Halloween won’t be the same this year without George A. Romero still walking among the living (and the living dead), but there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate the works of the late zombie auteur this holiday.
Romero, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 77, had breathed life into the undead with his debut feature, the 1968 cult film Night of the Living Dead, which not only provided the prototype for the modern zombie but also (possibly accidentally) expressed some pungent truths about race in America. (The Walking Dead, which just premiered its eighth season, probably wouldn’t even exist without Romero.) For the director, horror became a tool to comment on social and political conditions, though he also never lost sight of the pure thrill of watching blood and guts spill all over the screen.
Of course, Romero made non-zombie movies too: In 1973, he directed the paranoid sci-fi horror The Crazies, about a town infected with an inexplicable, violent insanity, and in 1982 he made the horror anthology Creepshow, collaborating with Stephen King, who wrote the screenplay and starred in one of the vignettes. Both films (unmissable for horror heads) are playing on 35mm at Metrograph on Monday, October 30, and Wednesday, November 1, respectively.
But Romero is undoubtedly best known for his Dead movies, a series of six zombie films he made between 1968 and 2009. His first three represent the pinnacle of his artistry — Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985), the most underrated and, by box-office standards, least successful of the trio. Though it’s since been somewhat reclaimed by diehards, Day remains underseen. Thankfully, for those uninitiated or in need of a rewatch, it plays on 35mm at Nitehawk on Saturday, October 28, and Sunday, October 29, during — yes — the daytime (at 11:45 a.m.).
Most fans may say that Day of the Dead doesn’t live up to its predecessors, but it belongs in the Romero canon for its moral undertones and remarkable special effects. Day also gave us a proper heroine with Sarah (Lori Cardille), the kick-ass answer to the frightfully docile Barbara in the first Dead film. Sarah not only finds herself one of the few living among the living dead, but the only woman in a group of aggressive military men who look down on her and make uncomfortable advances. “Yes, sir,” she says to her tyrannical superior, but isn’t afraid to retort right back with a “Fuck you, sir.” She outlives her more hotheaded male counterparts, including her boyfriend, Miguel.
Romero had originally envisioned Day of the Dead as a big-budget epic involving zombies trained to wipe out other zombies, but had to readjust and abbreviate his vision when his budget got cut in half (to $3.5 million) after failing to negotiate on a rating with the studio (they wanted an R, he wanted an all-out, unrated bloodbath). What resulted was a suffocating bunker horror — much like a single location thriller — emphasizing a claustrophobic tension: Zombies have been roaming the earth for quite a while, and the last few human survivors are still bickering about how to handle the situation. Human conflict becomes as toxic as the flesh-eaters themselves, and while people are regressing to primordial behavior, zombies are seen to be quickly evolving. There is something truly terrifying (and oddly affecting) about the idea of a self-actualized zombie that can think and use tools.
A big chunk of Day of the Dead may feel like a drama about navigating politics between soldiers and scientists, but in the end the action picks up, and it turns into a truly gruesome (and satisfying) flesh feast. I would be remiss to not mention special makeup effects creator Tom Savini, who deserves all the props for the gory skin-tearing scenes that make the third installment of the trilogy stand out from the rest (if Night and Dawn are the more beloved entries, at least Day has the SFX department going for it).
If this is the year you’re filling in your Romero blindspots, give the lesser loved but deserving Day of the Dead a chance. After all, Romero himself said that this gut-spilling nightmare was his personal favorite from his own filmography.