2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
While Day’s grim and grey setting may have failed to intrigue, Dawn of the Dead gave audiences everywhere their ideal playground for the zombie apocalypse.
Set in an abandoned shopping mall, Dawn focuses on Peter, Fran, Trooper and Flyboy as they barricade themselves inside a complex filled with everything they could possibly need or want. As the world turns to ruin outside, the four deal with the undead and turn the mall into their own private fortress – though, of course, safety is only an illusion.
This is Romero at his satirical best and the reason zombie cinema has had such a long (after)life. Using the stumbling corpses who make their way steadily to the shopping centre as symbols for thoughtless consumerism is a stroke of macabre genius, but even the film’s human characters aren’t safe from the lure of material wealth. Upon entering the mall, the gang have a hell of a time dispatching the dead and playing with all manner of stuff while fixing up their new home. Soon enough though, that unhindered feeling of comfort begins to breed boredom and agitation. Even with everything your heart desires, cabin fever can still be found with the absence of society.
Dawn of the Dead not only brings a philosophical upgrade from the previous Night of the Living Dead, but also a technical one, courtesy of special effects legend Tom Savini. The marriage of Romero and Savini is a cinematic team-up for the ages, with Savini (who also stars as a mayhem-on-wheels biker in the final act) taking the original ghoul designs and adding enough fleshy prosthetics and fake blood to disgust censors and critics alike.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead deserves the top spot in Romero’s zombie filmography purely for what it accomplished within the horror genre.
Shot on a shoestring budget of around $114,000, Night of the Living Dead is a testament to what can be accomplished with very little. It is a film that should be seen by every budding filmmaker everywhere, not just for how it uses minimal settings and its cast to its advantage, but for how one film can alter a genre and become as important as anything made by the biggest studio.
From its opening scenes in a cemetery where Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her ill-fated brother Johnny have their first ghoulish encounter (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”), to the farmhouse where Ben (Duane Jones) attempts to keep order both inside and outside the barricaded doors, Night of the Living Dead has a way of building a progressive tension that threatens to explode. The only question is; by which means? The walking dead clawing their way through the windows, or the fear, panic and anger bubbling within the house’s inhabitants? In the end, each is as important as the other in this humble film, as it is in any of zombie cinema, and the gut-punch ending is arguably even more powerful today than it was in 1968.
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Written by Scott Z Walkinshaw
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