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Posted: December 10, 2002

By Clemenza, Contributing Undead

Perhaps no other horror films paint so dark a future for mankind as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. The dead have risen to eat the living, and their numbers grow faster than man's ability to contain the threat. They are us, reduced to the most primal level, driven by an unknown force. Facing a societal breakdown of unprecedented scope, man -- when's he's not foolishly fighting his fellow man -- begins the struggle for survival, first against a few hundred, then a few thousand, and then...it's too late. "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth." And Hell is filling up quickly...

Night Of the Living Dead
George Romero, USA, 1968
Rating: 4.5

Imagine being trapped in a remote location, surrounded by hordes of undead creatures, the vacant stares of their soulless eyes piercing you through the darkness as they fumble and wretch about. No, I'm not talking about renewing your driver's license at the DMV (an equally morbid experience). I'm speaking of the zombie world created by George Romero in the seminal Night of the Living Dead. This genuinely disturbing classic's greatest achievement is its ability to do more with less. Yes, it is a low budget effort, but in terms of suspense and atmosphere, it easily surpasses most of the today's horror fare. It starts with a good story. The recently dead have returned to life, driven by an unknown force (perhaps radiation from a returning space probe, but it's intentionally never made clear) to feast on the flesh of the living. Okay, the dead walking around, you've got my attention. They want to eat me alive...I'm "feelin'" you. Romero follows it up with a creepy location, an abandoned Pennsylvania farmhouse, in which a small band of survivors barricade themselves against scores of ravenous zombies. Thus the stage is set for one of the oldest and scariest themes in the horror genre: monsters outside trying to get in. There's the element of human vs. zombie (like at the DMV), and also the element of human vs. human, as the main character, Ben, struggles to keep everyone working together. Of course, man's selfishness wins out and leads to his own demise. The moral? If we can't put our differences aside and get our shit together when the dead are rising to eat us, we are totally and unambiguously screwed. Romero's final message? We can't, and we are.

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Dawn Of The Dead
George Romero, USA, 1978
Rating: 4.4

"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." Now that's a heavy tagline -- try it as an icebreaker during a lull in dinnertime conversation. Romero's second installation of his acclaimed zombie trilogy follows a group of people faced with the choice of staying put or striking out on their own in the midst of a zombie epidemic. Their journey takes them to an abandoned shopping mall, where they set up safe haven. The mall provides a perfect layout for Romero to take potshots at consumerism, as the survivors raid each shop stocking up with guns, food, clothes and of course, stereo equipment. Look, I'll fight the dead if need be, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna do it without some righteous tunes! The zombies meander aimlessly through the mall, tripping over each other, falling into fountains and staring blankly into stores. If you haven't seen the film, just go to any mall on a weekend; there's an unsettling similarity. The survivors lock the mall doors and go on a hunt, killing every zombie in sight. Finally, they create a secure place to ride out this death storm...until the requisite biker gang shows up and invades the mall, letting in hundreds of zombies. Isn't that just like a biker gang? They can be so unruly sometimes. What follows is a gore-fest of biblical proportions, with intestines pulled out, femoral arteries spewing crimson and the tearing off of arms. In the film's most telling moment, these new zombies trudge around a blood-soaked mall floor devouring the bodies of the living, fighting over the scraps; consumerism taken to its zenith. While Night Of The Living Dead dealt with man's inability to stick together when faced with his own demise, Dawn shows the tragic results of that fatal flaw now that there's no more room in hell. A horror classic.

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Day Of The Dead
George Romero, USA, 1985
Rating: 4.1

Remember the 30 or 40 zombies outside the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead? Remember the hundreds of them in Dawn of the Dead? This final chapter of the Romero trilogy finds man outnumbered by undead by a ratio of hundreds of thousands to one, recalling a favorite expression of mine, "Who da man now?" At the risk of sounding too much like Laurence Station, Day of the Dead presents stark contrasts between the magnitude of the dead plague and the confinement of humanity. The zombies walk about in the sunlight (nothing like a "sweatin'" zombie...an olfactory delight) while the surviving humans are holed up underground. This is a demographic shift of epic significance. Not to suggest that any of the earlier films were light-hearted in any way, but Day is a dark, grim film in every respect, but it's supposed to be. Take the chain fence that encircles the survivors' compound. All day, every day, as far as the eye can see, ghouls wait outside it, shaking it, hungry for a meal of warm flesh. Dude, that's grim. There is a lull in the action, and the otherwise unrelenting grimness, as a scientist tries to "train" one of the zombies and modify its behavior. Naturally, the scientists in the underground lair get into some heated confrontations with a group of gung-ho soldiers who're dismissive of their efforts. Just as in the two earlier films, humans end up fighting amongst themselves in the face of a common threat. We just don't get it, do we? We were able to put aside our differences to fight Godzilla, weren't we? Why not now? I'm not giving anything away here when I tell you that the zombies eventually get into the bunker. When they do, look for a guy to get torn in half, right around the pancreas area -- if you're a zombie, that's good eatin'. Day of the Dead conveys the enormity of man's misfortunes, placing him soundly in the minority in a brutal world, and underlines the message of its predecessors: there is no threat great enough to change man's propensity for self destruction. Now, that's as grim as it gets.

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Night of the Living Dead
Tom Savini, USA, 1990
Rating: 4.0

Cinematic purists will insist that grainy black and white adds a certain ambiance to a horror classic. Luckily, I don't know what that means. In this case, color equals creepy. Tom Savini's remake of Night of the Living Dead is an excellent remake that amplifies the "creepiness" of the original. There are some shifts in character dynamics, but I don't know what that means either. Let's stick to what I do know. I know that the zombie "Uncle Rege" is one fat bastard, and seeing him stumble over the second floor railing and crash face first onto the ground is a harsh reminder that human or zombie, you just can't screw with gravity. I know that Kate Finnerman as Judy Rose possesses a scream so shrill and soul-wounding it makes Yoko Ono's voice seem melodic and serene by comparison -- she should have been fed to the zombies first. I know that if I can't find the keys to the gas pump, blowing open the lock with a shotgun is probably not in my best interests (though in all fairness, being chased by the undead probably makes you do things against your better judgment.) I know that one of the creepiest scenes in this Night occurs when Babylon 5's Patricia Tallman, as Barbara, decides to make a run for it and comes face to face with a doll-toting dead woman stumbling through a field. It's so T.S. Eliot. Tony Todd does a magnificent job as Ben, reprising the role originally played by Duane Jones. Ben is the "last hope" in the farmhouse, but on a larger scale he represents the "last hope" of humanity, the effort to unite against a threat in times of peril. As in the other films, the threat comes just as much from his fellow man as from the undead. By taking certain liberties with a few characters, Savini adds some twist to the original story without sacrificing its most essential elements. The result is an excellent horror film, something apparently difficult to engineer today.

(Special thanks to Neil Fawcett at Homepage of the Dead for providing the film-related images used in this review.)

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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