The Godfather of the modern zombie flick, George A. Romero, took the semi-mythical creature from Haitian folklore (check out the novel of the same name upon which the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow is based for the details on the real deal) and transformed it into the shambling, flesh-eating ghouls we horror fans all know and love today.
He set the stage for everything from the more comedic The Return of the Living Dead to Michael Jackson’s dancing zombies of “Thriller” fame, to the more modern likes of TV’s The Walking Dead and Z-Nation.
So, join me as I take another look at Romero’s famed zombie movies, ranking them in my own personal order of preference, from the worst to the best. You may or may not agree, and feel free to add your own rankings in the comment section. Let’s get it started!
Survival of the Dead (2009)
Naturally, we start with the obvious entry, the most recent of Romero’s zombie flicks, and easily the most critically savaged. I mean, seriously – have you ever read a positive review of this thing? Even on message boards and Facebook posts, where you can almost always find a brave soul rising up to defend a much-maligned film by coming to its defense- i.e. Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Rob Zombie‘s Halloween II, A Serbian Film, etc.- I’ve never seen a single favorable review or person even attempting to defend this one.
Before this, fans lamented that Romero only made one zombie film a decade. Now, most think he should have quit while he was somewhat ahead. Needless to say, the third time was NOT the charm in Romero’s final entry in the 2000’s trilogy of new zombie flicks. It makes House of the Dead look like Citizen Kane by comparison, and that has zombies doing somersaults, lest you forget. It’s got a freaking zombie on a horse, for Christ’s sake. Enough said. Moving on…
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Unlike Survival, I actually kind of liked this one, even though fans are pretty divided on it as well. Adding a “found footage” angle does wonders for making the zombies scary again, and, as with the big 3, this entry, along with Land, forms an acute snapshot of the decade in which it was made.
In this case, it reflects the then still-burgeoning “reality TV” movement, which has finally reached its nadir with the election of one of their own as President, which, even then, was pretty unthinkable. Who’d have thought it would come to this? Combined with our next entry, it shows that Romero just might have.
Technically, it’s about a group of film students shooting a horror movie. But, of course, when a real life zombie outbreak occurs, it turns them instantly into documentarians instead. We see the resulting footage, along with additional footage from news reporters and the like.
If you hate found footage flicks, this probably won’t change your mind, but for those of us who don’t mind it, it’s a fun enough ride and a mildly diverting entry in Romero’s ongoing series of zombie flicks, and a refreshing change in pace from his usual fare that might actually win over new fans that don’t care for the more methodical staging of his previous zombie movies.
Land of the Dead (2005)
If Diary is as if someone like the Ghost Hunters actually found something supernatural for real and had to fight for their lives, then Land is essentially an extended metaphor for the 99% vs. the 1%, only with slightly different math, as some of those 99% are humans and the others are zombies. It still holds up, though, given that only the rich are living in the lap of luxury, while the riff raff have to hustle and fight to earn even a meager place to call their own.
Meanwhile, lording over them all is a nasty, racist, xenophobic rich fat cat businessman (Dennis Hopper, chewing the scenery right along with his cigars) living in a penthouse suite, lording it over everyone else in his ivory tower. Sound familiar? If not, get ready, because this movie may well be our reality before too long. On the plus side, we don’t have to deal with zombies…yet.
This one is notable for having the biggest names of the franchise, including John Leguizamo as Hopper’s character’s main flunky, who he strings along with promises of things he’ll never deliver on- which naturally comes back to literally bite him in the end; Simon Baker as the leader of the offense against the zombies, who commands a tank-like vehicle known as the “Dead Reckoning” (the original title of the film, in fact); and horror royalty Asia Argento, daughter of Dario, as a sexy Russian hooker who Baker’s character helps to escape.
It’s aged very well- so much so that I seriously considered ranking it higher, but it’s hard to top the original trilogy, right?
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Here’s where things get tricky. How to rate some of the most classic horror movies in history, much less the ones most consider the best of the best? It was tempting to give the top slot to the original. After all, it was the one that started modern zombie movies/shows as we now know them, and is the one by which all other successors must and should be judged.
What’s more, it shows the times in which it was made, reflecting the racial tensions and the bloodthirsty nature of the then-current Vietnam War- and the accompanying objections to it. It also pioneered the ahead-of-its-time notion of having a black man in the lead of an action-oriented film, even before “Blaxploitation” made it practically the norm.
In addition, you’ve got that fantastic, instantly iconic opening scene, with one of the most quotable lines in horror movie history- say it with me now: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” There’s also the taboo-breaking scene in which a little girl kills and eats both of her parents- strong stuff for the time, to be sure. Finally, there’s that gut punch of an ending, in which it’s revealed that the one thing possibly worse than the zombies is…man.
Not to mention the irony that Ben (Duane Jones) only survived that long by doing exactly what he steadfastly refused to do earlier in the film- going to the cellar. Of course, it was the principle of the thing, so it’s understandable, but that fight between Ben and Harry (Karl Hardman) perfectly encapsulates the real-life racial tensions of the times, just as that tossed-off “That’s another one for the fire” at the end shows how casually black men were cast aside by the white men in charge back then. (Some things never change, unfortunately.)
It’s an absolutely devastating ending and undeniably the best one of the entire series, if only for how hard it hits the viewer that first time. That said, though, this is a list of the order in which I most enjoy the entries in the series, not how relevant and iconic they are; so, as much as I love it and don’t deny it’s the most important in the initial trilogy, simply for getting there first and doing it very, very well in the process, it’s not my favorite, or even, ultimately, my second favorite.
But it’s definitely essential viewing for any horror fan, and even more so for true zombie fans. This is Point A, and you don’t get to Point B without it, so respect where respect is due, but for my money the next two are truly the BEST.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Fans were initially disappointed in the more methodical, slow pacing of this entry, which takes a more cerebral approach to the zombies, mostly relegates the zombie action to the very end, and is almost relentlessly talky up until then, but time has been very kind to this superior sequel. Not only do I really appreciate the more scientific approach to the material now that I’m a little bit older, but it really does make the payoff that much more rewarding.
And, oh, what a payoff it is! Featuring arguably the goriest and most graphic effects maestro Tom Savini ever committed to celluloid, Day more than makes up for that slow-burn of a beginning with some seriously icky shenanigans, including, for my money, the best “eaten alive” scene ever. “Choke on it!”
The Walking Dead also owes this one a huge debt of gratitude as none other than that show’s FX guru Greg Nicotero served under the master here, and even has a small role in the film. Little did either of them know just how huge zombies would get several decades later!
As with most of the films in the series, the humans are often worse than the zombies themselves, and one could even make an argument that the whole thing preconfigures the whole “science vs. reality” debate that rages on to this day. As the scientists struggle to make sense of the zombies and why they exist and what makes them tick, the military types just want to mow them down and regain control over a world which may already be lost.
Also, “Bub” is quite possibly the best zombie ever. Actor Sherman Howard takes things to an Andy Serkis or Doug Jones-type level long before those guys came along, “humanizing” the zombie in a way no one has ever quite topped since. He alone might be worth seeing the film for, but that bravura finale is what really takes things to another level entirely.
Factor in an undeniably claustrophobic setting- the film mostly takes place underground- a solid cast (Lori Cardille, as Dr. Sarah Bowman, may be one of the best “final girls” ever, as smart as she is resourceful) and an ace score by John Harrison, who also did the honors for Romero’s Creepshow. It also proved a hit with any number of rock bands, including The Misfits, Ministry, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and Gorillaz, all of whom either sampled or paid homage to the film in various songs. (Click on the band names to hear for yourself!)
Though many would rank it lower than the first two in Romero’s initial trilogy, the film has really grown on me and I re-watch it fairly regularly, and even own the soundtrack, which ranks amongst my all-time favorite film scores ever- along with my number one, of course.
To me, of all the films in the series, this is the one that might resonate with me the most, especially given the current state of some people refusing to acknowledge facts as such, and “fake news” running rampant. It might not be as on the nose to the pulse of today as Land and it’s not for everyone, given its talky approach, but I just love it. Give it another spin- you might be surprised how undervalued it is.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
And here we come to the biggie. The influence of this one is also undeniable, from its surprisingly decent remake, to the whole consumerism-gone-horribly-awry metaphor which casts us all as mall-loving zombies just going through the motions of life, even after death. Even the humans here can’t help but try to recreate some semblance of the way life “used to be.”
I just love everything about this one. The action-packed opening and ending, Tom Savini’s gore-ific effects (best head explosion this side of Scanners!), the amusingly ironic mall “muzak”- as well as the excellent Goblin score- and the core group of characters in general. I still get so upset with Roger when he goes off the reservation and gets himself bitten, cringe every time when “Flyboy” gets it, and cheer when Peter rallies to save himself in the end after all. I think part of me still thinks the outcome will change somehow!
It’s also the rare horror flick to address abortion (see also Black Christmas) and the feminist movement: it’s great to see Fran stand up for herself and demand to be treated as the equal she is, pregnant or not. You could say it’s a bit dated, but it’s that late 70’s feel that makes me love it so much. I have a special place in my heart for that era of horror- to me, it never got better than the late 70’s-early 80’s for horror, personally.
The best thing about this one, and one of the main reasons I chose it, is that there’s a version of this to suit everyone. Can’t get enough? Check out the “Extended Mall Hours” version, which incorporates pretty much every version of the film into one epic watch. Prefer your zombie flicks short and sweet and to the point? Check out the Argento cut, which is all action and little dross, with more of an emphasis on the Goblin score than the others. (Though, oddly, no “helicopter zombie!”)
If you’re a purist, there’s the always the original theatrical cut, and if you want a little more character-driven stuff but not in excess, there’s the so-called “Director’s Cut.” All but one are available in the four-disc “Ultimate Edition,” which is pretty easy to find online, though it might set you back a few bucks. It also contains a feature-length making of, “Document of the Dead.” All are worth a watch for completists, especially as each has its own special vibe to it, which is really cool.
Maybe I’m picking this one for nostalgic reasons, as I grew up watching this one over and over on home video – alas, I never had the pleasure of seeing it in an actual theatre as of yet – and have more copies of it on VHS and DVD than anything else in my collection besides the original Halloween and maybe Evil Dead, but whatever the case, I just love it and can obviously watch it again and again, as evidenced by having done precisely that when I first got the box set.
It’s essential for any serious horror fan, as are Day and Night, for that matter, especially for anyone who considers themselves a real fan of zombie movies. Picking Dawn over the others might be a bit arbitrary,but it is definitely the one I find myself going back to the most.
I also have the most ancillary stuff related to it, as well, including the original release of the novel in hardback (written by Romero himself, along with Susanna Sparrow), the comics version, the board game, and various posters. I’ve also got both the Goblin soundtrack and the bootleg of the “unreleased incidental” music, featuring everything not on the Goblin one, including the “mall muzak.” (To be fair, though, only Night comes close in having as much stuff related to it even available- and it’s mostly relegated to books/comics and posters.)
What can I say? I’m a big fan. He might have fallen off in recent years, but to this day, no one quite does it like Romero can. He is, and will always be, the Man when it comes to zombies. As far as I’m concerned, he should given carte blanche to do whatever he wants, no matter how terrible, even if it involves zombies riding horses, for the rest of his days. The guy’s a national treasure. What say you?
Bonus viewing: Night of the Living Dead (1990), Tom Savini’s slightly updated remake of the original, made with Romero’s blessing; Dawn of the Dead (2004), a surprisingly decent remake by then-future blockbuster director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman) and writer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy); and Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated (2010), an animated take on the original that’s pretty nifty. Also, Romero’s Creepshow and Two Evil Eyes also feature zombies, albeit in small doses.
For completists, there’s also a colorized version of Night available, along with a “3D” version, plus a “30th Anniversary” take concocted by co-writer John Russo, with additional scenes (including some with sexy scream queen Debbie Rochon) and a new, halfway-decent soundtrack by composer Scott Vladimir Licina, whose sound collage Dance of the Dead is well-worth hearing, at the very least. The anniversary edition may be a bit jarring for some used to the original, but it’s still worth seeing, if only once. Avoid at all costs, however, the Day of the Dead remake, with Ving Rhames, Mena Suvari and- shudder– Nick Cannon: it’s the absolute worst.
There’s also fun commentaries out there by horror hostess Elvira, who featured it several times on both her original show and the more recent iteration; and via RiffTrax, from the guys behind the much-beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000. Wikipedia also has a complete list of other adjacent films/spin-offs that I’m not familiar with, under “Film Connections,” so I’ll leave those to you to explore.