $12 million, and inspired a cycle of apocalyptic splatter films

Much has been written about George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, perhaps more than any other horror film. Released 10 years after Romero’s original Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead was tonally distinct from its predecessor. Working on a much bigger budget, Dawn carried a blend of horror, action, and comedy, containing more humor and social satire than the original. Romero’s framing of social depravity via his decaying, walking dead as metaphors is ingenious. The film effectively evokes the tensions between pacifist movements and more aggressive social orders of the time. Along with the commentary on America’s mallrats, Dawn works perfectly both as a horror movie and as a denouncement of consumer culture as illustrated by the indoor shopping mall where a group of human survivors take shelter from the plague sweeping the nation.

Dawn sets itself apart in several ways from Night. Leaving behind the eerie black and white shadowy look of its forefather, it favors a brightly lit color canvas. Extending the scope of the original, the small farmville setting is replaced with a shopping mall, and the epidemic has spread upon the world at large. The film feels and looks like a bigger picture; broader, and bloodier, establishing a new record at the time for explicit on-screen carnage.

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Make-up artist Tom Savini, who also has a small role, created groundbreaking gore effects which set a standard for realism. “I hated that when I watched a war movie and someone dies,” Savini explained in an Empire artice. “Some people die with one eye open and one eye half-closed, sometimes people die with smiles on their faces because the jaw is always slack. I incorporated the feeling of the stuff I saw in Vietnam into my work.” One of the unintentional standout effects was the bright, fluorescent color of the fake blood that was used in the film. The effects were so incredible for its time that it would be seven years before he could top himself in Day of The Dead. Heads explode, machetes go through skulls, a screwdriver is plunged into a zombie brain along with other absurdities including a pie fight and a final credit sequence rolling to the sounds of “The Gonk.”

This time out, the actors are uniformly strong, particularly Ken Foree, who turns in a great performance as Peter. Gaylen Ross shines as Francine, a strong female role, unlike the weak, helpless and neurotic Barbara from the first film. Women have someone they can look up to in Dawn, as Francine quickly takes charge of the action, and becomes a key player in determining the group’s survival.

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Despite a change in having two of its characters survive to see the film’s end credits, Dawn in some ways has a more depressing finale, leaving the outlook for humanity as a whole unclear. From the spectacular opening newsroom sequence to the shocking National Guard shoot-out in the urban city apartment complex, Dawn sets a tone of impending, inevitable doom.

The film was a collaboration of sorts between George Romero and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who helped arrange financing for the film in exchange for foreign distribution rights. Argento also provided an original score performed and composed by Goblin, the Italian progressive rock group whose music was so effective in both Suspiria and Argento’s previous effort, Deep Red. The alliance between the two directors, along with its visceral violence and gut-wrenching horror, helped the film achieve its own level of cult notoriety, exceeding that of Night. Stephen King placed Dawn at the top of his list of the ten best horror films of the year while Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing review, proclaiming it “one of the best horror films ever made.” While admitting Dawn of the Dead to be “gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling,” Ebert pointed out that “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.

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Having to follow in the footsteps of two of the most highly regarded zombie movies in history couldn’t have been an easy task. Day of the Dead is unquestionably the most controversial and hotly debated entry in George A. Romero’s original zombietrilogy. During production, Romero openly admitted that the script he ended up with was far different from his original vision. The comic relief of Dawn is nowhere to be found, and the director’s obsession with social decline is the most opinionated of his canon. Society has completely collapsed with a group of survivors barricading themselves in concrete bunkers. Order is preserved by shoving a gun in its face and demanding it to act reasonably. Unlike most of the films found within the subgenre, the movie is concerned more with existentialism and gender/political divides than scares. Romero chose to directly address the nature of human emotions and prejudices, resulting in bitter and cynical characters backed into a corner like an oppressed minority. In his earlier films, the humans were mostly likeable. In Day, however,the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent and unpredictable, allowing Romero to comment on racism, tribalism and social and governmental concerns. Romero’s government agents and military behave worse than the zombies that plague them. Chaos reigns, heroes waste away, and humans are seen more as the antagonists. Romero tackles the very essence of man’s inhumanity to man, making it as unsettling as its more acclaimed predecessors.

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Dr. Logan, perhaps the most interesting character, acts as Romero’s voice, emphasizing that zombies are but imperfections of ourselves, and offers a formidable glance at humanity’s instinctual tendency to destroy itself. Still, Logan sees hope in the future and his sole purpose is to maintain order without violence. Logan wants to rebuild society while the military troops seemingly want to tear it apart. The touching relationship Dr. Logan shares with the childlike zombie Bub  – and the winning performances given by Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman, respectively – is what sets Day apart from the other five films. Romero’s thoughtful and sympathetic staging of this relationship indicates that he believes that in order to save humanity, we must make radical but compassionate leaps of faith. The Bub and Logan characters become a fascinating and inventive adaptation of Dr. Frankenstein and is monster.

Gore wizard Tom Savini has identified this film as his magnum opus, and the Deadseries helped Savini to become an idol in modern horror filmmaking. As the climax hits, some of the most spectacular and disgusting onscreen effects ever filmed unfold. Lasagna-gut munching, syrup-based blood, men ripped in half, heads torn off, and people devoured live helps outdo his previous grisly handiwork. While his technical effects have since been surpassed, they still hold up remarkably well against the modern infusion of computer generated imagery and still to date remain the best of the entire series.

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Another key difference with Day is its characters. The film offers us a human villain along with the walking dead. Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is at center stage, the military head of an underground scientific complex who, while dedicated to solving the zombie problem, quickly slips into a state of insanity. His performance is howling and unforgiving, testing both the patience of the audience and that of the characters. But although Rhodes is key, he’s not the lead. That honour belongs solely to Lori Cardille, as tough researcher Sarah. The ensemble nature of the cast is downplayed in favor of a heavier focus on her. The final result is an increased feeling of isolation, as Sarah is alone in her struggle to stay sane and alive. Fortunately for her, there is more of a happy ending this time around, as she and a few colleagues manage escape to a desert beach in a helicopter. Though pleasant and calm, the audience cannot help but feeling that the moment is destined to be brief.  This is the way of the zombie.

 




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