The Zombification Family Tree: Legacy of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Deemed a "culturally significant" (if "sadistic" and "culturally irresponsible") film, how did 'Night of the Living Dead' redefine an entire genre and spawn more unofficial sequels (over 30) than 'James Bond' did official ones (22)?

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.

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