Everyone knows George A Romero’s classic ‘Night of the Living Dead’. It’s a staple in the horror movie bible and is the original Zombie flick that kickstarted the entire genre. Romero expanded his world of the undead in 1978 with the release of Dawn of the Dead. Set against a much larger canvas with the Zombie outbreak now running through entire cities. It followed a small group of people who retreat to a large out of town shopping mall and barricade themselves within the confines of it and defend themselves against the hordes of the undead shuffling around the perimeter. The group of bikers that decide to take the shopping mall for themselves was obviously not something that was foreseen. Opening to critical acclaim, just like the original Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s use of gory FX, a pulse pounding score by Italian legends Goblin (along with the assisted help of legendary director Dario Argento) and clever use of social satire, Romero raised the bar again. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) and numerous sequels and cash in’s also helped the Zombie genre gain popularity on the big screen as well. Romero then set out in 1984 to create the ‘Gone with the Wind’ of Zombie films and had put a screenplay together when humanity was outnumbered 100-1 against the legions of the undead that were now dominating the planet. The story would follow a small group of survivors consisting of soldiers and scientists that had taken shelter in an underground bunker. If an invasion of zombies breaking down the fences wouldn’t destroy them, the breakdown in authority and humanity of the survivors would. This was the initial plan until the budget was cut in half and Romero was forced to drastically scale down his original vision to meet budget requirements. Despite the poor box office performances and reviews stating that it was way too dark and depressing, amongst the horror fans it was the perfect swan song to Romero’s dead trilogy.
But Romero’s story of the undead was far from over…..
Due to an error with the copyright licencing. Night of the Living Dead was released with no copyright and was effectively public domain. The cast and crew made little to no money from the release of the film much to their annoyance. A colourized version from Hal Roach studios in 1986 (riding on the back of Day of the Dead release) was released to fans who found this new colourized version presented Romero’s classic in a sickly pastel shaded version where the undead were green and Barbara and co were off pink (this was my first viewing of the film coincidentally on VHS in 1990). John Russo had found success towards the end of the 80’s with the first two instalments of the Return of the Living Dead films (even though Russo had published a book with the same title as an official sequel to Night of the Living Dead, the stories were totally different) and the Italian Zombie movies were churning out the camera one after another. Bill Hinzman (the original cemetery zombie) had also jumped on the Zombie bandwagon with his release of Flesheater in 1988. Romero decided to try and win back some of the success of the original Night of the Living Dead by remaking the film in 1990. Writing a new script which updated some of the aspects of the original. Romero served as producer on the new adaption and brought on board SFX maestro Tom Savini (who had to turn down the original Dead film but had cut his teeth on Dawn and Day) to direct the new film and stars Patricia Tallman (co-star on Romero’s earlier film Knightriders) and a pre-Candyman Tony Todd to star as Barbara and Ben respectively. Most of the original crew of Night of the Living Dead were brought back on board as a thank you and ‘sorry about the copyright screw-up’.
The rest of the 1990’s remained quiet for Zombie films as such. Romero was busy with Stephen King’s The Dark Half, Brian Yuzna had taken the helm for Return of the Living Dead part 3 and that was about it. There was a lot praise for the first Resident Evil / Biohazard game on Sony PlayStation in 1996 which started off the whole survival horror game genre (Little nugget of info, Romero filmed the Japanese TV commercials for Biohazard 2 and was in pre-production on the movie adaption before Paul W.S Anderson took over) There was a revised colourized version of Night of the Living Dead released (again) in 1997 via Anchor Bay Entertainment which now featured grey skinned Zombies. During 1997, George Lucas re-released his magnificent Star Wars Trilogy in cinemas again with the added bonus of newly created footage in order to bring the fans back to cinemas. This gave John Russo, one of the original producers on Night of the Living Dead, an idea. In 1999, John Russo unleashed ‘Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition’. Featuring newly shot footage which added more gore, more Zombies and more Bill Hinzman as the original cemetery zombie, coupled with a brand new score by Scott Vladimir Licina (who also stars as a new character called Reverend Hicks). This new version of Night of the Living Dead was met with pretty negative reception from fans of the original. Whilst the remastering of the original film materials was praised, the addition of the newly shot scenes and score did not sit well with fans. This didn’t stop John Russo from producing a sequel shortly afterwards to his 30th Anniversary Edition called ‘Children of the Living Dead’ though which again was met with no praise at all (even the director of the film publicly stated that it was awful and apologised to fans and gave some insightful reasons to why it failed).
Respected film maker and fellow Brit, Danny Boyle, had somewhat inadvertly jump started the Zombie genre in 2002 with the release of 28 Days Later. Often mistaken for a Zombie movie (it’s far from that and involves a rage virus that sends its victims into a state of hyper active frenzy), People were amazed and scared of a new breed of antagonist. The fast moving zombie. The type of predator that lunges at you with speed and precision through obstacles like a wild animal. Two years later, fresh from the hit series ‘Spaced’ the trio that consisted of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost brought us ‘Shaun of the Dead’ which was the perfect send up of Romero’s films (Romero even became a massive fan of the film as well). 2004 also saw the release of the remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Despite the negativity against it when it was first announced. Director Zack Snyder (300, Man of Steel) and writer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) took the fast moving zombie approach and managed to make their vision of Dawn exciting and action packed. Following on from the success of Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero got behind the camera once more in 2005 and expanded on his Dead mythology with ‘Land of the Dead’ which continued humanity’s struggle against the undead as survivors were barricaded within small cities scattered around the country. This was also backed up by the prequel game, Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green, shuffling onto PC and Xbox the same year. Following on from Land of the Dead’s success, an unofficial prequel / sequel called Day of the Dead 2 : Contaguim got released straight to video. Apart from featuring a very loose reference at the beginning to the original film, Contaguim doesn’t really follow the events of Romero’s films and was met with very heavy criticism and can only been seen as a sequel ‘in name only’. The same year also saw two sequels, Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis and Return of the Living Dead : Rave from the Grave, shot back to back and released direct to video.
2006 presented the SECOND remake of Night of the Living Dead. This time in glorious 3D! Directed by Jeff Broadstreet and starring Sid Haig, this three dimensional adaption was made without the permission of Romero or Russo and just updated the story with some moderate modernisation but using the 3D as it’s unique selling point.
George Romero went back to his independent roots in 2007 with the next chapter in his ‘Dead’ saga with ‘Diary of the Dead’. Using the found footage angle that was made popular with Blair Witch Project a few years back. Diary was much smaller scaled and more of a reboot of the saga. Set during the events of the original Night of the Living Dead but written as a side story, Diary opened to mixed reviews. During the same time, the rather amusing titled ’Flight of the Living Dead’ was released direct to DVD. In 2008, the remake of ‘Day of the Dead’, director by Steve Miner, was released to fans worldwide. After it was confirmed that it would not follow the events of Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (which lead to some confusion when it was announced that Ving Rhames would be starring in it as fans presumed that he would be portraying the role of his character in Dawn or that of his character’s brother that was trapped at Fort Pastor), Day of the Dead’s theatrical released was cancelled and the film was dumped onto home video to a mass of negative reviews. The following year saw Romero’s latest independently produced instalment of the ‘Dead’ saga, Survival of the Dead, get a limited release. Again, opening to mixed reviews which tipped towards the negative side, Romero’s latest story came and went without much impact. Romero now writes the comic book series ‘Empire of the Dead’ for Marvel comics (a format that John Russo dipped his toe in during 2005 with ‘Escape from the Dead’)
During Halloween 2010, the Zombie genre made a much welcomed resurgence, but on the small screen, with the release of AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ TV series. Based on the popular graphic novels by Charlie Adlard, the TV show has captured the hearts of horror fans worldwide with the involvement of KNB EFX (who worked on the original ‘Dead’ films) and a few loving nods to Romero’s saga. Whilst the Zombie genre seems to have found it’s home on the small screen, that hasn’t stopped film makers producing films based on Romero’s groundwork. In 2012, Jeff Broadstreet released ‘Night of the Living Dead 3D : Re-Animation’ which served as a prequel to his own Night of the Living Dead remake back in 2006. Starring Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator) and Andrew Divoff (Wishmaster).
Still going strength the strength but not quite high profile, The next film to be released soon is ‘Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D’ which is another remake of Night of the Living Dead but this time with a new spin. Origins is a new animated version of the film using the latest motion capture technology with a modern day setting in New York City and stars scream queen Danielle Harris (Halloween 4 & 5, Hatchet 2 & 3), Tony Todd, Bill Mosely and Tom Sizemore. There is also another remake of Day of the Dead currently in pre-production with the team behind Texas Chainsaw 3D behind the camera as well as another origins story with Romero’s son holding directorial duties.
Quite hard to believe that this little indie horror film that was made on just an $114,000 budget back in 1968 managed to sprawl this entire genre really. Whilst the whole genre has had its ups and downs, there is still a core fan base there to support it. Dedicate fans arrange ‘zombie walks’ in major cities around the world and display their incredible cosplay talents for all to enjoy. Specialist companies also arrange ‘zombie experiences’ for groups of people to participate in which is a rather brutal and adrenaline pumping spin on the paintballing game with plenty of bruised limbs and egos to follow. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is truly a film to be thankful for. There are also a range of documentaries that have been produced over the years that dive into the making of Romero’s saga, it’s impact on the horror genre and the lasting legacy that it has left fans. Roy Frumkes ‘Document of the Dead’ which documents dawn of the Dead and the recently released ‘Birth of the Living Dead’ which is a superb look at Romero’s original Night of the living Dead. Older releases of the films will have additional documentaries which are all worth checking out.
Thanks for reading!