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)?

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!

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