With the release of Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero solidified himself as the godfather of not just the zombie-horror genre but of an entirely new wave of horror films. Since then Romero has continued to produce a legacy of “…of the Dead” films which now stands at a total 6, with Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), and most recently Survival of the Dead (2009). I chose to look at Romero’s first zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead and his more recent Land of the Dead, and compare them for commonality in Romero’s style as a director. With almost 40 years between their productions and budgets differing by over 100 times, I couldn’t help but wonder just how much similarities would show.
Night of the Living Dead begins with a young woman, Barbra, and her brother who are attacked by a zombie while visiting their father’s grave. Barbra is able to flee to a farmhouse where she meets up with Ben and a small group of others who try to survive as more of the undead appear. Despite their efforts each character meets their end, even the resourceful Ben who was able to survive the zombies but in the end is shot and killed when he is mistaken for a zombie himself by a group of hunters.
Land of the Dead takes place long after the initial rise of the undead, when they have overrun the world. In a city a large settlement of the living holds onto its stake, centered around a large tower of exclusive luxury residences, all under the control of one man. As the zombies outside become smarter, a rebellion threatens the corrupt leadership and soon the haven falls into chaos.
One clear trademark of Romero is his unashamed use of gore and violence, limited only by budget. Romero loves to play with his audience by shocking them and make them cringe with disgust at gruesome scenes. While Night of the Living Dead seems incredibly tame by the amounts of gore in today’s horror films, it was quite the opposite when it first premiered to American audiences. Night of the Living Dead broke through the established horror genre of the time and created a new one with copious amounts of blood splattering across the screen. With Land of the Dead Romero clearly doesn’t hold back and is eager to show the audience every gory detail, but even so it is hard to compete with the bloodbaths of modern horror films. Gory violence is so important in Romero’s films that he will often orchestrate very long scenes showcasing the worst he can do, which lend very little to the actual story. I found this in Night of the Living Dead with a long scene showing all the zombies outside the farmhouse eating the fresh bloody remains of two would-be-survivors after a failed escape attempt. Such a long sequence of zombies gnawing the flesh off bones slick with blood seems unnecessary but not for Romero: he wants the audience to spend every aching second contemplating such a fate. I believe it is Romero’s same objective in a scene in Land of the Dead where the zombie horde breaks into the luxury tower and begins to ravage its posh inhabitants. Five minutes and 20 people the story wasn’t developed much further, but Romero has presented his audience with a variety of creatively gut-wrenching deaths at the hands of the undead. One part particularly stands out to me in which a zombie bites and rips out a woman’s belly-button piercing; I can imagine the reaction of anyone with a piercing who watches.
I believe most of the conflict in Romero’s films is created by his characters, not the zombies. Night of the Living Dead and Land of the Dead are not just about the dead rising and eating the living, but about the conflicts that arise between humans in surviving. The survivors in Night of the Living Dead are torn between Ben and Harry. Ben believes they should stay out of the basement to secure all the doors and windows of the house and defend it from the undead. Harry wants to stay locked in the basement, which the others believe is a death trap. This conflict comes to a peak when Harry steals the only gun from Ben and retreats to the basement just as zombies are breaking into the house. I’m sure the irony is not lost on Romero that Ben, the last of the group left alive, survives the zombies but fall victim to other men. Not to mention the other men are an organized group of armed vigilante white men, and the heroic Ben is a black man. Romero takes it even further by showing still frames, during the end credits, of the now deceased Ben being dragged out by the hunters by meat hooks and thrown onto a pile of zombies. The hunters then proceed to burn the pile of corpses. For a movie in 1968 it is not hard to see the political connection.
The events in Land of the Dead center on the three characters Riley, Cholo, and Kaufman. Riley works with Cholo as supply gatherers for Kaufman who is the power-hungry overlord of the city of survivors. Kaufman maintains his lavish lifestyle and satisfies his god complex at the expense of the people excluded from his tower, who are forced to live in slums. Riley simply wishes to escape the city to a simpler life on his own, and Cholo wants to buy his way into the tower after doing all of Kaufman’s dirty work. Both their plans fall apart, and Riley is sent to stop Cholo from using the stolen “Dead Reckoning”, a huge moving battle-fortress like tank, to destroy the tower. In this struggle Kaufman’s empire crumbles once the zombies find a way into the city. To me Land of the Dead is largely a commentary on the disparity of social class in our world. There essentially exist only three categories of people: the extremely rich, the extremely poor, and the undead. The wealthy class is able to use their money and power to isolate themselves from the horrible reality of the world they live in; they hide away in their own fantasy world. Meanwhile, the poor are forced to face the horrors of the world in the slums, trapped between the rich and the zombies. For the rich the poor serve as insulation from the zombies, almost literally as a human shield. I also find myself asking if this scenario is related to the conflict between Ben and Harry in Night of the Living Dead. Could Harry’s decision to lock himself down in the basement, with Ben and the others between him and the zombies, be connected to the rich being locked in their tower? I do admit this notion is dubious, but I can’t help but feel a relation in that the group of survivors is split, with one side wanting to hide away from the zombies outside. One significant difference between the two films in this idea is the play of power. In Night of the Living Dead Ben actually holds the power as long as he holds the only gun.
It is strange to think of a zombie film as an outlet for political discussion, but Romero’s films very much reflect his thoughts as they play out in a kind of pessimistic satire of the world. As I mentioned before there is the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead, and the socio-economic division and corruption played out in Land of the Dead, but on this subject I want to also mention another of Romero’s films. In Day of the Dead (1985) the conflict arises between the side of science, with its potential to create a better world, and the destructive force of the military. It is very apparent that Romero intends to address current issues of the times with his movies, which would also explain why his movies always take place roughly around the year they are made. For Romero to tackle issues of 2005 in the setting of 1968 would be rather inappropriate.
Today George A. Romero’s first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, exists in the public domain, and the Library of Congress chose it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not to mention it has grossed over one hundred times its own budget just in the United States, but as a film it has a much greater legacy than just its profit. Romero’s 1968 classic created the archetype of the modern zombie without even using the word “zombie” itself. Not only that, but the film gave rise to a new style of horror that uses violence, blood, and gore to unleash mortal fears of the audience. I would even argue that the horror genre has not seen such a revolutionary change since then. Land of the Dead certainly doesn’t have the importance of Night of the Living Dead, but nonetheless it is interesting to see Romero continue to produce his “… of the Dead” series of films and look at consistent characteristics of his directing. It is also interesting to see how he has changed. In Night of the Living Dead the lead female character Barbra is mostly hysterical, helpless, and/or catatonic throughout the whole movie. For this Romero was often criticized by some feminist writers. A dramatic change is seen not only in Land of the Dead but also Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead (1978), with much stronger female characters that even survive to the end of the movie.