It’s often said that the darker, more violent, and generally bleak the horror movie is, the more smiley, effusive, and avuncular the horror director is. If you’ve ever seen an interview with George A. Romero, you know that he’s one of the more thoughtful and pleasant filmmakers, completely befitting how gory and angry his films often are. Politically-charged, socially-conscious, and full of a highly pessimistic view of the world, Romero’s movies are some of the most influential in all of horror, especially a shambolic monster he practically invented.
The sad truth is, Romero has not gotten to make as many movies as he should have, due in no small part to his unwavering stance on doing things his way. Producers want a guarantee of a rating for their investment, and only a couple of times has he gotten to make such a movie up to the scale he wanted. It’s no surprise then that those are my favorites. Here are my 7 favorite movies by the Father of the Dead.
7) The Dark Half (1993)
This is, I think, the closest Romero ever came to making a regular ol’ mainstream horror movie, and while this isn’t the best movie, I like it because of a lot of the restraint Romero shows. Based on the novel by Romero’s friend Stephen King, the movie follows a novelist (of course) whose fictional alter-ego begins manifesting himself physically. It’s more of a person-goes-insane film than anything else, which works more than it doesn’t. This also represents the final film Romero made for a seven-year span.
6) Creepshow (1982)
Like a lot of horror guys of that generation, Romero was a huge fan of EC Comics, the gory, violent, cacklingly funny morality plays built into titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Creepshow represents his, and Stephen King’s, vision of a portmanteau, comic book spookfest. Bringing together blackly comedic stories of waterlogged zombies, monsters in crates, alien fungus, and a racist afraid of cockroaches, the movie has a little something for everybody. It’s a fun movie, and sometimes horror can be fun. Romero’s love of anthology also led to his creating Tales from the Darkside.
5) The Crazies (1973)
Following Night of the Living Dead, Romero made a couple of movies that for whatever reason didn’t quite land; his third attempt, I think, largely does. It’s a really disheartening look at a small rural town beset by a strange, inexplicable outbreak of a virus (or whatever) that turns them into the eponymous mental cases, committing horrendous acts while smiling all the way. A crazy old lady is particularly scary. What’s scarier, though, and what Romero would revisit time and again is how deadly and inept the government are when dealing with such a crisis, and how they’re often more of a problem than those with the actual problem, as personified by men in creepy white hazmat suits and gas masks. There are allusions here to political protest, as well, especially in the moment when the priest sets himself on fire. This is a good stepping stone on the themes present in both Night and Dawn.
4) Day of the Dead (1985)
Arguably Romero’s angriest film, it’s also one of his most accomplished in the effects department, thanks once again to the pioneering work by Tom Savini. Humanity has lost, or has all but lost, and only a handful of military and science personel remain in an underground bunker attempting, somehow, to learn about the undead and possibly reverse the effects. This is the work of the off-his-rocker Dr. Logan, known un-affectionately as Frankenstein, who is trying to reason with Bub, who’s smarter than your average zombie. This is a movie that mainly deals with what happens when society, even on the smallest level, has broken down and men of action have nothing to do. It becomes really grim. And there’s only one woman in the whole group, who happens to be headstrong and resilient, so let’s just say frustrations run high.
3) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
It’s hard to put the grandfather of all modern zombie movies not at number 1, for importance alone, but I’d be disingenuous if I claimed this as my favorite. It’s very good, no question, but it does have a lot of down time, and a lot of people bickering in houses. What makes this movie so important, so well-done, and so revolutionary is that it was shot almost like a piece of newsreel footage. Made on a very low budget, over the course of a really long while, Romero and company had only their experience in local Pittsburgh television to aid them, and it certainly was an aid. And, though Romero didn’t try to be edgy, the fact that there’s such graphic gore and the fact that the lead was an African American man who takes control over a group of petty, whiny white people was crazy subversive in the same year that Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were shot dead. It’s also got perhaps one of the biggest downer endings in horror history.
2) Martin (1977)
This is a movie that’s often forgotten about in Romero’s canon, but it oughtn’t be. It’s a really thoughtful revisionist take on the horror movie, and the vampire subgenre specifically, which is something that Romero had never and would never do again. It’s all about a young man who calls into a radio station because he either believes himself to be or he actually is a vampire, but one who’s seen all the vampire movies and knows that’s not how it goes. He doesn’t have sharp fangs or an aversion to crosses and sunlight; he drugs women and uses a razor blade to cut their veins and drink their blood. His uncle, an old man from the Old Country, believes he can rehabilitate Martin, though he certainly believes him to be a creature of the night. It’s left entirely ambiguous as to whether Martin actually is a vampire or if he’s just been made to believe he is. It’s really more about mental illness, on a larger level. Really fascinating.
1) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Yes, of course this is my favorite! This is, more so than Night of the Living Dead, the forerunner, the template for the modern zombie movie and established most of the lore we now associate with it. This movie is an epic, allowing Romero and crew to run roughshod in “one of those new indoor malls” in the middle of the night and fill it with the living dead, and even have a car chase. It’s an adventure movie, a social satire, a reflection on the vapid, empty consumers we’d become by the late-70s, and guess what — we’re still that way, in fact we’ve gotten worse. This has some of the best low-budget gore effects ever created, thanks to Tom Savini, and it has some of the most indelible zombies of all time, not least of which being the craggly-headed one that became the poster image, but also the nurse, the nun, the Hari Krishna, the big fat guy, and even some of our heroes, sadly. It’s great movie and one that I never tire of, even the weird Goblin score and out-of-place “happy” ending. We don’t want these characters to die; the world may have ended, but someone can make it.
These are my personal favorites, which is not to say they’re better or more correct than yours. It’s all about preference, yo. You can tell me yours in the comments below. It’s a Salon of horror ideas.