This week sees the American release of Shaun of the Dead, possibly the finest zombie movie in the past decade, and in large part a loving tribute to George Romero's trilogy about the living dead. In light of this, and the news that the fourth film is in motion, it seems like a good time for us (finally!) to take a look at the originals. Romero was inspired in part by Richard Matheson's I am Legend, which had already become a 1964 movie, The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price (and would be made again as The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston). In the short story (made into a movie more than once, it was vampires rather than zombies which took over the planet, but the idea of a new society replacing the old through infection remains intact.
In terms of years between installments, this is definitely one of the more leisurely series of films ever made. 17 years passed between Night and Day, as Romero tried (usually finding little commercial success) to break out into other fields as a director, with the likes of Knightriders and There's Always Vanilla - though to his credit, he has never sold out in the manner of Wes Craven. His non-zombie horror movies, such as Martin and Creepshow have been more kindly received, but the lure of the walking dead keeps pulling him back.
It's refreshing to see that Romero has lost none of the downbeat approach; indeed, if anything, the films grow less optimistic in turn. Sure, Night ends with - and I trust I'm not spoiling it for anyone - the hero being shot and callously discarded, dying not at the hands of the zombies, but his fellow men. However, there's still a sense that we are somewhat in control. In contrast, Day, despite its final uptick, is a request to the last of humanity: please turn off all lights before leaving the planet.
Since Day in 1985, we have seen remakes of the first two, and an entire trilogy in the Return of the Living Dead spinoff series. Meanwhile the closest Romero has got to zombies is a rejected script for Resident Evil [see our review on girlswithguns.org] and a Japanese ad for the game. However, after many false starts, it looks like Land of the Dead is underway at long last, and Dennis Hopper is signed to star. Has George still got what it takes? Only time will tell, but it's already the most-anticipated horror movie of 2005, quite easily. It's startling to think that by then, it'll be 37 years since audiences first heard the immortal line -"They're coming to get you, Barbara..." - and were ushered into a new generation of horror.
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