If it weren't for horror legend George Romero, the zombie film as we know it today probably wouldn't be around. With the release of his landmark Night of the Living Dead, the "Godfather of the zombie film," he revolutionized not only the way the undead were depicted in pop culture but the way horror movies were shot entirely. And over the following 41 years, Romero wrote and directed five more Dead movies before his passing in July 2017.
The impact of those movies (the earlier ones especially) is still felt today, which is probably why George Romero remains such a prominent figure for horror hounds and aspiring filmmakers. With Night of the Living Dead starting an entire genre of film in 1968, Dawn of the Dead inspiring countless movies and even video games since its 1978 release, and the other films having impacts of their own, there seems to be one question — which film is the best?
6. Diary Of The Dead (2007)
Diary of the Dead is one of those movies that is better in theory than in execution simply because it entertains some pretty engaging ideas and arguments about media in the modern age. Unlike the rest of the movies in the franchise, Diary is shot in a found-footage manner that was becoming more and more prominent around the time of the movie's 2007 release. Not really a continuation of the story from the original Dead universe, the fifth entry in the franchise starts at the beginning of the zombie outbreak and follows a group of student filmmakers as they try to make sense of what's happening around them.
Having Diary of the Dead at the bottom of the rankings isn't to say that it's a bad movie, quite the contrary, it's just that it doesn't work as well as the previous efforts from George Romero and is sometimes hampered by the narration from the main character Debra Moynihan (Michelle Morgan). It isn't a movie that you should jump up and see immediately, but it's definitely a must if you want to see everything Romero has to offer.
5. Survival Of The Dead (2009)
Two years after releasing Diary of the Dead to the masses, George Romero went back to his old ways of movie-making with the sixth and final entry in the Dead series, Survival of the Dead. For the first time in the franchise, Survival featured characters (living anyway) that had appeared in the previous films when it followed the National Guardsmen who went AWOL in Diary and robbed that film's main protagonists. In addition to following the soldiers as they try to escape the madness of a world torn to shreds by hordes of the undead, they stumble across two feuding families on an island off the coast of Delaware.
The last film to be directed by George Romeo before his death eight years later, Survival of the Dead plays off a lot of the concepts introduced in Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead with the introduction of zombies that can be trained or at least possess some intellect in their decaying bodies. And while it's better than Diary of the Dead, the final film in the franchise doesn't have the great themes that made the original trilogy and the 2005 continuation more than just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick.
4. Day Of The Dead (1985)
Next up is Day of the Dead, which recently got some attention after appearing in the Stranger Things Season 3 premiere when the gang snuck into an early screening of the 1985 horror classic. Unlike the campier Dawn of the Dead released seven years earlier, the third film in George Romero's iconic series lacks humor, hope, and light as most of the movie was shot in an old mine that was transformed into a storage facility. Set years after the mysterious event that awoke the dead, Day of the Dead centers around a group of scientists and soldiers (and two matter-of-fact pilots) hiding underground while trying to come up with a cure for the undead or at least see if they can be trained.
No one will ever see George Romero's original vision for Day of the Dead as the budget was cut in half after the director refused to back down to studio demands and make an R-rated version (it ended up being not rated). Plans for extravagant action scenes set in a world surrounded by death were cut out and Romero's intention of making the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies was left off subsequent drafts and what we got was more of a philosophical argument than a zombie epic. We still got the amazing introduction in a deserted town on the Florida coast and the epic and bloody finale, but there's always the what-if with Day of the Dead. A what-if we'll never see.
3. Land Of The Dead (2005)
George Romero took an extended break from the Dead series after the release of Day of the Dead (not counting his script for Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead), and didn't put out another zombie movie until the 2005 release of Land of the Dead. Full of satire, social commentary, and gore, the fourth film in the series picked up where Day left off and turned things up a notch. Set in a version of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that has been reorganized around the emerald tower that is Fiddler's Green and the slums that surround the luxury high-rise, the film depicts a world that is more divided than ever. But as we've learned with the rest of Romero's films — death is inevitable.
There is just so much to love about Land of the Dead, especially when looking back on the horror film 15 years after its initial release. With satire with teeth as sharp as the hordes of undead taking on the careless and arrogant wealthy residents of Fiddler's Green, George Romero didn't hold back with his attack on American politics and the Bush Administration in the first years of the 21st Century. Hell, even Roger Ebert was a fan of the movie and its metaphors to American life. With the exploration of ideas like the divide between ultra-rich and the poor and underestimating one's enemy, Romero provided a thoughtful argument masquerading as a zombie movie.
2. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Next up is the film that started it all for George Romero, the zombie movie, and modern horror as a whole — Night of the Living Dead. Released in 1968, this movie changed everything anyone knew about the zombie genre. Gone were the voodoo spells in some Caribbean island nation or mysterious curses, and instead replaced by hordes of recently deceased bodies rising from the grave after what scientists believe to be the result of a space probe emitting radiation after exploding in the atmosphere. Regardless of the cause, a group of survivors finds themselves trapped in a farmhouse as dozens of zombies try to break in and eat their flesh.
The movie was revolutionary not only for its portrayal of zombies but also the fact that its cast was led by Duane Jones, an African American stage actor who was cast in a role that rarely went to black actors at the time. With the undead pounding on the boarded-up doors and windows of the old house, the survivors are at each other's necks for having differing opinions on how to best see the situation through. And while a lot of the ideas and arguments found in Night of the Living Dead were revolutionary for their time, George Romero would better expand and entertain them 10 years later with the release of Dawn of the Dead.
1. Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
Most people would probably have Night of the Living Dead as the top movie in the franchise, but the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead is really the film that should be better remembered. Set in a world that is in the middle of the zombie outbreak, Dawn follows a group of four survivors (two cops, a television news producer, and helicopter pilot) as they seek refuge in a large shopping mall that is both filled with resources to survive and hundreds of zombies stumbling about looking for their next meal. As the group holds up in the mall they are forced to overcome a number of challenges if they wish to see the next day.
There is so much about Dawn of the Dead that makes it the best of George Romero's zombie movies, including another great portrayal of an African American hero in Ken Foree's Peter Washington as well as a modern female lead with her own thoughts and issues in Gaylen Ross' Fran Parker. Touching on topics like race, gender roles, safety, and American consumerism, Romero finds a way to make a meaningful and thought-out narrative set with the backdrop of starved zombies (with that iconic blue skin). On top of that, none of the other movies in the franchise feature a pie fight.
Above all, the George Romero Dead films are leaps and bounds better than just about every zombie movie to come before or since and offer much more than just thrills and chills, though there are plenty in each of these six entries. Do you agree with this ranking or do you think that Day of the Dead is actually the misunderstood middle child of the franchise and deserves more love? Either way, sign off in the comments, and don't forget the handy poll at the bottom of this story. And remember, when there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth…
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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