(On Cable TV, March 2018) A mandatory stop on every horror fan’s checklist, Night of the Living Dead is the father to an entire zombie subgenre, transforming an old Voodoo bogeyman in the undead monster that has been endlessly copied and adapted ever since. Writer/director George Romero does much with a limited budget, although it does take some suspension of disbelief to go along the film’s various basement surprises. Still, and respite the remakes and adaptations and sequel, it still carries an appreciable punch: While the gore and the dread have all been surpassed later on, the original still works rather well. Judith O’Dea initially looks great as Barbra (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”), but it’s Duane Jones who steals the show as the only competent one around. The low-budget restrictions of the film make it lean and mean, with maximum thrills in a minimal space: No wonder it would be endlessly imitated. Since Night of the Living Dead has been in the public domain for a long time, watching it is as easy as calling up the film’s Wikipedia page. This being said, there’s some worth in springing for a high-resolution restored versions: While there’s some charm in the low-grade version, it’s a good enough film that it should be watched as it was meant to be seen.
(On TV, July 2017) Writer/director George Romero may be acknowledged as a defining figure of the zombie horror subgenre, but his movies became steadily more generic as time went on. Some of this can’t be blamed on him as much as the subgenre evolving beyond Romero’s vision. His fourth zombie film, Land of the Dead, was released in 2005, for instance, a year that saw somewhere between 22 and 28 other zombie movies. That’s also one year after 2004, an acknowledged peak year which saw the release of such modern zombie classics as Dawn of the Dead (remake) and Shaun of the Dead, and arguably the start of a zombie craze that hasn’t yet abated. In that context, Land of the Dead feels … ordinary. Taking place years after the zombie apocalypse, it revolves around downtown Pittsburgh, in which a zombie-free haven exists for surviving humans. Adding to the drama, Romero sets up a conflict between rich and poor humans which inevitably leads to barriers being broached and an inevitable bloodbath. John Leguizamo is remarkable as a character who comes to appreciate the limits of his social class. Otherwise, it’s the kind of second-generation zombie story we’ve seen elsewhere (most notably 28 Weeks Later): the living can’t live with each other effectively enough to fight the dead, the centre does not hold, and the dead win. Land of the Dead is relatively effective in that it has themes, some wit, some imagination and intentions that go beyond “just another zombie movie”. But there are limits to its effectiveness, especially in a sub-genre that has seemingly been strip-mined in the past decade and a half.
(TubiTV streaming, May 2017) Zombie movies often work as indictments of humanity, and Day of the Dead proves to be a particularly depressing example of the form. George Romero’s third zombie film takes place on a military base, sometime after the zombie apocalypse, as experiments take place to understand and control the zombie menace. This leads straight to particularly gory sequence of medical horror, combined with the usual tropes of humans being terrible to another even in the face of a mortal threat. Combine the two and you’ve got the makings of a particularly depressing zombie film, even by the glum standards of the genre. (Ironically, though, this is one rare zombie film in which a few survivors find a relatively peaceful situation at the end. Go figure…) If I was more of a gore-hound (and I really am not), I’d probably be enthusiastic about the inventive ways Day of the Dead shows zombies at their worst, and the unsettling cumulative impact of the medical experiments on the living dead. Some of the stuff is still good enough to make anyone wonder how they did that in a pre-CGI age. (The opening “Calendar” jump scare is top-notch.) The nihilistic plotting is far more depressing, though, with the situation inside the bunker growing bleaker by the moment. Day of the Dead is definitely a zombie film for subgenre aficionados—I’m not much of a zombie fan, and I found the film far too gloomy at times.