George A. Romero’s Zombie Films: From Worst to Best

george romero

Romero and his fans

George A. Romero’s Zombie Films: From Worst to Best

By Jordan

When approaching films or directors, it is often important that the writer presents an opinion as apposed to stating facts that many may in fact disagree with. It’s a way to involve a wider readership; provide them with rhetorical questions instead of definitive facts that may ostracize those that hold different beliefs.

In spite of this however, I can confidently declare that due to his reinvention of the zombie film, as well as numerous other high quality films in their own right, George A. Romero is America’s greatest ever horror director. In fact, when you consider the revolutionist aspects of his debut Night of the Living Dead in 1968, the satirical masterstrokes in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the quiet quality of quasi-vampire film Martin (1976), it can also be stated that he is one of America’s most important directors full stop.

A gentle giant who often imbues his work with the classic structures of a Howard Hawks western and a biting shot of politics, he has also never relented in making his audience wince at the sight of flesh being torn from bones and humans violently turning on each other, and that’s why the entire film world tip their hats to him.

His entire catalog is terrific, but his walking dead films are his brand, and here they are rated in order of quality (according to me):

6. Survival of the Dead (2009)

survival-of-the-dead-ps

Romero’s latest, little-seen entry has more to offer than you might think

A gleefully western take on the zombie film, Survival of the Dead was given a very modest release and was subsequently overlooked by many, but offers a plethora of inventive “walker” kills that take place in front of some stunning scenery (Kathleen Munroe included) and while far from his best work is a fine and enjoyable slice of ghoulish fun.

Best kill? Hard to go past the flare gun…

5. Diary of the Dead (2007)

diary of the dead

Diary of the Dead is one of the smartest found-footage films yet made

A victim of its late release in the found footage era (although 7 years on and the sub-genre is still going strong), Diary of the Dead showcased Romero at his most scathing, chastising the truth-defiling media and our dependent nature on it. He utilities the hand-held cameras and documentary style approach not as a gimmick, but as the very essence of his story, and while it does have its pacing flaws by the time this diary comes to a close it has solidified itself as a very unique gem that could only be the work of a master.

Best kill? The Amish farmer and his rake take the honors here.

4.  Day of the Dead (1985)

day of the dead

Bub was clearly distressed when introduced to Bieber

Day of the Dead, a high concept idea left somewhat stranded by its meager means, is certainly the least re-watchable of all Romero’s “… of the Dead” entries but earns immense kudos for its harsh, cold themes and the introduction of Bub: his first properly clued-in flesh eater who wins over the audiences heart while his comrades eat those of the living.

Best kill? Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) shouts “Choke on ’em!” as a swarm of zombies disembowel him.

3. Land of the Dead (2005)

land of the dead

Romero’s first zombie venture in 20 years proved that age had not wearied him

Given that the Late Dennis Hopper is one of my all-time favourite actors I may be a little bias here, but before you argue consider that Land of the Dead also stars Asia Argento (the famous daughter of famed Italian director Dario Argento, who produced and edited his own Italian version of Dawn of the Dead), features cameos from Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Tom Savini (among others) and presents a startlingly clever indictment of the Bush administration… still keen to argue? Well, all I can say is watch it again, I guarantee it’s a lot better than you remember.

Best kill? If you’re after some proper carnage, just fast-forward to the aforementioned Savini cameo…

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

night-of-the-living-dead

In 1968, the dead walked for the first time

An absolute, unmistakably masterful cinematic classic that not only pushed forward the evolution of an entire genre but independent film-making in general, Night of the Living Dead starts in a cemetery but finishes at a place far bleaker than that. The debut film of George A. Romero should be seen by all film lovers the world over regardless of preferences, as the character of Ben (Duane Jones) and his hellish journey through a night where the dead are returning to life is only getting better with age and that ending is only becoming more hard-hitting and meaningful. Put simply, its an essential film.

Best kill? A daughter. A mother. A spade.

1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

dawn of the dead zombie

Retitled Zombie in Italy, Dawn of the Dead is the rare sequel that trumps the original

(The following is an excerpt from my Top 30 Movies of all Time)

‘When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.’

Armed with that tagline (arguably the best in film history), access to a large shopping mall, the special makeup effects talents of Tom Savini and a fistful of anger aimed at America’s relentless consumerism, legendary filmmaker George A. Romero would make a masterpiece, and unquestionably one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Telling the story of a small group of survivors who take refuge in an abandoned shopping mall while the world crumbles around them, Dawn of the Dead not only paints the ever-hungry zombies as the villains, but also American culture itself. The bloodthirsty lore of Cowboys VS Indians plays out in the third act as our settled heroes go to war with a band of invading bikies, with the ghouls almost seen as part of the mall’s interior during this most western of battles.

Night of the Living Dead is a wholly deserving classic, and arguably marked the commencement of the genre as it exists today, and Martin is one of the most unique and personal vampire films we have; but as you would expect from a production involving other horror stalwarts such as Savini, Ken Foree and Dario Argento, Dawn of the Dead marks the finest chapter in Romero’s glistening career, and is quite simply an astonishing achievement.

Best kill? There are far too many to choose from! But the one that’s stuck with me most has always been the particularly hapless zombie who has the top of his head lopped of by a helicopter blade.

So, did I get it right? Or very wrong? Let us know in the comments below!

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25 responses to “George A. Romero’s Zombie Films: From Worst to Best

  1. It sounds so funny to read these titles out loud and at the same time! 🙂
    I completely agree. Although I haven’t seen the Diary of the Dead yet, I must say no.1 is definitely Dawn of the Dead. The quote you mentioned must be the only quote from a movie that I have memorized so easily, haha! What about The Crazies? 🙂

    • Ha I imagine it would’ve been annoying by the 6th entry having to have “… of the dead” in the title. Maybe that’s why he’s most likely stopped with Survival.
      Ah Diary of the Dead is really, really good. It may seem a tad dated now given the likes of V/H/S etc, but it has a lot to say and is crafted really well.
      Hmm, I I’ve never seen The Crazies as a zombie film! I think because in his “dead” films everyone who dies comes back as a zombie (“when there’s no more room in Hell”), whereas in Crazies it’s an infection in the water supply only limited to a small town… so more of an anti-establishment/viral outbreak film I reckon?
      Jordan

  2. I think you’ve been harsh with Day of the Dead. It was such a departure from the others and it was more about how bad people can be, sometimes worse than the zombies.

    I really disliked Land of the Dead, it was silly and the political stuff was far too obvious. Great post!

    • Yeah I thought some people might disagree with my rating of Land, but despite being obvious I really do think it’s highly enjoyable and features heaps of cool performances. Day of the Dead is far more intelligent but its coldness I think can deter viewers as much as grab them.
      Cheers! Jordan

  3. I’ve only watched Night of the Living Dead and Land of the Dead, so I’ll check out the other 4 you’ve listed. Great list, thanks!

  4. I completely agree with your #1 and #2. I’m pretty “meh” on the rest. I’d probably put Land of the Dead as #3 as well but it’s a pretty steep drop from Dawn to Night to Land. Day is far and away my least favorite, however.

  5. Great list but I would flip your 1 & 2 for the reason you stated in the post – ‘Night’ was the template for all modern zombie films- no more voodoo, no more zombie-master, just a mindless horde of eating machines. And its sociopolitical statements were numerous, but so naturally and neatly entwined with the film, you didn’t even realize they were there. (the exact opposite was true with ‘Land’ which made the ‘message’ so obvious it was annoying)

    • Great points there mate. Love both but Dawn just clicks with me more.. gotta admit I kinda wanna re-watch White Zombie now too to see the very beginning ha.
      I agree that Land’s message is pretty obvious too, but it’s a blast to watch so I definitely gave it the benefit of the doubt.
      Jordan

  6. I’m a huge George A. Romero fan and I love a zombie movie. I have to agree with Parlor of Horror though. I think Night of the Living Dead is slightly better than Dawn of the Dead. It was the first, the original and set the tone. I miss a good zombie movie, though The Walking Dead is doing a great job of filling the zombie shaped hole in my heart…

    • Oh The Walking Dead lost me unfortunately, at the end of the 3rd season… through the amazing first and most of the second seasons I had grown to love the slow pace and the importance on character development, but then they killed my favourite characters off and it started becoming too action orientated… maybe I’m just a grouch though! Ha.
      Jordan

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  8. just cant believe ppl slate day so much . It’s an intelligent, well-written, excellently played movie, with top flight gore/horror effects, perverse humour and a provocatively bleak vision. Also, it has the world’s first true zombie hero in Bub, who listens to Beethoven and eats people, plus one of the all-time great dismemberment sequences as a villain shouts “choke on ’em” to the dead eating his guts.arguably the best zombie movie of the 80’s

    • Haha, I appreciate your enthusiasm for it! It’s a good film, but lacked the energy that the others have, meaning its message feels slightly labored. In my opinion. Agree 100% about the brilliance of Bub and the “choke on ’em” quip.
      Jordan

      • thx jordan dawn of the dead was my first zombie film i watched back in the early 80’s and was excellent especially the lift scene and roger changing, lifting up from the sheets but come on how does it lack the energy of night and land . night is soo slow and boring , doesnt really pick up til the latter parts and then its annoying . dont get me started on land this was another let down . zombies that have a leader !! and who talks to them !! i know u said u like dennis hopper but what was he even doing in it and pegg and co were only in it coz of shaun . the zombie makeup efx esp tom sav was a massive step back from day not believable and in my opinion even to some degree camp . day was my second zombie movie i saw when it was released and its a gem . you say its certainly the least re-watchable of all Romero’s “… of the Dead” entries but y ? what more do you want from a zombie movie . gore , story , acting , best zombie make up efx . howard shermans acting as bub has never been surpassed . zombie movies should be dark , gory and unrelenting you want to feel trapped and this film ticks all the boxes . im gunna change my list to day , dawn then skip the rest enjoy return of the living dead , or even watch the 1990 tom savini remake of night and if you like your zombies to run then dawn remake but hire out day turn off the lights and enjoy the best zombie movie ever made …. choke on em 🙂

  9. Great list! In these days where most people think The Walking Dead invented zombie movies, I’m always glad to see the Romero movies get some love. Here are my ratings. 7) Diary of the Dead: Restaging NOTLD for the Internet age as a camcorder film and rebooting the Romero universe for the next gen must’ve sounded like a can’t miss high concept idea on film. In reality, the characters are a little too self absorbed to relate to, the social media commentary isn’t anything we haven’t heard before and too much takes place off screen. The best of Romero’s work has always been about watching the world fall apart but as most of the movie involves driving empty roads and exploring abandoned buildings, it strangely feels like we’ve already missed most of the supposed currently happening now zombie apocalypse. Like the rest of Romero’s new entries, it is also plagued by mundane digital gore that pales in comparison to the tactile, visceral bravura magic tricks of Tom Savini. But it is well cast. Josh Close provides a glimpse of what a Romero zombie movie starring Tom Cruise might have been like and a pre-Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany memorably plays a survivor who checks out early. The voice cameos are worth keeping your ears open for, as well. 6) Survival of the Dead: It would be wrong to look at Land, Diary and Survival as a “second trilogy”. Romero made no secret that he felt he said his peace regarding zombies after Day. But he used his later entries to delve into other genres. While Diary was a new media independent film, Survival was his Hollywood Western, modeled explicitly off of William Wyler’s The Big Country. With a plot centered around zombie protection, Romero’s presses his continued assertion that the zombies are the most sympathetic characters in his apocalypse. If this proves to be Romero’s last resurrection, he could have done a lot worse that to leave off on the wickedly black final joke regarding his personal assessment of humanity’s capacity to survive through cooperation. 5) Land of the Dead: Here is Romero giving us the Hollywood blockbuster zombie movie. We have a cast-of-thousands, finally delivering on his original vision for Day of the Dead. We have actors who have appeared in A-list Hollywood films such as Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, genre vets Asia Argento and Robert Joy, soon-to-be-TV-star Simon West and a cameo from newly minted zombie movie cult icons Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. We also have enough firepower to satisfy any action movie junkie. Those who expect the cutting edge freshness of the original trilogy will no doubt be disappointed. Better to think of this film as a celebration of his previous works, a long overdue victory lap. But if there is any doubt Romero still “has it” be sure catch the explanation for why it better to hunt zombies at night. Nearly forty years later, my man still serving up the immaculate political commentary! 4) Night of the Living Dead 1990: Many might not think to include this one as Romero did not direct it. But he did produce it, he wrote the screenplay and hand-picked Tom Savini to fill in for him. Romero wisely saw no benefit in trying to compete with his own past directorial accomplishments so instead he focused on crafting one of the best horror remakes ever made. The script is filled with the satisfyingly familiar and sprinkled with an assortment of smart, well-placed 180 degree twists that reinforce the evergreen status of this now oft-heard classic horror tale. Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Bill Mosley, and Tom Towles all do great work. Director Savini brings so many well-done visual touches that the lack of raw Unrated-level gore is not even a drawback. The new ending manages to be both optimistic yet nearly as dark as the ending to the original- quite the trick! 3) Night of the Living Dead (1968): Many may find it a sacrilege to slip one of the greatest horror films of all time the bronze medal. But it is my list. Horror author Kim Newman in his landmark critical work “Nightmare Movies” divides the history of horror movies itself into two eras: pre and post NOTLD. I can’t argue with that. But it is possible to have appropriate appreciation for the Wright brothers’ accomplishment at Kitty Hawk while strolling the jetway to board your flight on the Boeing 787. It is a tribute the creativity of Romero and his crew that out of plywood and bubblegum they crafted a film that not only changed the world (ushering in the midnight movie and the commercial mainstreaming of movie gore to barely touch upon the surface of its legendary legacy) but sparked the parthenogenesis of this entire universe of films that we are discussing here, not to mention the modern zombie genre itself. 2) Day of the Dead: The culmination of Romero’s original trilogy is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It is all the more impressive an achievement for having been rendered for a fraction of the budget as the previous entry and having to an extensive last minute rewrite. In Day, Zombies outnumber living humans by 400,000 to one. (If we base this off of the 1968 world population then there are fewer than 8,800 people alive on the planet. Humans are officially an endangered species.) While Dawn observed “They’re us”, Day subjects us to the literal reversal of the living and the dead playing out in real time. Zombie trainee Bub slowly remembers how to be human while our heroine watches her fellow survivors, both proletariat and intellectual, sink into barbarism and depravity. Thankfully other survivors possess one of humanity’s most powerful self-preservation skills: knowing when to say f- it and slack off. 1) Dawn of the Dead (1978): I won’t pontificate too much on this film other than to state that in a decade that most of my friends completely geeked out over Star Wars, this was the film that stirred my passion, for all the reasons previously mentioned and more.

    • Thanks for the very thorough comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
      Nightmare Movies certainly is a very important read, and I too agree with Newman’s sentiment re: 1968 and Night of the Living Dead.
      Your list is a little different to mine but I can respect the order you’ve chosen: I’ve always wished that Day of the Dead had more of an impact on me, but its just so much different in tone to Dawn of the Dead which is one of my favourite films of all time.
      Romero has crafted some truly classic films, both in and outside of the zombie genre (Knightriders is one I like a lot). I regard him as one of the most important American film makers, period.
      Cheers,
      Jordan

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