Sunday, October 14, 2018

Legacy of the Living Dead

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the themes and legacy of George A. Romero's landmark zombie films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). What follows is one of a series of commentaries featured on the program, with this one looking back at the legacy of Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels and imitators.

Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential films in the horror genre and in American cinema. George Romero and company did not invent the zombie. These creatures had featured in movies before 1968 such as White Zombie and Voodoo Island. But in most of those films the zombies were mindless slaves controlled by a villain. Night of the Living Dead set the zombies loose and the movie created the template for a whole genre of films.

Romero would continue to follow up Night of the Living Dead throughout his career, starting with Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and then Day of the Dead in 1985. He returned to the genre in 2004 with Land of the Dead and followed it with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Romero’s later films failed to recapture the impact of his earlier work but Day of the Dead has enjoyed a reappraisal in recent years.

Night of the Living Dead producers John A. Russo and Russell Streiner also continued to work in the zombie genre, writing the story for 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, this film was a comic take on the zombie genre and has its own devoted fan following. Return of the Living Dead inspired four sequels.

John Russo also spearheaded one of the most unusual artifacts in the Living Dead pantheon. To coincide with Night of the Living Dead’s thirtieth anniversary, Russo oversaw a special edition of the film that included fifteen minutes of newly shot footage and a new music score. This version was—rightly—disparaged by the fans and has all but disappeared.

Night of the Living Dead was lauded for its black and white cinematography but the movie has had several colorized editions and a 3-D conversion. The movie has also been remade twice, both in color. The 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead was produced by George Romero and directed by Romero’s frequent special effects collaborator Tom Savini. It was a noble effort that both revisited and updated the material. A 3D remake of Night of the Living Dead starring Sid Haig was released in 2006.

Night of the Living Dead inspired a couple of animated projects as well. 2009’s Night of the Living Dead: Re-Animated is a mixed media remake that uses the audio from the 1968 film and recreates the visuals through various styles of animation. 2015’s Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn was a sort-of remake of the original story told through computer animation and featuring the voice talents of Tony Todd and Bill Moseley.

Aside from direct sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, Night of the Living Dead inspired a whole genre of zombie films whose entries are too numerous to count. Films such as the Resident Evil series, [REC], Night of the Creeps, Zombie, World War Z, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and the television show The Walking Dead all trace back to the 1968 film. The influence isn’t limited to the shuffling, undead cannibals. Night of the Living Dead created a boilerplate that filmmakers have followed for the past fifty years and most zombie films adhere to the siege formula originated in the 1968 movie. Night of the Living Dead also established a political framework and a set of socio-economic themes that have formed a baseline for most of the zombie films of the past half-a-century.

There are some signs that the zombie genre might finally move beyond Night of the Living Dead. The past few years have seen the release of some innovative titles. The Girl with All the Gifts and ParaNorman and Cargo and It Stains the Sands Red made a deliberate effort to move the zombie genre into new and interesting places. But whatever the future of this genre might be, the zombie film is inexorably tied to the efforts of  George A. Romero and his crew and the little horror movie they made in between beer commercials in rural Pennsylvania.

For more on Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, click here

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