Ranking the George A. Romero Zombie Movies
It's impossible not to fall into the temptation of examining Romero’s "Living Dead" saga. As the absolute master of the genre, Romero reinvented the tropes, the rules, and the tone, several times. And he did it while showing on-screen social criticism and entertaining dumb splatstick.
We will take the rigor of not taking the easy route to perceive the "second trilogy" (Land of The Dead, Diary of The Dead and Survival of The Dead) as automatically inferior to those that already had decades of exquisite culture fermentation.
Each project meant something to Romero, and it would be insulting and fallacious to simply dismiss his recent work.
So, be prepared.
We hope that this Romero zombie movies list will motivate you to revisit and rediscover his work.
Here we go!
7) The Crazies (1973)
Ok, this is more of a special mention than a legitimate entry in the list.
After completely revolutionizing the genre and bringing the zombies back with Night of the Living Dead, Romero removed himself from the topic for years, evading the impending sequel.
Or at least that's what he ended up believing. With The Crazies, Romero basically attacked the same themes but using human beings infected by a “madness virus” instead of grayish undead.
The story is about a small town in Pennsylvania, where a virus called "Trixie" is released by mistake. The virus causes a "craziness" in the civilians, which is basically an excuse to put them to do random, odd things that always end in murders.
The Crazies exploits the distrust, ego, and incompetence of the humans considered "normal", so it can--of course--leave the obvious question in the air: "Who really are the crazies?".
In addition to its social commentary, The Crazies is full of wonderful and absurd bloody moments, like the affable grandmother who quietly gets up from her rocking chair just to needle-stab a soldier who was trying to quarantine her. Or the woman with a broom who happily accompanies others violent, gun-friendly infected, so she can quietly sweep the grass and corpses in her path.
We include the movie in this list because, in addition to the theme's similarity, the idea of a virus infecting humans and turning them into unstable killer machines is basically a precursor of the zombie genre most popular trend of the 21st century (popularized by Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later).
The Crazies is proof that even when Romero was touching the zombie tangentially, he still had a profound influence on the genre. That's how great the director was.
6) Diary Of The Dead (2007)
Diary of the Dead is perhaps the only time that Romero seems conquered and defeated by a topic he tried to cover.
With this movie, Romero wanted to make a kinda reboot that wasn't really a reboot, or something like that. This is not a sequel to the four previous films, but an update of the first day (shown in Night of the Living Dead), with a 2007 setting.
The reason for that strange and confusing decision had a good argument, though. Romero was really impressed by the technological advances of social networks and the new type of info-citizen journalism, where each person could potentially help cover a news event from their Handycams or cell phones.
Unfortunately, Romero directs stubbornly, not accepting the shaky handheld found footage style but elaborating complicated choreographies and camera movements to emulate that feeling. The result feels forced and way off.
Diary of the Dead is also a tonal mess. The performances (usually stiff and amateurish) can quietly convince you that you are watching a serious drama a moment, a found-footage horror on another or a full-blown comedy. That's how bad it is.
It has a couple of fun and creative deaths, but the exaggerated use of the dated CGI showed us an almost unrecognizable Romero.
5) Day of the Dead (1985)
The last half hour of Day of the Dead deserves to be in the top 3 of this list. The chaos generated by Romero is one of the best in his filmography ("Choke on em!") and Tom Savini's makeup and prosthetics work was a game changer that still looks glory, gory and beautiful.
Unfortunately, the movie has a whole previous hour that works as an anchor, condemning it to this place in the ranking.
With Day of the Dead, Romero wanted to expand the mythos of the zombie. Set many years after the start of the outbreak, humanity, on the verge of total extinction, has begun to consider "rehabilitating" or "calming" the zombie instead of eliminating it, a task that with a ratio of 400000 to 1, sounds sincerely unattainable.
To do this, Romero introduces "Bub", a zombie who lives with a small contingent of military and scientists in an underground base. Thanks to multiple experiments, Bub has managed to calm his hostile attitude and even to react positively to objects he used when he was human.
But Romero wastes most of the time concentrating on what we already know: The military and the scientists don't understand/trust each other, there are misunderstandings and fights for power and human stupidity ends up condemning them all to death.
By the time the glorious hell is unleashed, we have had too many unpleasant and uncharismatic human beings to deal with.
4) Land of the Dead (2005)
After 20 years without touching the subject, Romero returned with Land of the Dead with the firm intention to have a ton of fun.
And there's no denying it: Land of the Dead is by far his most entertaining movie. It's a colorful and exaggerated dystopia with characters that seem ripped off from some 70s apocalyptic comics.
Simon Barker and John Leguizamo administer a giant armored vehicle called Dead Reckoning, which can easily travel through areas infested with zombies and has dozens of fun gadgets to deal with them. Dead Reckoning has even powerful fireworks designed to divert attention from zombie hordes. It's a blast.
It's apparent that Romero was revitalized after seeing Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead. Being able to make a bloody comedy where social commentary is transmitted in other ways, was undoubtedly what prompted the master to start this new trilogy. The cameos of Wright and Simon Pegg as amusement park zombies seemed to confirm it.
Yes, the social comment is still there. The plot revolves around a luxury apartment complex dominated by Dennis Hopper, who practically exploit the crisis and the existence of zombies for his own benefit. It's a not-so-subtle (and very funny) criticism at the 1%.
Land of the Dead is also the movie where Romero got the biggest budget to make his fantasy. And you can see it. And it's wonderful.
3) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Placing this film in third place may be considered blasphemy and an insult to its spectacular cultural impact. Quite simply, what we know today as zombies would be very different if not for the first Romero movie about the undead. I was even tempted to put it another spot down just because the entertainment value feels low.
Its historical merit will always be undeniable and its preservation and respect must always remain intact. Let's never forget that besides shocking audiences with a crude portrayal full of viscera and executing a necessary cruel ending, this movie had the balls to break racial paradigms by placing an African-American as the leading man, in an era in which racism was even more rampant.
Night of the Living Dead is still enjoyed as a classic, but by today's standards, the movie already looks stiff and somewhat slow.
The 1990 reboot, directed by Tom Savini and written by Romero, didn't help much to update the story. It was an almost exact copy of its structure, with humans hammering tables for 40 minutes and with the most experimental ideas blocked by a conservative production.
We assume the insult and blasphemy of ranking this movie third. Night of the Living Dead hasn't aged with the power of other classics.
The same monster that this movie created, ended up devouring it over time.
What's Your Second Favorite Romero Zombie Movie?
2) Survival of the Dead (2009)
Survival of the Dead doesn't have the recognition it deserves. In his final film, Romero allowed himself to experiment with the story like he hadn't done since probably Dawn of the Dead.
This film deeply develops the obsession of Romero to rehabilitate and show the "post-zombie", which began with Day of the Dead and continued with Land of the Dead.
With a well-balanced mix of genres that range from the family drama, the action movie and even the western, Romero tells the story of two rural Irish families from an island in Delaware who deepen their historical feud due to their opposing positions on how to deal with the zombies.
One of the families advocates immediately eliminating any infected. The other waves the Bible and feels that the right thing to do is to try to live with that new natural stage of life. Romero shows us the practice of both visions and manages to demonstrate that both moral compasses have interesting and valid points and also distortions and horrendous excesses.
Of course, this being a zombie story, the film has a significant dose of shots, explosions, and splatter. With this project, Romero also returned to the practical effects, using the CGI only as support. The result is a much more organic and visceral film, full of satisfying deaths.
Survival of the Dead was the worthy sunset of a master. And it's time for all of you to rediscover it.
1) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
What else can be said about a movie that ranks first in the vast majority of zombie movie rankings? Well, the obvious: That its place was and still is completely deserved.
So, obviously, in a Romero's ranking, there is no other place for Dawn of the Dead but the very top.
With Dawn of the Dead, Romero showed perhaps like no other director before and after him (and there are a lot) that the zombie genre was more about us than about undead creatures. He had already given glimpses of it with Night of the Living Dead, but it was in this film that Romero put the pedal to the metal.
Those survivors recreating their everyday life while sheltered in that symbol of savage neoliberalism such as the mall remains a profoundly iconic and relevant allegory of our times.
Romero was also at the top of his visual game. Influenced by the era of the Italian Giallo, Romero planned each shot meticulously. Goblin, the emblematic band of Dario Argento contributed even more to the glorious aesthetics with a memorable soundtrack.
And besides all that wonderful deep weight in the script, Dawn of the Dead doesn't stop being funny and bloody. This tale is full of iconic zombies (Hare Krishna zombie!)and a lot of fake blood.
Night of the Living Dead would have practically invented the modern zombie, but it was Dawn of the Dead that made the genre have a guaranteed future for decades to come.
We hope you enjoyed our George A. Romero zombie movies ranking. If you aren't satisfied yet you can also have a look at our best zombie movies of all time list.
© 2019 Sam Shepards