Reviews of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and related work

Night of the Living Dead (1968Moving picture, 96 minutes)

A small group of people gather in a farmhouse as murderous “ghouls” walk. Some advocate locking themselves up in the basement, others make a move for freedom. Only one of them survives the undead.

Personal horror and dehumanizing drama on a backdrop of the televised apocalypse. The film is low budget, black and white with poor effects, editing and acting.

This film set off the subgenre-defining zombie franchise, in large part because of a clerical error. It was an independent production, not backed up by studio lawyers, and the title card doesn’t have a copyright notice. The contents therefore fell straight into the public domain. This means that, apart from being a good movie in its own right, the legacy of the film is also a case study in extremely successful, unintentionally free culture.

Serious, harsh, unethical, complicated, political and fairly realistic, the narrative strips William Seabrook’s Haitian zombies of their religious patina along with the possibility of control. As in all great zombie fiction the protagonists are seldom moral, and fail in refreshing ways. Apart from shifting the pop-culture idea of zombies away from the occult colonial slaves of earlier fiction, and apart from the copyright flub’s explosion of zombie/ghoul content, this kicked off a wave of good X-rated horror like The Exorcist (1973) as the Hays Code fell. It was a major film in the “midnight movies” phenomenon. Subtext includes Vietnam, racism (albeit unplanned; the script doesn’t imply ethnic contrasts), the products of bourgeois families, the dominance of media, capitalism (in grave ornaments), the utility of savagery, and so on. The offered explanation for ghouls walking the earth is charmingly retro (a “mysterious radiation”) but nobody is certain.

References here: The Crazies (1973), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), The Fisher King (1991), Story of Science Fiction (2018), The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

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Dawn of the Dead (1978Moving picture, 127 minutes)

It turns out that every human with an intact brain gets hungry at death. Two guys in a SWAT team ditch the fall of Philadelphia when things get too depressing. They join forces with a traffic reporter and his girlfriend at the same network and make their way north via news helicopter. They pause at a mall.

Dawn of the Dead is the pinnacle of the main development in 1970s horror cinema, away from the external threats and isolated locales of the 1930s through 1950s, reaching all the way into common people in common places. This is the significance of Peter saying “They’re us, that’s all.” It’s post-Vietnam horror at the self. It was never done better than this.

At the same time, it’s grander in scale. There is a loosely linear internal chronology reflected in the names of the sequels, yet every story seems to take place in the present day of the particular production, and neither characters nor locations are recycled, so this might not be a sequel to Night. Anyway, it’s Romero, and the overall climax of the arc.

Filmed with little sincerity on a minimal budget, Dawn was reshaped into a masterpiece in the cutting room. The mood swings wildly from goofy jokes to existential dread and clashes with the odd music. The zombies, named with an off-hand reference to voodoo, have astounding bite strength. The make-up is overdone and inconsistent, the lighting is boring, the gore is overhyped and the symbolism is almost explicit. The action sequences are poor, using the unrealistic slow multiple ricochet and having a SWAT member warning about it, among other unfortunate tricks. These weaknesses are all immediately obvious.

The flawed execution does not manage to compromise the brilliant story. There is no sheriff’s death squad this time. Instead we have an ingenious apocalypse where simple secular “rules” have extremely complex and interesting results: The ultimate internally logical horror movie. Mortality is ever present and ever brutalizing. The ”cozy catastrophe” is obviously hollow: Having the run of the mall is a brilliant image of dreams offered to us in advertising.

References here: Shaun of the Dead (2004), The Strain (2014), School-Live! (2015), Army of the Dead (2021), Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead (2023).

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‣‣ Dawn of the Dead (2004Moving picture, 101 minutes)

Some ordinary people go to bed one evening without paying much attention to the news. They wake up to total chaos. A televangelist smugly informs a handful of survivors that this is simply Yahweh taking action.

The televangelist is played by Ken Foree, the original’s Peter. That’s a nice touch. The premises are fairly close to Romero’s, but zombies can run here, they eat only humans, and people don’t resurrect unless bitten. These premises are again applied directly to everyday people in the middle of everyday life, with a high budget and modern tools. There are too many slow-motion close-ups on guns (the present era’s equivalent to the slow multiple ricochet) and fast zombies do detract from their symbolism.

The central symbolic motif of the original is mercifully toned down but not contradicted. The symbolic value of the mall—which is secondary—evolved between 1978 and 2004. In the economically stagnant ’70s, the mall was already grotesque but it was still trendy and seen as part of the solution to (i.e. personal escape from) urban decay. In the ’90s, the flight from city centers toward the suburbs was halted, homogeneous retail chains lost their glamour and online shopping began to compete with brick and mortar, so a lot of suburban malls had to close. There is a natural affinity between the waning status of the mall and the implicit critique of human civilization, but this neither helps nor harms the remake. Fortunately, Snyder does not go into the Gothic mode of the mall as an exotic or Unheimlich “abandoned place”. This version also preserves and improves upon the jarring musical choices of the original, for the opening credits sequence in particular.

The final act is somewhat weak, eschewing ennui and slow death for more direct horror and Hollywood action. It would have worked better if Nicole had clearly developed an insane attachment to the dog because of her family, and if she had died in the attempt.

References here: “Under the Hood” (2009), Man of Steel (2013), Story of Science Fiction (2018), Army of the Dead (2021).

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Zombi 2 (1979Moving picture, 91 minutes)

A boat from an uncharted Caribbean island is found drifting on the waters of New York city, apparently empty. The Coast Guard investigates, setting off a quest that will eventually result in the island emptying its mass graves.

It’s marketed as a sequel despite being created after the official sequel, without Romero or his premise or any legal arrangement. This is because it’s an Italian exploitation effort. It’s best known for an aquatic zombie-on-shark wrestling sequence and an assault on a woman’s eye in unflinching close-up with worse special effects than in “Un chien Andalou” (1929). The tits and unconvincing gore add little, unlike the sheer schlock value of the shark fight and maggots. The music is overrated.

References here: The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

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Day of the Dead (1985Moving picture, 96 minutes)

A research project devoted to understanding the undead is still proceeding. A neurologist is attempting to “make them behave” and has found a zombie of relative intelligence. The project was put together hastily however, so research is agonizingly slow. The soldiers who are meant to be protecting the scientists want to return to civilization, if there is one. On the ground above the missile silo, the dead now walk in their millions.

Second Romero sequel. The “Condition” is explained quite closely, with moderate success. The previous film’s crappy makeup concept is executed much better, but a few of the zombies are simply laughable (a clown, a kid in American football gear, a housewife who still wears bright yellow rubber gloves; Romero succumbs to the foibles of the contemporary cycle). Nonetheless, the deterioration is intriguing and credible, though the very end leaves a lot to be desired. Blame the budget if you must; it was cut in half as punishment for the extreme gore. The existence of this more philosophical entry deepens the series very neatly, but it is not nearly as original as its predecessors.

References here: The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

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‣‣ Day of the Dead (2008Moving picture, 86 minutes)

A US town troubled by a nosebleed-inducing “flu” is quarantined by the military and soon erupts.

Opportunist garbage. Barely does lip service to the originals. No merits.

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‣‣ Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018Moving picture, 90 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

The doctors researching a cure for the zombie virus, five years after the apocalypse, aren’t sure whether Yahweh wants them to succeed. Instead of Bob, they have Max. He’s a zombie who won’t bite the protagonist, apparently because he loves her. Even when he was alive, he claimed they had a special connection. Alas, he’s a creep. In the end she uses his body to develop a vaccine for the virus. It doesn’t convert zombies but it does act as a cure against the process of turning, even when it’s already begun.

More of a remake than the 2008 film, but it still has no honest relationship to Romero’s ideas. It attempts to innovate with the zombified would-be rapist (#metoo), but this isn’t worthwhile. The happy ending is also a little surprising, but likewise not worthwhile.

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Night of the Living Dead (1990Moving picture, 92 minutes)

The studio fumbled the copyright for the original film, so there is a large amount of other versions floating around, including a colourized one. This is an actual remake with a 1980-/90s action/final girl. There are a couple of nice twists, but the characters are flat, there is no sense of reality, and the script compulsively explicates completely unnecessary details, which is not good for horror.

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Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D (1991Moving picture, 96 minutes)

A redub gag wiping the entire audio track and replacing it with humorous voices performed by one guy acting out a new script. Some footage is cut. It’s full of stereotypes and lowbrow jokes, but the effort is obvious, and it does apologize to Romero. It even has music and surreal sound effects, as well as a number of brief interruptions ranging from the nonsensical to the disturbingly factual.

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Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition (1999Moving picture, 93 minutes)

This version adds a prologue, crashed car and epilogue, all of it crappy. It also messes with the music and cuts out good original footage. Terrible acting, including a hilarious attempt to have one actor return and play the same character—in additional footage only—after 30 years. Strongly reminiscent of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Stay away.

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Land of the Dead (2005Moving picture, 93 minutes)

Years have passed since “everything changed”. A capitalist cadre has arranged for the successful defence of several city blocks, protected by rivers, electrified fencing and private guards. The rich live in a skyscraper called Fiddler’s Green while the poor subsist beneath. They haven’t heard from the nearest haven in a long time and they get their supplies by raiding the ruins. The chief raider, who’s built and commanded an armoured truck—the Dead Reckoning—is retiring to head to Canada. Outside, the “walkers” who rule nearly all the world exhibit unexplainable behaviour.

Third Romero sequel. The zombie goes full circle, reclaiming the symbolism it possessed in White Zombie (1932) as the concept of Bub reaches the surface. Land is partially based on Day scripts from before the budget got cut. Modern effects, snappy pacing, nice in-jokes, relatively good characters for a Romero movie. The most annoying weakness is excessive use of automatic fire, and they should have called it Night of the Living, damn it.

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