I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Jim Jarmusch would make a zombie movie, since he’s already cycled through idiosyncratic interpretations of westerns (Dead Man), vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive), samurai (Ghost Dog), and thrillers (The Limits of Control). But unlike these, The Dead Don’t Die reads as an unaffectionate (or to coin a word, disaffectionate) homage to its genre.
Directly quoting Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead, The Dead Don’t Die initially seems to be taking a nostalgic poke at contemporary interpretations of the genre: be they the frenetic 28 Days Later rabid variety, or the mopey end-times soap opera of The Walking Dead. But Jarmusch takes the inherent nihilism of the zombie horror subgenre to its logical end: there is no “post-” after the apocalypse, and zombie movies are dumb and you’re dumb for watching them.
The cast is notably diverse in race, age, and gender (at times looking like the most Jarmusch that ever Jarmusched, with just enough room for delights like Iggy Pop as Coffee Zombie, Carol Kane as Chardonnay Zombie, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob). But while The Walking Dead has vague themes of the apocalypse being the great socioeconomic leveler, here it’s part of a cynical joke. It’s hard not to interpret the casting of Tilda Swinton as a scotswoman in samurai kitsch as an allusion to her role in the Disney/Marvel appropriation of an asian comic book character in Doctor Strange.
Fittingly, her subplot builds to a glancing swipe at sci-fi/superhero blockbusters, with the iconic Star Wars Star Destroyer reduced to a tchotchke keychain wielded by its star Adam Driver, and then inflated back up into a dinner-plate flying saucer straight out of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Zombies and spaceships are taken seriously by millions as part of a modern mythos, but from the condescending perspective of Swinton’s woman-who-fell-to-earth, it’s all naught but “a wonderful fiction”.
George A. Romero practically invented the lucrative zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, simultaneously trapping himself within it for most of his subsequent career. Romero’s zombies served him well enough for six films and counting, at least two of which transcended the genre and are still discussed in serious terms. His less famous later creations the “crazies” only appeared in one of his films, but their influence on popular culture is disproportionate to their fame. They are arguably thematically richer and — despite not technically being zombies, per se — exert a greater influence on most significant subsequent zombie films by other directors.
The Crazies (1973) may not belong to Romero’s official Living Dead cycle, but what sets it apart is mostly a matter of branding. Zombies had captured the popular imagination in a way that the more vaguely-defined crazies could not, at least at first. The classical Romero-style zombie is simply a reanimated corpse with an insatiable animal hunger in place of higher brain function — in effect a subtraction of the intangible human essence, or what a religious person would describe as a soul. In contrast, a crazy is exactly what it sounds like: a living person driven to unchecked violence and lust, while still remaining recognizably human.
The most significant innovation Romero introduced in The Crazies can be summed up in its most chilling line: “people are vectors.” In Night of the Living Dead, it was enough for Romero to vaguely drop hints of some sort of mysterious extraterrestrial radiation causing the dead to rise. The virus factor would preoccupy subsequent zombie auteurs for decades, particularly Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. It’s a rich concept that touches on many sensitive themes: pollution, conspiracy theories, biological warfare, sexually transmitted diseases, and pandemics. While now virtually every non-Romero zombie movie defaults to a viral origin story, it seems that Romero himself is disinterested in the mechanics of either zombies or crazies. He’d much rather focus on randomly-selected bands of survivors, on the run in a world where society has broken down. Living humans are a greater danger than monsters, and death is no longer absolute.
All the usual Romero tropes are present, particularly institutional corruption and ineptitude. On the macro level, the U.S. government and military serve their own interests first, to the degree that they function at all. The government has secretly engineered and weaponized a virus with the innocuous codename Trixie and accidentally releases it into the water supply of small town Evans City, PA (a real town, where portions were actually filmed). As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the action remains in the small burb for the entirety of the film. Forget Patient Zero; this is Town Zero.
The authorities swoop in and attempt to quarantine the bucolic burb until the virus burns itself out. We learn they were blithely aware of the risks in transporting the virus, and remain chillingly apathetic even after the beginnings of catastrophe. One especially coldblooded general casually munches sandwiches while discussing how to contain the epidemic. Romero’s usual sympathies are for the individual conscience hamstrung by soulless bureaucracies. Even in Day of the Dead, where the military was the primary source of conflict, some individuals remained sympathetic. In The Crazies, Major Ryder (Harry Spillman) and Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) struggle as much against their superiors’ counterproductive orders as they do trying to pacify the crazies on the battlefield and protect the uninfected.
Even the civilians have deep ties to the armed forces. David (Will MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are Vietnam War veterans who now find themselves in opposition to the institutions they once served. They spend most of the movie completely in the dark as to why their town is in chaos, and in fact come into violent conflict more frequently with the military than with their now-insane former friends and neighbors.
Romero also continues his tradition of foregrounding women and people of color. The ranks of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and John Leguizombie Leguizamo in Land of the Dead are joined by Judy (Lane Carroll), a pregnant nurse who initially assists the military’s containment efforts. Her character is far more significant and integral to the plot than her equivalent in Breck Eisner’s mediocre 2010 remake, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s sad but perhaps unsurprising that a B-movie from 1973 would feature a stronger feminist character than one from the 21st century.
But on the other hand (you knew that “but” was coming), the other primary female role is played by Lynn Lowry as an impossibly ethereal and willowy teen with a marked resemblance to Sissy Spacek. The character’s primary function is to look innocently gorgeous and be raped by her infected father. Lowry would go on to a long career as a scream queen in sexploitation films.
The Crazies is largely humorless in tone, save for ironic music cues throughout. A persistent martial snare drum plays under otherwise rather dull scenes of Ryder and Peckam arguing in a cheap office set, and “Johnny Comes Marching Home” accompanies sequences of desensitized soldiers summarily executing detainees.
The establishment of martial law and military occupation of a town on American soil raise the question: how do you tell the difference between genuine resistance and murderous rage, which is to say, just plain crazy plus capital-c Crazy? Is not killing and shooting other human beings by definition crazy, especially when systematically operated by the governmental and military organizations that are supposed to protect and serve life? In the movie’s most charged sequence, a priest immolates himself on his church steps. In 1973, it would have been an unmistakable visual allusion to the Buddhist monks that self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War. A soldier executes him. Was the priest protesting or Crazy? Was the soldier merciful or Crazy?
Quarantine, remade by director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Spanish movie REC (2007), follows in the now-firmly established horror fauxmentary tradition. Previous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield are all ostensibly comprised of found footage recovered from cameras found at the scenes of horrific disasters. Quarantine’s only wrinkle is that, unlike its predecessors, this pretense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s conceit is that we’re watching raw footage, edited in-camera, abandoned by the late characters themselves. There are no implied, unseen survivors that picked up the pieces.
Cloverfield never provided a convincing psychological motivation to explain why its cinematographer would keep his camcorder running throughout his desperate flight from toxic alien creatures swarming across Manhattan. A much more intelligent examination of an obsession to capture everything on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. His underrated Diary of the Dead features a group of young film students with pretensions to becoming great documentarian filmmakers, and what better subject to document than their own first-hand experiences during a zombie outbreak? Although Cloverfield had significantly greater budgetary resources at its disposal to create eerily realistic images of Manhattan crumbling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like monster, Quarantine follows in the more modest footsteps of Diary of the Dead in striving for greater psychological realism.
In story terms, the justifications for Quarantine’s characters to keep filming continually evolve as their circumstances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Quarantine features members of the press as main characters. The first full 12 minutes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) shooting a television news segment on a local fire department. By the time an emergency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bubbly, spunky reporter and the charmingly filthy firefighters. As the routine investigation turns into a confrontation with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the opportunity to score some sensational footage. It’s clear she fancies herself a more serious reporter.
Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly contagious disease, the Los Angeles Center for Communicable Disease quickly quarantines the building, cutting off all their communications and falsely reporting to the public that it has been evacuated. The trapped tenants are a random assortment of Los Angelans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in protege, a veterinarian, a cleaning woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in horrifying transformed fashion), toy dogs, an immigrant couple, and… what’s missing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unemployed actors?
Building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija) keeps conveniently remembering exits (including a back door and a basement entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has morphed into a righteous crusader wanting more footage as proof of the city’s outrage against justice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the people trapped in the building, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s motivations switch to pure survival. The camera now only proves useful as a source of light, and anything captured on video happens by chance as they frantically navigate through the corridors. Then, in true horror movie fashion, things get even worse. In a scene rivaling the nail-biting basement sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find themselves barricaded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp broken. The remainder of the movie is seen through the greenish haze of their night-vision filter.
While Quarantine may seem to tip its hat to horror tradition as protagonist Angela sheds layers of clothing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actually quite subversive in showing her lose her spirit. Atypically for a horror movie protagonist, she is no plucky survivor that defeats the menace. She pretty much just breaks down.
Quarantine may be yet another in a long line of zombie flicks, but I would argue its true genre identity is as an urban nightmare. Cloverfield relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envisioned swarms of giant cockroaches breeding in abandoned subway stations. Quarantine touches on another deep anxiety of urban dwellers: a viral contagion born of city filth. The entire outbreak plays out in the confines of an aging tenement building (with what seems to be a clothing sweatshop hidden in the back), a place many city slickers might recognize as home.
What made Quarantine the most frightening for me in particular was not the gore or the booga-booga scare factor, but rather the disturbing plausibility of its fictional disease. In reality, all we hear about are the dangers of diseases like HIV jumping from bushmeat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incubating in impoverished nations where people live in close quarters with animals. What about those of us living in developed, supposedly civilized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a certain number of crazy nutjobs?
A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plausible pseudo-scientific explanation I’ve yet heard for zombies, especially compared to the vaguely described Venusian radiation in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Like the “superflu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the distilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genetically engineered by a lone terrorist holed up in the attic of the tenement. An ominous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for tenant living in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and emaciated, he scrambles around in the total darkness of his former home and laboratory (scattered with disgusting medical photos and newspaper clippings about Doomsday Cults). The creepy figure is played by the unusually tall and slender Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I worked on the official website for Guillermo Del Toro’s marvelous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was interviewed about his experiences playing The Faun and The Pale Man; for someone that so typically plays monsters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charming dude. I skimmed through the bonus features on the Quarantine DVD, and it’s a crying shame that he apparently wasn’t interviewed.
In place of a musical score, Quarantine features a complex sound design built around an eerily creaking, groaning old building. It also forgoes other standard movie pleasures, being a gruesome, depressing, and punishing experience. In that respect, it’s similar to how the nauseatingly (literally) bleak Blindness. In contrast, the sublime Children of Men is the rare movie nightmare set at the brink of the end of humanity that nevertheless carries a spark of uplift and hope.
This is not an opinion you’re likely to find anywhere else on the internet, but we are prepared to argue that Diary of the Dead is one of the best of the entire George A. Romero zombie cycle. It sports the best special effects, is the least repetitive or trigger-happy, and is a welcome return to the focused social satire of the first (Night) and second (Dawn) installments.
Curiously, Diary of the Dead is the first to break the continuity of Romero’s ongoing story of society in zombie meltdown. The first four films follow a rough chronology: Night of the Living Dead depicts the initial wave as seen by a small group caught in a country farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead takes place a few weeks later, showing the breakdown of cities (and even the media). Day of the Dead featured an isolated group surviving in isolation as the world was long since overrun by the undead. Land of the Dead shows the ultimate gated community fall to an evolved zombie horde. But Diary of the Dead is a return to the early days of the outbreak, a more fertile ground for storytelling: you never get tired of human characters witnessing such horrors for the first time.
The rules are still the same: simply, the dead don’t stay dead. The zombie epidemic is not due to a plague or virus, which was the potent contribution of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later to the zombie genre. Arguably, Romero’s concept is more bleak. A virus might be mitigated or even cured, but if anybody, anybody at all, that dies will revive as a unintelligent carnivorous monster that feels no pain and never tires, it cannot be stopped. If humanity is to somehow regroup and survive, it will forever have to burn or decapitate anyone that ever dies.
Diary of the Dead opens on a group of University of Pittsburgh film students making a tongue-in-cheeck mummy movie in the woods of Pennsylvania, under the guidance of alcoholic Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth). Many of these kids are privileged, but judging from the events of Romero’s other zombie films, we know that the luxuries of the rich are of little worth against the living dead. Obviously none of these movie aficionados have ever seen a zombie flick. One of them, Eliot (Joe Dinicol), wears Coke-bottle glasses in an apparent homage to Romero’s famous spectacles. Budding director Jason Creed (Joshua Close) looks down his nose on the commercial horror genre, and has the not-so-secret ambition to become a documentary filmmaker. But Jason gets his chance to do both, as he documents their their flight from a real-life plague of zombies. Jason’s footage, later completed by girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) comprises a film within a film: “The Death of Death.”
In a world in which nearly everyone carries a cellphone camera around in their pocket, “shoot me” can have a different meaning than you usually hear in zombie movies. With a batch of young filmmakers documenting a real-life tale of horror using new portable video technology, Diary of the Dead superficially resembles Cloverfield. One of Cloverfield’s most telling moments showed a group of New Yorkers instinctively reacting to the horrible sight of a chunk of the Statue of Liberty hurtling into the middle of a street by whipping out their cell phone cameras and taking pictures to transmit to their friends. But Diary of the Dead’s true inspiration is actually a bit older; it rips off the basic plot of The Blair Witch Project, in which a batch of student filmmakers set off to shoot a horror film in the woods and accidentally stumble onto the real thing. Cloverfield became increasingly implausible as the fleeing teenagers cling to their cameras throughout their travails. In contrast, Diary of the Dead surprisingly sports more believable psychology than Cloverfield, constantly questioning its characters’ compulsion to document everything. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest themes of the movie.
Diary’s mix of themes also includes the return of the media as a prominent presence for the first time since Night and Dawn. In what I felt was one the film’s only dramatic missteps, the characters first learn of the zombie breakout via radio (really? radio? in an age of instant text messaging?), and are convinced of the incredible news reports a little too quickly. But perhaps their immediate acceptance of what the voices of authority tell them is one of Romero’s points.
Two characters in Dawn of the Dead were members of the traditional media of broadcast news. But in this case, something only possible in the 21st century internet age, the Diary of the Dead kids are able to become part of the medium itself. Jason starts out as a frustrated documentarian making a silly commercial mummy film, but given the chance he chooses to document. As citizen journalists, they edit their footage on laptops and post to YouTube and MySpace. They also download other clips from around the world, providing the film with what are basically a series of short vignettes. They watch as U.S. SWAT clean out zombies from an apartment complex, and as counterparts on the other side of the globe document an overrun Japan. One of the spookiest clips is a brief shot from the point of view of a truck driving under a bridge from which someone has hung themselves. After the truck cab jostles the corpse, it starts to move.
Three radio monologues were voiced by horror genre luminaries Guillermo Del Toro (whose ghost story Devil’s Backbone shares some elements of the zombie genre), Simon Pegg (who paid homage to the genre as comedy with Shawn of the Dead), and Stephen King (brilliant as a heartland evangelical preacher: “Get down on your &$#@ing knees!”). There’s also a funny bit featuring a badass Amish guy, who’s deaf but handy with a scythe and dynamite.
The ending to this very short movie (a little over 90 minutes) is a bit abrupt. But given that it is narrated by Debra, it is possible she has survived beyond what we’ve seen, long enough to release “The Death of Death” in some form, perhaps after humans have reclaimed the planet. One might imagine Diary’s premise would lend itself to a lower budget than the grandiose Land of the Dead, which starred actual stars like Dennis Hopper and John Leguizombie — sorry — John Leguizamo. But Diary sports a bigger cast, more locations, and even more accomplished CG, so it can hardly have been cheaper to make.
You’ve been reading an entry in the our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
George A. Romero’s sporadic zombie flicks are sometimes decades apart in production, but nevertheless form a chronological sequence telling the story of the downfall of society from every angle. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is set in the early days, with a few random civilians trapped in a farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead (1979) zooms out a little to see what’s going on in cities and suburbia, and Day of the Dead (1985) examines a final remaining pocket of survivors months into the plague. Land of the Dead opens some time after the zombie epidemic has swept the world, and the surviving dregs of humanity have retreated behind the fortified walls of the ultimate gated community, a city dubbed Fiddler’s Green. Romero has used each of his zombie films to satirically articulate some social commentary, and here his targets seem to be big business and class warfare. Another possible allegorical target is the Israel / Palestine conflict. Have humans walled the zombies out, or walled themselves in?
A man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) has set himself up as mayor/president/king of Fiddler’s Green. Kaufman is very much a businessman along the lines of Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg, so here Romero seems to equate big business with totalitarianism. Kaufman’s machinations ensure that his supposed safe haven is actually a highly tiered class society. The rich live in high-rise comfort while the underclasses starve in skeezy street-level slums. We know society is truly depraved when caged go-go dancers are the only form of entertainment.
In the world outside, the zombies have long since eaten all humans within reach, and have nothing left to do but stand around. Despite the big budget, there only seem to be about a dozen of them. Some have returned to old routines: working gas stations, pushing shopping carts, and banging tambourines. Dawn of the Dead showed zombies instinctually drawn to the shopping mall (a new American innovation at the time) like pilgrims to Mecca. But Land of the Dead Goes further and suggests they have even greater powers of logic, and can feel actual emotions such as victimization. Their leader Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is soulful and sympathetic like Bub the zombie from Day of the Dead.
Kaufman sends minions Riley (Nathan Fillon) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) out into the infested wastelands, in caravans of heavily armored vehicles. They distract the “stench” (the derogatory term of choice for the undead) with fireworks as they loot for food and valuables to cart back to stock Kaufman’s larders in Fiddler’s Green. Riley and Cholo are old friends since fallen out, and their relationship provides the one genuinely funny bit of dialogue: happy-go-lucky Cholo tells the perpetually dour Riley: “Didn’t I tell you not to bang chicks with worse problems than you?” That’s not bad advice, actually.
The intelligent zombies, apparently feeling disenfranchised, organize and mount an attack on the city. Anyway, Riley and Cholo finally become disillusioned about Kaufman’s utopia. Together with Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead), they try to escape for the imagined safe haven of Canada (as if they think they are merely dodging the draft and not the twin threats of plague and humanity’s own venal overlords). In true Romero fashion, the villainous Kaufman also happens to be a racist, shouting epithets at the zombified Cholo (John Leguizombie?) as he comes to kill him. If there ever were a point in human history when race will have truly become irrelevant, this ought to be it.
I don’t think Romero and his zombie films would be remembered without the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead and the pointed satire of consumerism found in Dawn of the Dead. But if he had started out with something as unfocused as Land of the Dead, he probably wouldn’t have been. Romero admits to Parallax view he didn’t fully work out the analogy: “I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was worried that this isnâ€™t quite clear. Who are the terrorists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zombies? And it gave me a little pause, but we had to start shooting because we had the money. Iâ€™m being perfectly honest, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and figure it out. Sometimes you just run on instinct.” Even the roundtable of horror aficionados on InternalBleeding.net agree that the movie is “not scary, but really gross.”
Land of the Dead obviously has the biggest budget of all of Romero’s zombie cycle so far, and remains the only one with well-known stars. But it is only superficially “better” than its predecessors, featuring bigger names and more technological polish. As is the case with many a Hollywood production, raised financial stakes bring a lowering of standards and diminishing returns: more money in, more shit out. A “some time ago…” prologue montage illustrates for the slower members of the audience what zombies are all about. Perhaps the movie studio executives were pitching the film to audiences beyond the usual horror genre ghetto already versed with the zombie genre.
Day of the Dead (1985) is the third episode in George A. Romero’s continuing tale of civilization’s collapse in the event of a global zombie epidemic. This and the big-budget Land of the Dead (2005) are tied for the worst entries in the series. What makes the first two (Night and Dawn) of merit is their surprisingly acute social satire, but here Romero loses his critical focus in favor of gore and general unpleasantry with little redeeming value.
After the initial wave of undead in Night of the Living Dead and the collapse of cities and suburbia in Dawn of the Dead, Romero now jumps still forward in time. Several months into the zombie plague, a dozen humans huddle isolated in an underground bunker. Their fortress is sufficient to protect them from the barbarians outside the gates, but they have lost radio contact with the outside world. They make occasional sorties to nearby cities via helicopter, but encounter nothing but more hordes of zombies. For all they know, they are the last humans on the planet.
The disparate batch of survivors in Night of the Living dead was essentially a cross-section of civilization, but Romero narrows his focus here onto the military and scientific worlds. The humans trapped underground include three scientists, two civilians, and seven soldiers. All of them are slowly losing their minds save for level-headed scientist Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), valiantly researching a cure. As is now customary in Romero’s zombie flicks, Sarah is an atypical protagonist for a horror movie. The most capable and sane character in Night of the Living Dead was a black man (Duane Jones), a huge deal for movies of any genre in 1968, and still rare now. Sarah is a woman, another social group historically subjugated by society, not to mention typically reduced to screaming eye candy in horror movies.
The nerve-wracking 28 Days Later (2002), director Danny Boyle’s contribution to the zombie genre, borrowed this scenario of an isolated batch of male soldiers acting without command, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, and locked in a fortress with only one woman. Not surprisingly, things get ugly. To a one, the soldiers are despicably racist and illogical. But leader Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is actually correct about one key fact of their situation: the head scientist they have been ordered to defer to is indeed totally mad. Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in domesticating zombies into slaves than he is in either curing (as Sarah is trying to do) or eradicating them (as, naturally, the soldiers would have it). His star lab rat is a captive zombie dubbed Bub (Sherman Howard). The chained and tortured Bob is surprisingly sympathetic, possibly even moreso than heroine Sarah. He’s also the first instance in Romero’s movies of an intelligent, self-aware breed of zombie we won’t see again until twenty years later in Land of the Dead. But neither film makes much of the concept of zombies as a new life form, as opposed to the classic remorseless adversary typical for the genre.
As discussed in our review of Night of the Living Dead, one key aspect of the zombie genre that has fueled its continuing appeal over the years is that a plague is a great leveler. Everyone is vulnerable to disease. Everyone is equal after death (or is that undeath?), be they male or female, rich or poor, of any race. And for the survivors, once society breaks down (and it always does when the undead walk the streets), all the money and creature comforts in the world become irrelevant.
You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
Zombie godfather George A. Romero waited more than a decade to create Dawn of the Dead, the first sequel in his zombie cycle that would eventually number five (soon to be six) installments. Night of the Living Dead was marketed under the tagline “They won’t stay dead,” which beautifully told audiences all they needed to know. Still, the marketing teams behind Dawn of the Dead were able to find room for improvement and crafted the even more memorable “When there’s no room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Gone is the classic oxymoron “Living Dead.” Now and for the rest of Romero’s zombie movies, the foes are known simply as “The Dead.”
Dawn of the Dead doesn’t feature any characters from the original film (unsurprising, as none of them made it through alive), but there’s no reason why it can’t be seen as taking place about three weeks after the onset of the same plague witnessed by an isolated bunch of people in the Pennsylvania countryside in the original film. This time around, we open in Center City Philadelphia, as a different batch of survivors nobly keep a television station operational as society slowly collapses about them. Conditions eventually break down in the studio as well, and two of them selfishly escape to seek safe ground via helicopter. As they lift off, note the best image of all Romero’s zombie films: in the background, lights eerily switch off floor-by-floor in a skyscraper. In a rare case of artful restraint on Romero’s part, his camera lingers on the scene just long enough for it to register.
The team of survivors includes two contrasting pairs. Pilot Steve (David Emge) is the weak link in the group, while station manager Gaylen (Francine Parker) is the heart and brains. Two very different SWAT commandos throw their lot in with these civilians: the diminutive but athletic and enthusiastic Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), and the tall, quiet, and serious Peter (Ken Foree). But together, the two soldiers are more than the sum of their parts and manifest leadership qualities. Echoing the social subtext of the original film, race becomes irrelevant (Peter is black and Roger is white) and the two become fast friends.
The four set down upon the roof of a suburban shopping mall, a relatively new American invention in 1979. They purge it of lingering zombies and turn it into what is equal parts fortress and paradise. It is here where one realizes that Dawn of the Dead is probably the most openly satirical of all Romero’s zombie movies. It’s impossible to miss the critique of our materialist consumer society, as these survivors gleefully take whatever they want off the racks, for free. Even the stoic commandos are thrilled by the opportunity to go on an unlimited shopping spree. They live off fine wine and canned caviar as the barbarians are literally at the gate. You know it’s the end of the world when shopping mall muzak is the soundtrack for our heroes’ systematic mass zombie slaughter and corpse collection. Infamous Italian horror director Dario Argento composed the soundtrack as well as served as script consultant.
Unfortunately, Dawn of the Dead fizzles with a weak ending, especially compared to the pitiless conclusion of Night of the Living Dead. Internal strife and the zombie hordes assembling outside are not their only problems. A ragtag caravan of roadwarrior survivors arrive and disrupt the stalemate. But the central consumerist satire still resonates enough for the movie to have been effectively remade in 2004 by director Zack Snyder, without Romero’s involvement.
You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing what is now recognized as the first zombie movie ever made: White Zombie (1932), starring none other than Bela Lugosi. But arguably, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the actual zombie urtext. It preceded the first of its four official sequels by almost a decade, but laid down the definitive template for the great flood of derivatives, remakes, homages, and ripoffs to come. Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, and can be legally downloaded for free from Archive.org.
One may wonder about the mental health of such obsessive zombie fans, but now that this blog is hosting a Romero Zombie Cycle film Festival, I must now count myself among them. Also, the word “zombie” is just kind of fun to say. Zombie, zombie, zombie. Perhaps sensing the recent spike in the zombie zeitgeist, Romero himself has picked up the pace of his zombie cycle, adding fresh new entries in 2005 and 2007, with yet another planned for the near future.
What exactly is the appeal? The basic zombie conceit is uncomplicated. Indeed, the Night of the Living Dead marketing tagline “They won’t stay dead!” pretty much says it all. Simply, any and all dead people (no matter what the manner of their expiration) will inevitably come back to life as unthinking, unfeeling, carnivorous monsters. There’s something pure to Romero’s original concept, without the complexities added by later zombie stories. Horror and science fiction blog io9 posits that war and social upheaval correlate with spikes in zombie movie production. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), forever retooled the zombie concept for a world obsessed with contagious diseases (SARS, AIDS), and the essentially animalistic badness of human nature (torture, terrorism). Boyle’s zombies don’t want to eat; they are just plain mad.
Romero’s zombies have some rudimentary intelligence and are able to open doors, employ simple tools like bludgeons, and are afraid of fire. But they have no remnants of their former memories or personalities, and exist only to sup upon the living. Common to nearly every zombie tale is that an epidemic effects a breakdown of societal order, be it on a micro (such as the classic horror movie scenario of a few survivors locked in a farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead) or macro scale (witness the total collapse of civilization in Brooks’ novel World War Z). There’s a basic pessimism inherent in the genre; everything we regard as human is fragile. Faced with zombie hordes, the living turn on each other, cut and run, or totally shut down.
Romero & John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead screenplay includes some pseudo-scientific technobabble concerning a returning space probe contaminated with radiation from Venus, but for all intents and purposes the origin of the phenomenon is irrelevant to the story. Later zombie films would introduce the concept of a blood-transmitted virus, but it is irrelevant here whether or not any victim is contaminated by a germs or extraterrestrial radiation. Merely dying is all it takes to become a monster. In a way, Romero’s original conception of the zombie, absent of any plague metaphor, is the bleakest of all variants. Human society will be forever changed in a world in which even those that die naturally will have to be decapitated before they revive as beastly ghouls.
Like all of Romero’s zombie flicks, Night of the Living Dead is set in the Pittsburgh, PA area (except Day of the Dead, which is the odd one out for many reasons to be discussed in the forthcoming review). The opening sequence is set in graveyard littered with American flags, perhaps meant as a silent allusion to the vast numbers of fresh corpses being sent back from the Vietnam War. A random assortment of survivors barricade themselves in a farmhouse. Romero tells Parallax-view.org that the cast and crew actually lived in that farmhouse while filming: “We had no bread. We were literally sleeping out of that farmhouse, chopping ice out of the tank behind the toilet bowl in order to wash our faces, and we were taking baths out in the creek.”
In the best horror movie tradition, we have a cross-section of society with representatives of every gender, age, class, and race: a traumatized woman, a young couple, a classic nuclear family, and a lone black man. For all intents and purposes, their various social standings are erased as they all must unite to defend themselves against a common foe. Ben (Duane Jones) proves himself the most intelligent, sane, and capable of the bunch. But the humans can barely agree on anything, and expend most of their energy on infighting. One suspects that they wouldn’t be able to get along even without the zombie hordes assembling outside.
Night of the Living Dead is notorious for remaining unrated by the MPAA, proudly showcasing a considerable amount of gore (and even a little nude zombie derriere) unprecedented in 1968. But I think it’s fair to say that the true reason the movie is remembered as more than a cheapie horror flick is its African American protagonist. Of superior intelligence and maturity than everyone else, he alone (spoiler alert!) survives while the rest of the gang self-destructs. But unbeknownst to him, authorities have mobilized to sweep the countryside in order to execute any and all shambling zombies. It’s impossible to ignore this group’s resemblance to a lynch mob of the white male establishment, bearing scythes and hunting rifles. Given this scenario, one might predict the powerful, racially charged ending. In an interesting stylistic choice, the final sequence is told as a photomontage, a series of still images showing us the tragic aftermath of what happens when the supposedly civilized “living” are given free reign to indulge in their bloodlust.
You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
Now that’s a good intro: Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) cruises through an empty city with the top down. It’s eerie, but he seems happy, grooving to jazz from his onboard 8-track cassette deck. But suddenly! Screech! Ka-pow! He brakes, produces a machine gun and fires at a fleeting humanoid silhouette. A striking montage follows of a desolated, deserted city.
Heston was once known as a liberal, and here his character entertains an interracial romance (with afro-licious Rosalind Cash) no more common in movies now than it was in 1971. Unfortunately, it’s now impossible to take Heston seriously, thanks to Phil Hartman’s classic mockery on Saturday Night Live and to Heston’s own Alzheimer’s-fueled descent into right-wing senility.
Interestingly, Heston’s oeuvre is dominated by dystopian sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green form a trilogy of apocalyptic despair. Remakes of Apes (by Tim Burton) and Omega (Wil Smith’s I Am Legend) made him nearly obsolete even before he died. Can Soylent Green (which is, incidentally, much better than its reputation suggests) be far behind?
Compared to the bestial vampires that populate I Am Legend, the creatures in The Omega Man are an intelligent, religious cult. They don’t attack Neville with technology (like, say, shoot him) simply because they choose not to.
As for entertainment in a time before VHS, the last man alive on earth is stuck with whatever happened to be in the theaters at the time; he screens the concert film Woodstock over and over. As for The Omega Man’s own music, the orchestral jazz pop score is not just outdated, but bizarrely inappropriate.
The crucifixion pose at the end is a bit much. I didn’t expect much subtlety, but that’s laying it on a bit thick.
For most of it, I thought for sure Shaun of the Dead was a four-starrer, but it lost its way at some point. I’m not sure exactly of the transition point, but I felt that the tone had changed too drastically by the time the characters were trapped in the pub (in other words, I had stopped laughing).
Until that point, I was totally loving it, particularly a newscaster’s description of the zombies as “shambolic.” It became a bit nasty and grim (sons blowing their undead mum’s brains out), and then veered back to whimsy at the end. But all that said, it’s remarkable that despite all the humor, satire, and melodrama, it’s still an honest-to-goodness zombie movie.
Did you spot the virtually wordless cameo by Arthur De- I mean, Martin Freeman?