First things first: I apologize deeply to the ten or so horror-starved souls out there who went unfulfilled yesterday. It won’t happen again, and today, we have a delightful Halloween twofer for you to make up for it.
Zombies are fashionable. Werewolves and vampires have lost a bit of their cache since they became heart-throbs — and you all know who’s fault that is, kids — but in terms of monsters that are almost universally respected by horror fans, zombies have come back in a big way. The 28 Days movies, with their packs of roving, speedy not-zombies, are at least partially responsible for this newfound love for the undead, and the uproarious splatstick of Edgar Wright’s loving homage Shaun of the Dead has entered the realm of the quotable; but recently, AMC’s The Walking Dead has serialized the zombie apocalypse and brought it into America’s living rooms for going on three years. The term “zombie apocalypse” has, in fact, entered the popular lexicon. It’s a good time to love zombies.
And yet we mustn’t forget our roots. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a benchmark of low-budget horror, and the official creation of the modern zombie; it’s also one of the most effective late-night tinglers of all time, and perhaps the most a horror director has accomplished with the smallest amount of resources, Blair Witch Project be damned.
Literally everything about the modern zombie film can be traced directly back to Romero’s small, kinetic Night. Hordes of shuffling undead? Check. Survivors barricading themselves in a “safe house” of sorts until the epidemic is cured? Check. The terrifying notion that humans are sometimes the real enemy? Yep, that too. Romero even often gets bonus points for casting a black man as his protagonist and not merely the hilarious comic relief; the director to this day insists that his casting decision was not a calculated statement about race relations in the sixties and that he simply cast the best man for the part, but either way, horror movies still haven’t gotten around the practice of casting a black guy to, you know, do some black guy stuff because that’s always funny. (Hell, you can even watch a highlight reel of The Walking Dead‘s T-Dawg; even ignoring for a second that his name is T-Dawg, the lion’s share of the man’s dialogue amounts to “dayum!” and “oh, hell naw!”. This series premiered in 2010.)
But I digress: Night of the Living Dead isn’t merely good for its time. It’s a terrific horror movie, primal and haunting, pared down to its bare bones. Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, is ten years younger and arguably better; where Night hits fast and often, Dawn burns slow, ratcheting up the suspense as our gaggle of heroes find themselves trapped in a shopping mall. Film scholars are quick to note Dawn‘s double duty as horror sequel and satirical condemnation of consumerist culture, and they’re right on the money thematically, but what often gets lost in all those layers is how effective it is at delivering the scares. Legendary goremaster Tom Savini is on board for a number of home-spun, delightfully icky effects, and Dawn delivers the tension in spades. It’s like a Stanley Kubrick horror movie, full of contemplative long shots and gleaming, sterile environments, made a solid two years before we knew what that’d look like.
Taken side by side, Romero’s first two Dead movies couldn’t possibly be any different; still, they’re flipsides of the same coin, brilliantly-crafted high-water points for the genre, and arguably the benchmarks by which all other zombie lore is measured.
Extra Credit: Horror purists often argue, fervently, that Romero’s third installment, Day of the Dead is actually his best Dead film. I’d argue that point, but there’s no need: it’s an excellent enough film that I’m not offended by that viewpoint. Pitch-black, suspenseful, and dripping blood, Day is a quality third installment. If Night and Day are the first-two-Godfather-movies of zombie lore, Day is Goodfellas.