I was six when a family friend first told me about “Night of the Living Dead.” We were at a lake house, far from home. I was naturally curious about the idea of the zombie, despite it scaring the hell out of me. He knew I was scared, and when I asked “How do they get rid of them?” he told me the living nuke the zombies.
He told me that the living win.
But nobody wins in the zombie apocalypse, and therein lies the reason why it remains an enduring subgenre of horror. We, the living, don’t lose because of insurmountable odds, bad luck or ill preparation. We lose because we’re human, and death is our ultimate destiny because of, not in spite of, our best efforts. Culture is a temporary salve, an invention to keep as many of us going as possible, and when that breaks down … ho boy, here comes the end of all things.
“The end of all things.” That’s a phrase integral to a proper zombie apocalypse, and none has captured that feeling quite as influentially or effectively as George A. Romero’s original trilogy. “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead” each broke ground for the zombie genre that continues to be trodden to this day, particularly in comics like “The Walking Dead,” books like “World War Z” and what seemed like almost every horror film between 2004 and 2010.
All the strengths and weaknesses of the zombie story are present in this trilogy, from start to finish. It’s hard for me not to gush endlessly about each of them, so for this No Sleep October I’m focusing on one key element that each film brings to the zombie apocalypse subgenre.
“Night of the Living Dead”
“Night of the Living Dead” features ghouls, not zombies (“Um, actually …”). There is minimal gore, with good reason. In 1968, Romero lacked the budget or cultural acceptability to get away with a lot. But he didn’t need to. There’s a lot of terror in “Night,” perhaps more than in its sequels and successors.
The story goes: While in rural Pennsylvania visiting their mother’s grave, Barbara (Judith Blair) and her brother are accosted by a ghoulish man who wants nothing more than to kill them. He succeeds with her brother, but Barbara escapes to a farmhouse, where she is quickly joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a guy from town who only barely escaped a horde of ghouls.
Jones is notable as a black lead in a movie full of white actors, a rarity for its time. Romero insists that Jones was a happenstance pick but his presence in the movie adds a great deal of thematic weight to the way events play out. Blair isn’t given a lot to do besides slowly grow more mentally broken (her character is amped up in the so-so remake). But she does it well, mixing hysteria and stunned silence.
Other survivors, including the owners of the home, join them as the movie progresses. The terror never lets up.
“Night of the Living Dead” is fantastically paced, a spooky “trapped inside” movie punctuated by tremendous violence. It builds the tension inside the house by giving us limited knowledge of what is happening beyond the walls, mostly through my favorite way possible: emergency news broadcasts. Reports from NASA about a meteorite? It’s downright 1950s science-fiction mixed with a Vietnam-era dissolution of cultural optimism. The atmosphere is expertly crafted. The terror is in not knowing.
I think the mystery of the ghouls and how to defeat them, combined with their relentless pursuit of human flesh, is actually a treasure of the genre largely lost to later versions of this story. The basics of the siege are usually repeated, in various locations, eras, social groups. But the facelessness of the attacks – they aren’t even called zombies – is hard to replicate. “Night” does it so well, never really answering it.
The sheer unimaginable nature of the situation with which Ben and Barbara find themselves trapped on that night of the living dead is the most terrifying aspect of the movie and what makes it a treasure.
“Dawn of the Dead”
“Dawn of the Dead” is a tragedy played as fantasy.
It helped me understand the Bush II years.
Hear me out.
2005: I was 15 years old. My old brother was into zombie fiction, and I was tired of having him explain the Romero mythology to me. I watched “Dawn of the Dead” all alone in a darkened computer room with my eyes on one screen, chatting with internet friends, occasionally looking back at the second screen. I did this because I was scared. I still do this.
I watched it again the next day. Then I showed a friend. And another friend. And another. I have watched “Dawn of the Dead” more than any other movie.
Where it came from: “Dawn” is the result of Italian horror producer Dario Argento hearing through the grapevine that Romero wanted to make a sequel to “Night.” He bankrolled Romero, who filmed the movie in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. The Monroeville Mall has a museum dedicated to the movie; it’s in an old KB Toys. I know because I’ve visited the museum. Twice.
I was obsessed with the movie, and why not? “Dawn” expands the first movie’s themes of what we become when culture collapses in a darkly comedic and intelligent fashion. It’s the first big zombie movie to really talk about the world at large falling into real disarray because of the epidemic; it’s also the first one to involve the takeover and militarization of a public space for the purpose of anti-zombie action.
“Dawn” has plenty of chills and thrills, but it drops the terror of the first one and trades up for a much more marketable emotion, one that carries the zombie apocalypse genre to this very day: fantasy.
So “Dawn” tends to be lauded for its social commentary about consumerism, and how the zombies are attracted to the mall because their base instincts tell them to go there. Cool. I’ve always thought, though, that the movie’s real impact were fans who watched it and thought, “How goddamn awesome is this scenario?” How awesome it must be to be Peter (Ken Foree), Stephen (David Emge), Francine (Gaylen Ross),and Roger (Scott Reiniger), trapped in that big mall with everything they need at their disposal. Naturally, Romero’s script is pretty explicit that their lives, despite being so full of stuff, nonetheless become listless and empty but … that doesn’t seem to be the cultural takeaway, does it?
The fantasy aspect is really what drew me to “Dawn” when I was a teenager and what drew my friends to it too. When I realized that the “zombie fantasy” was inherently built on the desire to have a clear-cut enemy to blow up and plenty of stuff to horde — well, that’s around the time I became politically aware, looked at the state of the Republican Party at the time and thought, “Oh, shit!”
Not to say that “Dawn” is a movie with libertarian leanings. Quite the contrary: It’s clearly a bleak look at the inability of human cultures to survive past catastrophes in any significant way — particularly, at the time, a culture built on individualism as religion. But the genre it spawned, the zombie apocalypse, is by and large a fantasy scenario.
“Day of the Dead” (1985)
“Day of the Dead” is generally viewed as the weakest of the trilogy, and I can understand why. Unlike “Night of the Living Dead,” with its cool, slow intensity, and “Dawn of the Dead,” which incorporates elements of fantasy, “Day” is just utterly bleak as fuck. It’s the angry younger brother who kicks cats, smokes cigarettes, spits off overpasses. He’s the kid who beats up his own older siblings and laughs about it later. It’s the long hangover after the glorious all-nighter of the previous two movies.
But just like a bad night out, the day after is when you learn your lesson.
“Night” showed the beginning, “Dawn” showed weeks into it, but “Day” is set long after the apocalypse when there is no chance of any civilization coming back. Survivors have had to start making their own civilization, and it is not going well. In this little sliver, a group of military men led by Col. Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), a truly despicable piece of shit, are stuck underground with a group of scientists, led by. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty). Logan isn’t much better, and has some real “Re-Animator” shit going on. His main experiment is trying to re-humanize a zombie named Bub (Sherman Howard).
Several non-affiliated survivors are caught between the two, including Sarah (Lori Cardille) and John (Terry Alexander).
In terms of actual scares, I think “Day” takes the cake of the trilogy. The zombie effects are particularly gruesome – prosthetics and Romero’s budget clearly came quite a way. Heads are lopped in half. Chins are missing, dangling tongues swaying in the wind. The bunker has a series of tunnels that leads out into the world at large, a dark, dirty route full of the undead.
Above all, though, it’s just sad. None of the characters is terribly likable and there’s no real goal to be had. Sarah and John want to escape the bunker … to what? The military men want to gain power … for what reason? Dr. Logan experiments on the undead to bring them sentience … to what end? There is a true and dark nihilism at play in “Day of the Dead,” one that few other zombie movies really capture so completely.
As a progression from “Night” to “Day,” the series encapsulates everything about the Zombie Apocalypse story. It brings terror, isolation, moves onward into fantasy, and finally brings it all crashing down with the singular reality that in this kind of story, nobody wins.