They’re Pretending to Be Alive (Land of the Dead, 2005)

Land_of_the_Dead_posterIt took 20 years for Romero to decide on a new zombie film.  In this film?  Set well after the zombie apocalypse, we are introduced to a small city that has grown, fortified against the dead.  The culture is divided between the haves and the have-nots.  Those with riches live in comfort in a high-rise apartment complex.  Everyone else lives alone, where life is a day to day struggle.

In this world, there are those employed by the rich to go out and scavenge the land for supplies. Riley runs one such crew, under the employ of Kaufman.  They have all sorts of tricks to distract the dead, though it is still a very dangerous job.  One such expedition has an unexpected side effect.  a Zombie begins uniting zombies in a march towards the city.  It is unclear fully what causes this, but there is a rudimentary communication.

Meanwhile, Riley plots with his friends to get out of town and on their own.  His second in command, Cholo, wants to become one of the elites and is trying to get in with Kaufman.  Of course, Kaufman does not care about helping Cholo and uses his greed and ambition for his own benefit.

It is clear at this point, Romero has lost interest in the survivors.  He is done suggesting mankind might win, and any attempt to rebuild is clearly futile.  Land of the dead feels like it really is the end of the road for the franchise (it was not).  It is a fairly decent film with some fun characters and interesting ideas at play, but at the same time, it never quite achieves the levels of its predecessors.

Choke On Em! (Day of the Dead, 1985)

Day_of_the_Dead_PosterDay of the Dead begins with the films heroes landing a helicopter at the edge of a city. They are calling out as the camera explores a desolate empty world seemingly only occupied by animals.  But then we see a shadow and the camera pans up to the mutilated face of a zombie.

Day of the Dead shows us a world over run by zombies.  There are few members of the living.  In fact, our heroes are part of a secret base of scientists and soldiers who are starting to wonder if they are all alone on the world.  Set on a small island in an underground base, tensions between the civilian staff and military men are running high.

Captain Rhodes and his men are starting to become more aggressive, believing the scientists work unimportant.  The military men just want to find another outpost and leave.  But the lead scientist Logan is obsessed with the idea that he can “domesticate” zombies.  His best example is the zombie Bub (which he explains is a nickname of his father).  Bub seems to remember things like tools, books, phones.  He mainly is mimicking what other people do (he simply thumbs through a Stephen King book, runs a disposable razor down his cheek, etc).  But Logan believes it is more, and the end of the film does suggest that Bub is not as mindless as he seems.

Eventually, it all explodes, the scientists plan an escape, while Rhodes and his men plan to leave the island and the scientists behind.  You might be surprised to find that not everything goes as planned.

A new theme enters Romero’s films with Day of the dead…one of…”Who is worse?”  Not unlike Ripley telling Burke you don’t see the aliens “f***ing each other over for a percentage”, Rhodes and his men may be more terrifying as they bully and abuse the scientists.  It has been said that as the movies have gone on, George Romero started to side with the zombies.  Day of the Dead is the seeds of that.

It is not just the callous obsession of Logan or the cruelty of Captain Rhodes.  It is, ultimately, Bub.  Bub, who barely says a word is remarkably sympathetic.  Sherman Howard packs a lot of emotion into his performance, and it is no surprise that Bub is a popular character.

Truthfully, Day of the Dead is my favorite Romero zombie movie.  I like and admire the previous two films, but Day is my unabashed favorite.  Being set beyond the zombie outbreak allows an exploration of that world based in something other than confusion and desperation.  It asks the most intriguing questions about human nature and our desire to control situations that may be far from our grasp.

When There Is No More Room In Hell (Dawn of the Dead, 1978)

Dawn_of_the_Dead_PosterIt took about ten years for Romero to find something new to explore with zombies.  It was the Dawn of the Shopping Mall, with large insular buildings housing a variety of stores.  At the time, this encapsulated the concerns of modern life and consumerism.  George Romero looked at the shopping mall and thought “What a terrifying place!”

The film opens amidst a frenzied newsroom trying to make sense of what is happening.  It appears this may be the same night as the original film, though the film is never that explicit.  It does not reference Night of the Living Dead.  None of the films do, actually.  Each film seems to take place in an ever present “now”, regardless of if it makes sense in the greater context of all the films.

Two newsroom employees escape in a helicopter, along with two S.W.A.T. team members.  They end up landing on a mall roof.  What follows is an adventure of survival as they build a small fortress and use the mall stores to wait out the zombie situation.    At first, this works out quite well, and they get creative, building fake walls to hide stairwells from Zombies, blocked glass doors with trucks, using the mall keys to move from store to store and get supplies.

But you know their paradise cannot last as outside forces close in.  Romero keeps his central cast to a tight four.  This is a good choice, as we are allowed to connect with our leads and root for their success in a way that can be hard if there are to many people to keep track of.

The gore effects are improved over the previous effort, though as Tom Savini noted making many zombies grayish colored actually results in zombies looking blue.  And the blood splatter from some zombies seems far to large for shambling dead creatures.

This is the film that really set up the “Zombie represents mindless consumption” metaphor.  Which is kind of funny, since there have been an endless supply of bad zombie films over the years for the masses to consume.  But Dawn of the Dead is a great film and important to the horror (and especially zombie films) genre.

They’re Coming To Get You (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

Night_of_the_Living_Dead_poster1968 was a time of real social upheaval in the United States of America.  Out of this turmoil was born a tale of people desperate to survive in a situation they cannot hope to make sense of.

George Romero and his friend John Russo put together a film that would challenge the norms of film-making in America.  Horror monsters had always been distinct creatures.  Vampires, werewolves and so on.  But Night of the Living Dead introduced something different.

The concept of the zombie was not a new one.  But Romero and Russo introduced a lot of what we consider standard zombie lore.  Head shots to kill, undead and eaters of flesh.  These monsters were scary not because of their personalty…but because they were our loved ones, but without soul…the dead are a horde without emotion and only seeking to devour.

We are introduced to Barbara and her brother Johnny.  They have come to a remote cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave.  When they are attacked by a man, Barbara is forced to flee.  She discovers a farmhouse and along with another stranger, Ben, start to try and hide from the attackers.  Soon they discover they are not alone in the house and the small band of survivors work to try and survive and determine a way to escape.

The group finds itself strained by the tensions that develop as some desire to stay hidden, while others hope to get away from the farm.  They are able to find news reports giving bits of information, but leaving them with few answers.

In some ways, Night of the Living Dead is ahead of the curve for films of that time. Ben (Duane Jones) is a black man who finds himself assuming the role of leader for many of the group.  On the other hand, Barbara is pretty much comatose the entire film, paralyzed by her fears.  Romero does not burden himself with to complex of a story, and although there are hints of a cause, the film is vague about it.  There is talk of a satellite and radiation, but ultimately, there is no definitive answer.

Night of the Living Dead is an effective thriller that is, in the end, responsible for what we now know to be zombies.  It’s significance cannot be overlooked, as it defined the zombie as a monster that still stands today.

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