#1 Night of the Living Dead (1968)
I suspect that many will argue that “Dawn” edges out “Night”, but I’m going to try to make a case for it’s place in the top spot. Night of the Living Dead is ahead of it’s time in a variety of ways: The cinematography, the symbolism, the performances, socially, and last but not least, the directing. In spite of it’s 1968 release, the characters do not speak with the melodic (read: “less realistic), delivery that had been the norm for decades before. Romero and Argento went art-for-art, Romero filling so many positions that Night is cemented as “one man’s passionate dream” (almost) fully realized). “Dawn” might be better fleshed out, more sprawling, deeper in lore, but it’s not the revolutionary vision that is “Night.”
“They didn’t run, or… they just stood there, staring at me! I just wanted to crush them! And they scattered through the air, like bugs.” -Ben
Duane Jones shines as Ben, a mysterious man who is not here to take your guff. He’s no nonsense, stands his ground, and shows virtually no fear in the face of all of the apocalyptic horror unfolding around him. Something else that makes Ben special: The character wasn’t written with any specific race in mind, the screenplay didn’t address it at all. When it came time to film Romero’s vision, he has stated that “Duane was just the best actor we all knew,” and therefore he easily landed the role, but the fact that race isn’t addressed in the script or in nearly any of Ben’s interactions, gives the character an authority that transcends the roles being given to African American actors at the time. Romero has said that once filming got well under way, it was inevitable that race influenced the performances, but he only let it alter the script in a more organic way.
Interesting notes: This is the only one that hints at the origin of the “virus,” a returning satellite brings a radiation to the Earth that is put forward as one possible reason for the dead rising from their graves. This also imparts the important “everyone is infected” theme that is so pivotal in stories like “The Walking Dead.”
#2 Dawn of the Dead (1978)
On a budget somewhere around $2 million, Romero joins effects magician Tom Savini, and they get access to an $80 million mall in Pittsburgh, which they can film in starting at 11PM every night. Our protagonists start from different locales, but end up going to the center of local commerce: the mall, with so much to see that even [SPOILER] the zombies can’t resist flocking to it, just out of habit! The universe of the dead is really fleshed out in this one, touching on what average citizens are up to, police officers, biker gangs, and even television station production crews.
“Oh they touched us Flyboy, they touched us good.” -Peter
Commercialism is the focus of this one, as mindless zombies shuffle the walkways of the mall through the entire movie. There is a European version with a few more rock cuts from the band Goblin (Argento’s band), and both versions are equally enjoyable, the biggest difference is the music played over the speakers in the mall, Romero opting for a more “intentionally cheesy” sound.
#3 Day of the Dead (1985)
This is the dark horse of Romero’s lot, the little zombie movie that could, it haunted the airwaves when I was a kid, and therefore made an impression on me that still sticks. The scale is reduced, most of the action taking place in an underground bunker, less zombies around, unless you go topside, most of the ones in the protagonists(?) base are there for experimental purposes. You see, the military is holding this ground so a scientist they call “Dr. Frankenstein” can work on a cure, but, jokes on them, he’s secretly just trying to make friends with the zombies and turn them docile.
“We’re being punished by the Creator. He visited a curse on us.” -John
Now, this movie may seem too “decompressed” for some, a reduction of the sauce if you will, but the tighter spaces and smaller cast lead to a more ponderous message, and more impactful symbolism. It doesn’t hurt that Savini is at the top of his game here, SO many disgusting deaths, I really recommend you go watch a doc on this movie and hear the behind the scenes stories because they are gross and delightful, they had a lot of fun making this dark movie. Day’s Achilles heel is the amount of yelling the characters do, constantly screaming and cursing at each other, it’s digestible, but it’s a far cry from hanging with our friends at the mall in Dawn of the Dead just one movie before.
#4 Dawn of the Dead (2004)
This is Zack Snyder’s best movie, it’s really the remake that takes you places, you might know it as “the first one where the zombies run.” It catapults you into the action right from the start, the filming is slick, and the cast is fantastic, tent poled by Ving Rhames, flavored with interesting actors like Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer, and “Modern Family’s” Ty Burell. If I had to gripe with this movie, it would be that it retells only the “mall portion” of Dawn of the Dead, foregoing any of the view of the world at large that the original gave us by taking place in a couple of different locales. But that’s just a nitpick, you also get things added that really compliment the story, like “what happens when a pregnant woman becomes infected?” and the idea of “twitchers.”
“Died without a name? Damn.” -Tucker
Oh yeah, and you’re either gonna love this soundtrack or hate it: Johnny Cash, big band remake of Disturbed’s “Sickness,” a million light years from the original version or it’s Italian cut.
#5 Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Tom Savini directs this remake, which is, more often than not, shot-for-shot. The gore and frights are all in line, everything looks terrific, the only thing this one lacks is the laser focus of Romero himself. The original was lean and streamlined, the shots were polished, it was a really cohesive effort, and I’m afraid Savini’s direction just doesn’t quite grab all of that from it’s namesake.
“Look here, Barbara. I don’t need you falling apart on me. I know you can fight when you have to. You have to now, right now.” -Ben
I don’t want you to get me wrong, this is a very strong retelling, it really haunted my youth as the edited version made the rounds on local TV. You’ll notice a couple of small changes to the story, mostly involving the female protagonist, also, the ending has been altered quite a bit, in a manner that left me a little flat, but I would love to hear what you think.
#6 Land of the Dead (2005)
This is tricky: On the one hand, it’s Romero finally getting to tackle his universe with a budget, but on the other hand, it borders on cheesiness and the politics are ham-fisted. Overall, it’s a win, it’s the universe we all know and love, catapulted forward a bit in time, and it’s got some semi-decent actors in it, like Simon Baker from The Mentalist, and Dennis Hopper of…well…Dennis Hopper! The worst part about this one is that it follows a subplot that sees the zombies starting to evolve, learning to expand their capabilities, even showing compassion for each other at points.
“That’s why I love you, Charlie; ’cause you still believe in Heaven.” -Riley
One more thing that makes this one interesting (that I totally just remembered): Asia Argento plays one of the main characters, which brings the whole thing full circle with her father, Dario Argento (maker of the original Suspiria), having such a pivotal role in the making, and existence, of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Many thought he would follow this with “Road of the Dead,” one of his many un-filmed scripts, but George thought it was time to do a couple more things real quick.
#7 Survival of the Dead (2009)
The story is: Romero wanted to do a “Zombie Western.” I’m not entirely sure about that, it actually involves the politicking between two Irish brothers after the apocalypse, guardians of the last piece of habitable land in the post apocalyptic, Living Dead world. To me, this is the one that resembles “the Walking Dead” the most, dealing with a world that’s deep into the zombie apocalypse and also struggling with the mechanics of living in a world where some thing the zombies should all be exterminated, and some who think the world belongs to the zombies now and we should all be integrated (that’s the topic of the “Whisperers” story arc happening on Walking Dead as I write this).
“We got to get these things to learn to eat something other than us.” – Seamus
Perhaps, some will argue that “Survival” is worse than “Diary,” this is tough because they both come off as “experiments,” just Romero flexing his mind on things that could be happening in this universe, but like pizza, even when they’re bad their pretty good, and “Survival,” while close in tone to “Land,” is closer to what we’ve come to expect and love from Romero’s zombies.
#8 Diary of the Dead (2007)
Right after Land of the Dead, Romero would essentially “reboot” the series with Diary of the Dead. Diary is what is referred too as a “found footage film,” or a “shaky cam movie,” where the entirety of the scenario is played out on the protagonists video camera footage (Though Romero admits in the commentary that the filming gets more traditional as the movie rolls along).
“Cut! Cut! How many times have I told you, dead things don’t move fast.” -Joshua
Let’s say you eliminate the whole, polarizing, “shaky cam” thing, this movie still has two big problems: 1. It’s not strong or epic enough to be a reboot (soft reboot really), and 2. The ending is the least compelling of any of the Romero-helmed Living Dead films. I appreciate the story he was trying to tell, but it just didn’t grab onto the moment created by “Land.”
#9 Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018)
I give this one the edge on it’s predecessor (Day of the Dead 2008) for 2 reasons: 1. They actually DO go underground, which immediately makes it more like the original, and 2. The Bub (the learnin’ zombie) homage is a lot more thought out, as a matter of fact, it’s kind of an interesting pick for such a pivotal part, controversial too, this ain’t your dad’s Bub, he’s got issues!
“He could be the breakthrough we need in beating the rotter virus.” – Zoe
The acting is a little hard to watch in this one and the sound seems overdubbed at any opportunity (not sure why), no recognizable actors to speak of, but hey, If you have 78 minutes and it’s this or a root canal, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say “pick this,” because hey, it’s not last! At least it still has a female protagonist, okay, now I’m reaching.
#10 Day of the Dead (2008)
This is unusual in that both Day of the Dead 2008 and Day of the Dead: Bloodline are remakes of the original Dawn of the dead, but not necessarily in continuity with each other, pretty much the same situation as Evil Dead 1 to Evil Dead 2 (though I can’t believe I am bringing them up in the same breath). This starts right at the outbreak and has the distinction of having THE most super-humanly capable zombies of any of the films, these zombies are faster than the fastest Olympian and can jump for distances that might as well be flying. I think the problem here is that it doesn’t really harken back to the original at all, the original was claustrophobic and “trapped,” and this one moves from one mediocre location to another, really getting bogged down in what it must have been like to be stuck in traffic during the apocalypse.
“It’s a cold. Everyone’s got it.” -Trevor
Ving Rhames is back in this one, but he’s not playing the same character, and doesn’t have quite as big of a part, as the first and only actor to appear in two of the remakes they really don’t do much with him. Mena Suvari is our protagonist, and the idea of “Bub the learnin’ zombie” is revisited, but it is painfully fumbled, up to and including the fact that one of the characters attributes his docile nature with the fact that he was a VEGAN in life, I’m sorry, my eyes just rolled out onto the floor.