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The Living Dead Trilogy

Sam Link
Oct 16, 2016


The Living Dead Trilogy

Genre: Horror, Dystopia, Zombies

Director: George A. Romero

Released: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985)

Summary: The original modern zombie films, the zombies of George Romero remind us that we have less to fear from slow-witted, slow-moving mobs of the undead than the propensity for evil in man.

The Walking Dead should start every episode with a thank you letter to George Romero. Their make-up effects are by Greg Nicotero – who cut his teeth as an assistant to the legendary Tom Savini on Day of the Dead – and the entire premise of the series owes a debt of gratitude to Romero’s zombies.

Not that it was supposed to work out that way. Romero and his friends ran a small film company which did commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Initially, Romero had intended to create a horror comedy with aliens, which then morphed into an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story I Am Legend due to budget concerns (freshly dead bodies are cheaper to depict!), but without the rights to the text, Romero wrote a derivative original screenplay, substituting walking dead for Matheson’s vampires and the beginning of the apocalypse for the end. During auditions, the lead role – a tough-guy truck driver – ended up being filled by Duane Jones, an African American actor who brought sensitivity to the role that Romero hadn’t envisioned. The rest of the cast was filled out with members of the production company, family friends, and actors who had done commercial work with Romero in the past.

In the 1960s, horror films were largely Gothic fantasies in the vein of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, campy romps like the Hammer films and Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, or dealt with real world horrors, like Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. In the end, without fail, evil was punished and justice was meted out.

So audiences weren’t prepared for Romero’s bleak, nihilistic tale of ghoulish monsters that attacked without reason. The film was denounced as socially irresponsible at worst, and silly at best. However, some critics – notably Roger Ebert and Rex Reed – saw something more; a revolution in horror cinema, elevating the genre from B-Movie to serious film containing social commentary, where the monsters were the people in the crisis, not the monsters causing the crisis.

This theme was explored further in the sequel Dawn of the Dead, where a group of survivors hide inside an abandoned shopping mall. Many shots prior to the “cleansing” of the mall depict the living dead as indistinguishable from the shoppers who had been there before, one character even commenting that “This was an important place in their lives.” Where Night had unintentionally made social commentary due to Romero’s color-blind casting of Duane Jones, Dawn actively sought out social commentary, addressing the conditions in tenements, the militarization of the police force, racism, abortion, and the greed of the era. Also, there are the living dead. They aren’t very scary compared to most of the people in the film. Night’s late ‘60s fatalism and nihilism is replaced by the bright colors and advertising of the ‘70s. Dawn was a commercial success, blending the excess of the time with criticism of that same excess.

The final film in the original trilogy, Day, returns to the bleak world of Night, set some time after the original film inside a secret underground military base. The claustrophobic setting, with hardly any living dead, emphasizes that the biggest issue facing the survivors is not the dead, but one another. This is emphasized by the true hero of the film not being a survivor, but a member of the dead – a ghoul named Bub who a scientist coaxes back to having memories of his life. As society breaks down even on the microcosmic scale, the scientist in question – Dr. Logan – reminds both those present and the audience:

“Civil behavior is what distinguishes us from the lower forms. It's what enables us to communicate. To go about things in an orderly fashion without attacking each other like beasts in the wild. Civility must be rewarded, Captain. If it isn't rewarded, then there's no use for it.”

After the success of Dawn, Day was a box office disappointment. In the ensuing years, critics have been more kind than they were at release, praising Romero’s prescient criticism of militarism and increasing interpersonal incivility.

There are further films in the series which I have not seen, but they continue Romero’s tradition of social commentary via horror. In addition, he launched the careers of special effects artists Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero, both of whom are highly respected in the world of practical effects. The most important contributions of Romero, however, are the slow-moving menace of the living dead – which create an existential fear more than an actual physical threat – and the elevation of horror from B-grade shallow entertainment to a vehicle for a more pointed message.