The interesting thing about George A. Romero’s “Dead” films is that it’s not a series in the traditional sense. There are no characters that carry over from one film to the next, aside from the final two films – and even then, it’s with a character who appeared in one small cameo scene, and not a major lead from the previous – and there’s really no continuing plot thread throughout the films. Each movie stands on their own, with their own characters and settings, and each film feels different from each other.
However, there is a thematic connection between them. The first four films exist in the same world, with each film centered on different survivors at different points in the undead apocalypse, starting with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ where the ghouls have risen but haven’t taken over yet. From there we progress to days and weeks later with ‘Dawn of the Dead’, and then to months later with ‘Day of the Dead’, and then coming to a close years later with ‘Land of the Dead’. Not only does each of these films take us deeper and deeper into the phenomenon, but there’s also the continuous evolution of the living dead throughout. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ serves as the catalyst, but beginning with ‘Dawn of the Dead’ we learn that the living dead are acting on instinct. In ‘Day of the Dead’ we see that continued evolution with Bub, and finally this is highlighted as a plot point in ‘Land of the Dead’ when the undead go about their days behaving and acting based on who they were before. Eventually they learn to communicate and work together while the last of the living continue to pull apart over greed and power, amongst other things.
The final two films, ‘Diary of the Dead‘ and ‘Survival of the Dead‘ exist in their own continuity in a world where the dead begin to rise in the digital age. These two are connected by a single character who is briefly introduced in the fifth before becoming the lead of the sixth. Romero carried over some of his themes from his previous continuity into the final two films, but they never reached the depth of those.
Although the quality of these falters here and there, I do love this series of films.
Here is how I rank them, from least favorite to favorite:
6) Diary of the Dead (2007)
The fifth film in Romero’s dead saga is the one I struggle to get through the most. Hitting the reset button on the series, Romero returned to the very beginning of the end of the world, but this time setting it in modern time. The film follows a group of film students who cram into a Winnebago and hit the road while documenting their entire journey through a world over run with the living dead. While the decision to make the film with the “found footage” approach makes this stand out from the rest in the series, it’s never been a style of filmmaking that I’ve particularly enjoyed. However, the biggest issue that I have with this film is the characters, most of whom are not very likeable – in particular is Deb (Michelle Morgan), who narrates the story. In fact, I’d argue that the most likeable character in the movie is a deaf Amish man named Samuel (R.D Reid), who only appears in one scene. All of these gripes aside, I will watch it when I marathon through these, but this one is just not for me.
5) Survival of the Dead (2009)
Romero’s sixth and final Dead film certainly doesn’t get a lot of love from fans, and for good reason: the acting and dialogue are awful, the characters are only marginally better than those from the fifth film, and the violence is sometimes cartoonish – with one particular moment being straight out of Looney Tunes – and the final product is just not the quality you would expect from such a legendary filmmaker. While I definitely agree with all of the criticisms aimed towards this movie, I am in a small minority of people who don’t quite hate it. Despite its flaws, I can have some fun with this one, mostly due to the character Patrick O’ Flynn, played by Kenneth Welch, who brings some energy to the film. The story follows a small band of soldiers from the National Guard – the leader of which, Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) just happens to be the only character who has crossed from one film to the next – whose journey to Plum Island puts them in the middle of a dispute between the O’ Flynn’s and the Muldoon’s, the two families who run the island, whose conflicting ideologies on how to handle the situation with the living dead serves as the catalyst. It’s not a great film, and I do understand why most people would have this at the bottom of their lists, but I enjoy it just a fraction more than ‘Diary’.
4) Land of the Dead (2005)
Even though I have this listed at number four, I want to make myself perfectly clear: I love ‘Land of the Dead’ and I have been an avid defender of this movie since seeing it in the theater’s multiple times. Although Romero might not have had a great time dealing with the studio while making this film, it is, from this viewers perspective, terrific to see one of his ‘Dead’ films with studio backing. It just looks and feels so epic. This is the culmination of everything that has come before, with a story that’s large in scope, going beyond the confined settings of before (farm house, shopping mall, missile silo) and bringing the story out in the open, onto the streets, and giving us a glimpse into the attempted rebuilding of society. The story revolves around a pair of scavengers who work for a wealthy man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who has taken control of a section of a city and provided safety to a large population of survivors in the area surrounding Fiddler’s Green. Riley (Simon Baker) is looking to flee from the city, believing that Fiddler’s Green is more of a death trap than paradise, while Cholo (John Leguizamo) believes that he has earned a spot in the upper-class section of the city. After being rejected by Kaufman, Cholo steals the Dead Reckoning – a high powered vehicle that can be used as either the City’s first line of defense, or it’s destructor – and demands that Kaufman pays what it owed to him. Kaufman, not looking to pay off Cholo, instead sends Riley to retrieve the Dead Reckoning. This movie is a lot of fun, and I really like all of the characters in it. It’s only at number four because of one sequence with terrible CGI. That’s really my only complaint about it. I love this movie as a conclusion to the world and themes established by Romero in the three that proceed it.
3) Day of the Dead (1985)
The third film is a visual and practical effects masterpiece that is mostly set in an underground missile silo which is occupied by an organized group of scientists and soldiers who have been actively working towards a solution to the living dead problem. However, as time goes on, hope and optimism begins to fade and the psychological toll of the modern world takes a hold. Some become desensitized, others begin to crack. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is a scientist who begins to see an increasing problem of mental health among the soldiers but her concerns for her peers are met with hostility from Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the newest in command, who is not happy about the progress – or lack thereof – from the team of scientists lead by Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty). Rhodes’ hostility reaches its boiling point after discovering Dr. Logan’s secret project in which he attempts to domesticate one of the living dead, whom he has named Bub (Sherman Howard), as well as the experiments he’s conducted on the soldiers who have died. Some have criticized this movie for its aggressive characters and their constant shouting, but as unpleasant as some of these characters are, Romero continues to explore the traumatic effect this world has on the characters. Sarah is a strong and likeable protagonist, and Dr. Logan, Bub, and Captain Rhodes are the stand-out characters of the movie. The effects work from Tom Savini and his team is top notch, and the setting is unique and interesting. The only thing holding this back for me is the score from John Harrison, which I used to dislike, but it has been growing on me over the years. Overall, this is a strong film from Romero and is a must-watch.
2) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The second film is a horror classic that is often regarded as being one of the best horror films of all time, and is the one you’ll likely see at the very top of people’s lists. Romero takes us days to weeks as we follow a small group of people who, unlike the characters from the first film, set aside their personal differences and work together to survive in a world that’s falling apart. Knowing that they need to get out while they still can, Police Officer Roger (Scott Reiniger) invites fellow Officer Peter (Ken Foree) to join him and his friends Francine (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge) as they take to the sky in Stephen’s helicopter. Beneath them society crumbles as the living dead begin to dominate in population, and the four take refuge inside a shopping Mall. They decide to take permanent residence inside the Mall, clearing it of the ghouls that wander inside and block the exterior entrance points so that none can get in. The great thing about this movie is the characters, and I admire Romero’s decision to just focus on four characters, as well as to have the entire movie take place over a span of time. These decisions really help build on the characters and their relationships with each other. We see what starts off as rocky ground between Peter and Stephen evolve into comradery as they work together. The film feels much larger in scope when compared to its predecessor, and yet its very focused and character driven. The score from Goblin is excellent, with my favorite moment from it being during the scene where the four stand on the edge of the second floor, looking down at the corpses littered beneath them after successfully clearing out the Mall. The score really highlights the triumphant moment of that scene. This film is a horror classic for a good reason, and I suspect is the #1 on most people’s list, not only for this series, but also of Romero’s filmography as a whole and even though it’s edged out for that spot on this list, I won’t argue with anyone who believes this should have been at the top.
1) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The original ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is my second favorite horror film of all time. It’s the one in this series that I have watched the most, and will always be the one I reach for first when I’m in the mood for these movies. Simply put, this movie is special to me, which is why it edges out ‘Dawn of the Dead’ for the top spot on this list. The combination of the visual aesthetic from being in Black and White, along with the cinematography and score makes this an atmospheric masterpiece. As the dead begin to rise and feed off of human flesh, a small group of strangers take refuge in a farm house. Over the course of the night, the dead begin to surround the house, and the survivors doom themselves with their inability to work together. The cast is mostly solid here with Duane Jones leading the film as Ben in a great performance. Ben’s a likeable character who comes off as a man with a good head on his shoulders, but is one who won’t take shit from anybody. Duane Jones excels in the different sides of the character, from his sympathetic interactions with Barbara to his conflict with Cooper. Speaking of which, I also think Karl Hardman gives a strong performance as Harry Cooper, a man who’s hot-headed and stubborn. Lastly, as annoying as she can be at times, I think Judith O’Dea is very effective as Barbara, who I feel like is a realistically written character. Everyone reacts to things differently, and I’m willing to bet that there would be many people who go into a similar state of shock if such a phenomenon would take pace. The characters are all flawed and their tensions inside the house keeps the film engaging and chaotic. The world established feels dangerous and the film offers a terrifying reflection of society and how we treat each other in a subtle and well-crafted way. The thing that really gives this story some punch is the ending; Ben is the only survivor of the night, but ends up being mistaken for a Ghoul and is shot dead. I admire this movie for having the balls to kill off every single character, with the last of which being a mistake a cruel fate. I love this movie. I love that it’s in black and white; I love the cinematography and overall atmosphere; I love the score; I love the characters; I love the conflicts; and I love the ending. Again, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is my second favorite horror movie of all time, and my favorite of Romero’s works.