George A. Romero is the Godfather of the Dead and that isn’t an opinion. It’s fact – he’s done more for an entire horror sub-genre than any other visionary over a long and storied career. It all started when he grew tired of making commercials and decided to branch out into filmmaking with his friends.
On a budget of $114,000, they went on to make a film that would change the landscape of not just horror, but the wider world of the silver screen as a whole. His debut effort, Night of the Living Dead, is one of the most culturally significant movies of the 20th century, going on to inspire generation after generation of horror filmmakers. There’s a reason why you always see characters in indie horror movies watching NotL.
Romero spent the next decade making movies that weren’t as warmly received as Night, but still great in their own right, including The Crazies and Martin, which have gained cult status as time has gone on. Knowing that there was an audience out there begging for his return to the zombie genre, Romero released Dawn of the Dead in 1978. Possessing one of the most instantly recognizable locations in cinematic history (say “shopping mall” and most people will know which film you’re referring to), Dawn was a breakaway success, making huge profits on a budget of $1,500,000.
Not one to play it safe and release something for the sake of it, Romero again left the undead to slumber until 1985’s Day of the Dead, taking the apocalypse underground with him. Although not a critical or commercial success at the time due to its slower pace and relative lack of hype, Day became a cult classic in later years, thanks to its pioneering zombie makeup and character-driven storyline. It was remade unsuccessfully in 2008 and is due for another remake in 2017.
The creative period that followed for Romero was a mixed one. He remained active, releasing many films of differing success, including a sequel to his immensely popular Creepshow. Fans thought his ‘of the Dead‘ series was done and dusted until Romero made a surprise return after twenty years with Land of the Dead. Boasting the biggest budget of all of his zombie movies to date, Land recouped more than double of its estimated $20 million budget and cemented Romero’s legacy.
Rather than waiting for another decade to follow up his successful return, Romero instead went back to work and released two films in the Dead series in quickfire fashion. Diary of the Dead featured the popular found footage techniques that were all the rage back in 2008, but it couldn’t captivate half the audience of its peers, earning just $5 million on a $2 million budget. Undeterred, Romero next directed Survival of the Dead in 2009 – it fared even worse, earning less than half a million dollars on a $4 million budget, becoming the least successful film in the series in the process.
At 76 years of age, it looks like Romero might be done with movies, having not been behind the camera since 2009. However, George A. Romero’s zombie movies will inspire creators and terrify cinemagoers for decades to come, which is why we decided to take a look at them from worst to best.
6. Survival of the Dead
Probably the film that is stopping Romero from dusting off his clapperboard one last time, Survival of the Dead has to be viewed as a disaster. After going independent and deciding to not lean on the support of major studios, Romero had full creative control without the firepower to fulfill his vision, leading to the critical and commercial bomb of Survival.
Set on a Delaware island largely safe from the undead, Survival never threatens to show the kind of finesse or originality that the director had become notorious for, instead deciding to play around too much with the very mythos that Romero himself had helped to establish and grow. Having zombies learn how to use tools is one thing, but them riding horses and eating other kinds of meat than just human was too much.
Pitting two rival families against each other, Survival could have been an intense and dramatic affair, but there was just something seriously missing throughout. The direction was inconsistent and the zombie action uninspired with even the themes often masterfully handled by Romero being muddled and uninteresting. None of the characters, particularly the deeply unlikable protagonist, have anything of interest to say or do, leading to a film that ambles along like the monsters that are a focal point of Romero’s filmography.
Survival of the Dead is a film that won’t be remembered a fraction as fondly as its series predecessors and, in all honesty, it doesn’t deserve to be.
5. Diary of the Dead
Here’s where things get a little confusing in Romero’s undead canon. Diary of the Dead serves as a reboot of his zombie universe, taking place during the same timeframe as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, despite the cast using and abusing modern technology.
Noticing the trend for found footage horror movies, Romero decided to put his stamp on the style and, by and large, succeeded. Featuring a group of film students during a zombie outbreak, Diary is the most humorous of all of Romero’s zombie movies, clearly showing the master was having fun. The cast is also quite able, despite the majority of them being unknowns, with the strong female lead, a staple ingredient of Romero’s work, being particularly likable.
Diary‘s themes are some of the most overt in Romero’s filmography as they include racism and our dependence on technology pretty heavy-handedly. Considering how both of those are now hot topics wherever you look, the fifth film in the Dead series might have also come five years to soon. Who knows how effectively Romero could have lamented the likes of Snapchat and the racism debate currently tearing America apart.
The film that dusted away Romero’s cinematic cobwebs and showed that there is still plenty of things to be said within the zombie genre, Land of the Dead is a romp, helped in no small part thanks to the continuation of “zombie evolution” displayed in 1985’s Day of the Dead.
Its zombie lead, Big Daddy, steals the show throughout, despite Land boasting the biggest names out of all of the Dead films. John Leguizamo, Simon Baker, Asia Argento, and even the legendary Dennis Hopper didn’t light up the screen as much as the smartest member of the undead army. He and his zombie peers’ emergence from underwater is one of the most unsettling scenes of any horror movie.
If there were any concerns that Romero’s absence had dulled his searing social commentary, Land of the Dead quickly put them to bed. Showcasing a post-apocalyptic world where the rich still rule, Land’s themes are still important a decade later, if not even more so. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer, making the movie’s climax all the more satisfying – there’s no doubting Romero’s stance on the class system.
Featuring one of the most varied and intriguing casts of characters you will find in any horror movie and more innovative ways to kill the undead than you would expect from someone who’s been there and done that over three decades, Land’s success owes as much to the zombie renaissance started by the remake of one of Romero’s own movies as it does the master’s steady hand behind the camera.