The Zombification Family Tree: Legacy of the Living Dead

For most moviegoers the words “culturally significant” don’t immediately spring to mind when the subject of horror films is brought up. This probably goes double or triple for Midnight, B-Movie, Zombie fests shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons as opposed to artistic).

Most moviegoers would be sadly mistaken on this front, at least in the case of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead by director George A. Romero, a movie that was selected in 1999 by no less an authority than the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry along with other films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Not bad for a movie derided as sadistic and socially irresponsible in its initial release.

From socially irresponsible to culturally significant… all in only 31 years.

One reason for the longevity and reanalysis of Night of the Living Dead is that it goes far beyond being a standard undead horror and gore picture and is instead a biting social satire and drama with a fascinating commentary on the times it was made. Romero reinvented the zombie subgenre of horror with this film, but he also introduced thought-provoking metaphors with the microcosm of society that the story follows through the end of the world. The film is also given a timeless quality in its African American lead actor, Dr. Duane Jones, whose casting over the years has raised less ignorant eyebrows than the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games (see “Not Gonna Lie: ‘The Hunger Games’, Twitter, and Reverse Victimization”by Robert Loss, PopMatters, 6 April 2012).

In the now four and a half decades since Night of the Living Dead unearthed itself on Midnight Movie screens, it has come to be regarded as something of a horror art film as opposed to the exploitation flick it was originally deemed. Its longevity has made it a remarkable financial success as well, with a worldwide box office take of over 263 percent of its budget. However, the film’s ultimate critical and box office triumphs also lead to a darker legacy; Night of the Living Dead has gone on to spawn a decaying plethora of follow-up films, stretching far beyond the series of Romero sequels and remakes that continue its saga.

One of the first things to note (and concede) about The Night of the Living Dead legacy is what a “Zombie Film” constituted before and after Romero’s groundbreaking film debuted. Everyone and their wicked step-sister knows that a “Zombie Film” is a commonly apocalyptic movie featuring brainless walking corpses intent on consuming living human flesh as if it were a Thanksgiving Delicacy. That would be accurate in the post-1968 cinematic world. Prior to this splash, “Zombie Films” usually featured human beings enslaved by Voodoo and controlled by some kind of mad scientist with a diabolical b-movie plan. In short, considering the impact of Romero’s little black and white film, any list of Zombie movies that followed it would owe a debt to Romero and his co-writer, John A. Russo.

In hindsight, considering the multitude of films that have followed the Night of the Living Dead formula, this film might seem a little more clichéd than it really is. Rest assured, many of the accepted Zombie formulas started here. You may have seen some of this before, but to 1968 audiences this was all brand spanking new!

Zombi/Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Interestingly enough, it was a full ten years before Romero created a sequel to his own film or revisited his “Ghouls” at all. Once he did, the floodgates opened wide. Noting the tendency of the American consumer to blissfully drag themselves to shopping malls as if fulfilling an inborn commercial hunger, Romero began working on his script for Dawn of the Dead, which featured a small team of survivors defending themselves against the recently reanimated in a shopping mall. Romero teamed up with Italian producer Dario Argento to fund his new vision (in exchange for international distribution rights) and one month shy of Night of the Living Dead’s 10th anniversary, Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy in 1978 under its foreign distribution name, Zombi.

Word of mouth and good advertising helped make Dawn of the Dead a success and with Italy’s jump on the film the unofficial remakes started to churn out in droves. The first and most obvious of these, Zombi 2 followed fast in 1979 and spawned a series of its own, each implying a connection to Romero’s storyline. For those of you keeping score, we now have a rip-off that claims to be the “Part Two” of a film that was already a “Part Two”.

The Zombie-Spawn were just getting started in their stagger to the box office. Possibly noting the successes of those copycats, Romero himself stepped back into the fray with his 1985 offering Day of the Dead, continuing the saga he created in his own malignant way. However, there were more alternate sources coming out of the woodwork. Some popped up remarkably close to home.

Remember the name John Russo, co-writer of Romero’s original Zombie classic? When he and George parted ways (somewhat amicably), they had a gentleman’s agreement that both could make sequels to Night of the Living Dead if the hankering so grabbed them. And grab John the hankering did, thus paving the way for the 1985 film Return of the Living Dead, which, subtlety be damned, name-checked the film Night of the Living Dead in the very dialogue that made it to the screen. From a canonicity standpoint, Return of the Living Dead is its own beast and not part of the Romero films, but it does have its basis in the original, arguably as much as Day of the Dead does… and much more than Zombi 2 could ever claim to.

Speaking of Zombi 2, Italy was busy carrying on its own ancient and dishonorable tradition of unofficial sequel/ rip offs by adding yet another entry into the faux-series known as, of course, Zombi 3 directed by the man made into a (convenient) horror icon by the success of Zombi 2, Lucio Fulci. When the making of Zombi 3 got so sickening, not even Fulci could continue, Italian Schlock maestro Claudio Fragasso (Zombi 3’s writer) brought in an even more inept substitute director in Bruno Mattei. Mattei had already directed the subtly titled Hell of the Living Dead (no relation) while Fragasso later became famous for directing Troll 2, lauded as the worst film ever made!

Unofficial sequels can be a double edged sword as those wacky Roman gods of Cinema seemed determined to prove to us all. It may have taken nine years after Zombi 2 for a sequel to see the light of day but the dubious popularity of Zombi 3 demanded a sequel in the same year of 1988. As a matter of strange fact the release date for Zombie 4: After Death was in June of 1988… a full month prior to the release of Zombi 3. Was this excellent planning and poor calendar checking or was something even more inept at work here? Well, much as Zombi 2 was so named to cash in on the successes of Zombi/ Dawn of the Dead, the 1988 film called After Death was renamed to Zombie 4: After Death in the aftermarket, adding yet another unofficial entry (and an extra “E”) to the Zombi/ Zombie series. Naturally, the makers of Zombi 3 couldn’t complain all that much considering the fact that the director of Zombie 4: After Death was Claudio Fragasso himself.

After this the undead calendar was thrown out the crypt window. Breaking the suspense the discriminating movie going public was surely experiencing, there soon was a Zombie 5. “Soon” being a week before Zombi 3 was released and a month after Zombie 4. Yes, once again, Zombie 5: Killing Birds began as a film called Killing Birds (which had almost nothing to do with zombies and was actually more of a rip off of Hitchcock’s The Birds) as directed by Joe D’amato, a man who had nothing to do with any of the other films in the series. Not yet, at least.

In one of the weirdest temporal turns yet to be seen in this series, Zombie 6: Monster Hunter is another unofficial sequel in this saga of unofficial sequels. Directed by Zombie 5’s Joe D’amato, this entry, that had even less to do with Zombies than Killing Birds, was originally known as Rosso Sangue in its native Italy and, surprisingly, did not debut in 1988 but seven years earlier in 1981! Yes, the Italian Schlock hoisters really allowed this entry to be a stretch… back in time! To make things weirder, Rosso Sangue was not only unrelated to the other unofficial sequels to the unofficial sequels to the official sequel to Night of the Living Dead but was an official sequel to a completely different film called Antropophagus. By now you’ve surely guessed, that film, too, had nothing to do with Zombies.

They’re (Still) Coming to Get You…

As if 1988 wasn’t already filled to the rim with Zombie Kin, it’s notable that this was the also the year of the first sequel to Return of the Living Dead, aptly titled Return of the Living Dead Part II. While billed as a sequel to the film that followed the original Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead Part II was more of a remake of Return part 1 (including the same two lead actors experiencing the same events again for the first time) than it was a valid continuation of any storyline. Yet another unofficial sequel from 1988 arguably did continue at least a tiny bit of the tale Night of the Living Dead originated. Written, directed by and starring Bill Hinzman, the very first Zombie we saw in Night of the Living Dead, twenty years earlier, Flesheater told us the story of a creature who looked and dressed exactly like that original zombie on a new rampage.

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

In 1990 the first official remake of Night of the Living Dead was brought to screens by writer/ producer Romero himself and director Tom Savini (famed makeup artist and frequent Romero collaborator). While not nearly as well received as the original Night of the Living Dead, the remake did have one thing that its predecessor did not: A copyright. The 1968 film was originally titled and copyrighted as Night of the Flesh Eaters but when the title changed, the copyright notice was not added to the print, resulting in the original Night of the Living Dead instantly entering the public domain. The 1990 remake didn’t make the same mistake, but the damage was done for the original film and its story. Already distribution companies from around the world were selling their own copies of Night of the Living Dead with no concerns about copyright infringement. One of these was known as “Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition” a re-cut version of the film produced by none other than Russo.

With the exception of 1993’s Return of the Living Dead 3 which furthered that series’ storyline and went in a new direction, the ’90s were the beginning of a large drought in the ‘Dead‘ series (official or not). It was a far cry from 1988 when pretenders to the ghoul throne were crawling out of every grave in multiple countries. The only arguable exception to this break in the zombie barrage was 2001’s Children of the Living Dead which paired itself not with the 1968 cut, but the re-edited “30th Anniversary Edition“. Reviews for Children of the Living Dead were universally negative and this unofficial entry was largely overlooked and forgotten.

As much of a dead dry spell as the ’90s were, the mid-00s opened the zombie vault and invaded both the cinemas and the direct-to-DVD market with Romero-borrowed imagery. The catalyst was 2004’s remake of Dawn of the Dead which was a commercial success (although it met with mixed reviews). Although Romero was not involved in the production of the remake (which had no relation to 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake) the success of the new Dawn helped bring real Romero zombies back to the big screen.

For the first time since the release of Day of the Dead 20 years prior, 2005 marked the release of a Romero-directed zombie film in Land of the Dead. Land of the Dead received positive reviews and was also a financial success and a triumph for fans who had endured the pale imitations for two decades since the last film. Just as Day of the Dead contended with Return of the Living Dead upon its release, Land of the Dead was soon followed by not one but two ‘Return‘ sequels, Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis and Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave. In that Necropolis first debuted not in theaters but on the Sci-Fi channel, these most recent sequels didn’t constitute a significant attack on Romero’s Land of the Dead.

The year 2005 also brought one of the very strangest of the official or unofficial entries in this decades-long saga of the ‘Dead‘. Taurus Entertainment, the studio that holds the rights to Romero’s Day of the Dead decided they had every right to release their own follow-up to Day of the Dead even (and especially) if Romero had no involvement with their sequel. Thus, the same week that Necropolis aired on television, Day of the Dead 2: Contagium was released directly to DVD. Despite the very negative reviews this film received and its almost complete disregard for the “rules” set up in the series it purports to be a part of, Taurus has announced plans for a Day of the Dead 3 (with release date still to be determined).

While 2005 surpassed 1988 status in its entries in the Zombification Family Tree, it also marked the realization that thieves of the ‘Dead‘ franchise didn’t need to limit themselves to thinly veiled rip-offs and competing unauthorized home video releases. With the original Night of the Living Dead’s public domain status, horror pilferers realized they could legally make their own unauthorized Night of the Living Dead remakes. These began with Night of the Living Dead 3D. Completed and released in 2006, “Night of the Living DE3D” as it was sometimes marketed, featured no involvement from anyone involved in the original film and actually showed scenes from its source material playing on a television set. Its poor reception didn’t prevent a prequel’s release in 2012’s Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation. This is not to be confused with Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D, an animated remake of Night of the Living Dead, that has no connection to the other 3D films, but will also be released in 2012.

Luckily, even as the original film was being remade without Romero’s involvement, fans wouldn’t have to wait another twenty years for the next installment in his franchise. Getting back to his roots as a “guerilla filmmaker”, Romero independently produced the cinema verité experiment known as Diary of the Dead. Released in 2007, Diary of the Dead used a documentary-style approach to add an additional level of realism. The plight of a team of film students documenting events that run concurrently with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead showed how valuable that “timeless” quality really became.

Not to be outdone, Day of the Dead reared its familiarly named head again with its 2008 remake. Unrelated to 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake or even 2005’s Day of the Dead 2, Day of the Dead was directed by horror sequel veteran Steve Miner and featured Ving Rhames from 2004’s Dawn of the Dead in a completely different role. Reviews were largely unkind.

Romero himself hardly rested after Diary of the Dead, instead writing and directing 2009’s Survival of the Dead. While not enjoying quite the critical or commercial success of his previous two entries, the film was better received than most of the remakes that peppered the late ’00s.

This year will mark the release of three Night of the Living Dead films, unrelated to Romero’s continuing series and equally unrelated to each other. These include the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D, Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-animation and the simply titled Night of the Living Dead, set for a Halloween day release (and also in 3D).

With two more promised Romero sequels (so far) and the threatened Day of the Dead 3: Epidemic, it’s not hard to look at the horror landscape and completely lose count of how many films directly and indirectly relate to the original Night of the Living Dead or any of the sequels thereof. Counting only the official Romero-created entries already released there are six fun filled films to choose from. However, expanding beyond these into unofficial sequels, legally accurate but unauthorized sequels, official and unrelated remakes and all manner of hanger’s on and horror fans can be trapped under an avalanche of up to 30 or more films.

Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D (2012)

It’s safe to say that Romero and Russo’s Pennsylvania experiment from 1968 changed the landscape of horror and zombie films and went on to spawn offspring of both high caliber fright films and very low quality wastes of time. Still, even with the vast dystopia of followers, it’s not hard to look at the film that reinvented the genre and see why it was preserved as “Culturally Significant” by the Library of Congress or to see why it was so very influential and led to so many followers. This is the very reason that a Midnight Classic (that wasn’t even properly copyrighted) has spawned as many entries in its canon (unofficial and official) as James Bond has in his own series.

Mister Bond, however, is less likely to try to eat your brain. Unless that happens, I’ll see you in The Next Reel!