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Evolution of The Living Dead   Leave a comment

George Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead is the quintessential zombie movie.  The first of its kind and the father of all modern zombie cinema. Today, you can’t walk five feet without running into a zombie and you can thank Night of the Living Dead for that.  As well as its sequels. And remakes.  And its other remakes.  And the sequels to those other remakes.

Recently I mentioned the Night of the Living Dead franchise in my post about the Army of Darkness sequel (which may have all been based on a lie). Night of the Living Dead is the only franchise that I can find where the original film continues to get sequels after there has been a reboot. Several reboots in fact.

notlddec11

An oversight by the distributor left the film without a copyright.  Since it is in the public domain any TV station can air it for free.  Soon after its release it became an easy go to late night filler for TV stations with nothing else to air, introducing it to a wide audience that it otherwise would not have reached.  This error in paper work lead the film to becoming the most widely known zombie film of all time.

This also lead to the film’s content and title to be fair use for any other filmmakers to capitalize on.  Anyone can shoot a movie, call it Night of the Living Dead and legally release it in theaters. And many people have.  Beyond that, rights to the many of the films that followed the original have been sold off to various entertainment groups, and have had their own series of sequels.

Today there are over 30 movies and TV shows (plus comics, novels and who knows what else) that tie directly back to the Night of the Living Dead in someway. With more to come!  With that in mind I thought this could use some sorting out.  I Present to you, Dear reader, The History of the Living Dead! Complete with nifty Flow Chart!

Evolution of the Living Dead

Click to enlarge!

The above chart is your handy guide to following the twists and turns these films have taken in the last 40+ years.

There are probably a dozen different ways to follow the progress and evolution of this landmark series.  Its impact on the horror genera, its reflection of the different eras in which the films were produced, its effect on zombie mythology, even make-up and special effects just to name a few.  One day I will explore all of these trends in a book titled Zombies on Screen: A Reflection of Eras.  I will write this book with my friend Neal and it will be awesome.

But since this was supposed to be a quick post (that has now taken me two weeks and three dozen revision to get down) I will keep things a little more simple.  I will take a look at the various branches of the series and build a cohesive family tree.

Original Film

There are about a thousand noteworthy things to mention about this movie, and I can not list them all.  So I’ll keep it to the points that inform the rest of this list.

1. This is the first appearance of the modern zombie.   Before NOTLD the term zombie referred to soulless slaves, controlled by Vodou magic.   From this point forward zombies became undead monsters that eat human flesh and infect their victims.

2.  A riff between Romero and his screenwriting partner John Russo, lead to them parting ways after the project.  They agreed that Russo would obtain the rights to use the term “Living Dead” and Romero to use the term “Dead” in future films.

3. As stated above, the film is in the public domain.  So anyone who wants to make a move called “Night of the Living Dead” can do so.  And with the cost of production for independent films at an all time low this is happening more and more in the last ten years.

Night of the Living Dead Remakes, Sequels Prequels

Dir. Jeff Broadstreet Reboot Series

Every time I think I can pull the trigger on this post I stumble across another remake of this movie.  They range from worth watching, like the version from 1990 which was made with Romero’s in put, to the shake-your-head-and-just-walk-away bad, like all of the rest of them.  One upcoming version, Origins 3D, will be computer animated and is slated to bring back some of the cast from the 1990 version.  The footage I’ve seen looks like it was made for a PlayStation 1 cut scene.  So, keep those expectations low.

So long as any filmmaker, no matter how bad they are, can use the name to gain some quick notoriety we will keep seeing NOTLD remakes.  But it is not likely that we will see a big budget NOTLD remake, since no studio could ever own the rights to the title or story.  Which lead Robert Kirkman to rework a Night of the Living Dead comic he was developing a few years back…

Bill Hinzman directed and starred the 1988 unofficial prequel to NOTLD, FleshEater.  Hinzman is best known as the first zombie to appear on screen in NOTLD, and FleshEater is a possible origin story for that character.  Night of the Flesh Eaters was one of the original titles of NOTLD, and is where this film gets its name.  Reviews were unkind.

Romero Series:

Romero’s films are best known and “official” sequel series to the original film, as much as public domain film can have an official sequel.  The first three tell the story of the dying Human population from the early days of the struggle to the bitter end. Each film also provides a venue for Romero’s criticism of the social/political issues that plague each era in which they were made.

The fourth film, Diary of the Dead acted as soft-reboot, retelling the early days of the struggle from a modern perspective.  Production cost was significantly reduced from 2005’s Land of the Dead.  Romero followed it up with Survival of the Dead, which he expressed hopes to turn into a new series unto itself.  He is also working on a comic, Empire of the Dead.

Romero built the zombie genera and he did it through these films.  While it is fair to say that his more recent installments are not as strong as his early ones, these are still the zombie movies that any horror fan must see.

Zombie series: Unofficial Dawn of the Dead Sequels * wiki

Here is where things start to get confusing.  Like REAL confusing.

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy under the title Zombi.  At that time Italian horror director Lucio Fulci was working on a zombie movie of his own, and decided to capitalize on DOTD by shooting additional footage for his film to loosely tie the two together.  His film was released as Zombi 2, making it the successor to the NOTLD franchise in the European market, and released in the US as Zombie.  It was followed Zombi 3, which was released as Zombie 3 in the States, despite the fact that US never had a film titled “Zombie 2” at that time.

The rights to release films under the Zombie title ended up with different US distributors at different times.   Many unrelated European zombie/undead themed movies were released through those companies under the “Zombie” banner on VHS in the late 80s and 90s.  The various companies also used different numbering systems to title each film.

One film, Zombie 6: Monster House is considered a prequel to a film that had been released in the US in 1980 under the title Anthropophagus.  Monster House is itself also better known under the tile Absurd.

* These release dates are as accurate as I have been able to find to their US home video releases under the Zombie title.  Mostly by looking though used VHS tapes for sale on Amazon.  I am also at a loss to figure out what companies released what films, because there were a lot and I’ve been getting conflicting info depending on what webpages I check.  If anyone has that info… Lord knows why you would… but if you do, drop me a line and let me know!

Dawn of the Dead Remake

Zack Snyder‘s 2004 remake of DOTD was a major turning point in zombie fiction.  The film’s positive reception and financial gains renewed interest in studios backing big budget zombie projects.  This filtered down into interest of smaller budget studios and indie filmmakers looking to grab on to the ensuing trend and jump starting the genre. The success and even the existence of zombie films made after 2004 can give thanks to this one major project.  It is not a coincidence that Romero’s first major zombie film since 1985 came out a year after this movie.  The same goes for Russo’s Return of the Living Dead films.  We will get to those in a minute.

Day of the Dead Sequels

  • Day of the Dead 2: Contagium 2005 wiki imdb
  • Day of the Dead 3: Epidemic ???? wiki

Romero did retain the rights to1985’s Day of the Dead, and they ended up in the hands of  Taurus Entertainment.  Taurus produced a low quality sequel to Day of the Dead that was met with heavy criticism for straying so far from its predecessor.  A follow up was in the works back in 2009, but I can’t find any information to indicate that it will ever happen.

Day of the Dead Remakes

A Day of the Dead remake was also made to capitalize on the success of Dawn of the Dead (2004).  Other than the title and the appearance of the military it bears no resemblance to the original film.  There is no official connection to the ’04 Dawn but  Ving Rhames pops up in a similar role in both movies.

Another remake is slated to come out in 2014.

Russo’s Return of the Living Dead Series

Return-of-the-living-dead

After John Russo and George Romero parted company, Russo wrote a 1977 novel titled Return of the Living Dead, the first official sequel to the original NOTLD.  He then sold the rights to make a movie of his novel and adapted it into a screenplay that was in no way similar to the book.  The resulting film was the punk rock zombie comedy known as The Return of the Living Dead.

In the world of ROTLD the original NOTLD is a film that was secretly made with footage of a failed government experiment.  The chemical that created the original zombies is released by accident.  The dead rise and for the first time in zombie history are hungry for their very favorite snack BRAINS! This is perhaps the most important legacy of this film.

Russo had nothing to do with the series after the first film.  Two sequels came in the next few years.  The series came back a decade later with two back-to-back made for movies in 2005, brought on after the success of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead.   While the first three films had a very distinct style of gore and comedy the latter two were standard zombie movies, without much linking them back to the original films.  They debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel (pre SyFy) before getting a DVD release in 2007.

Russo’s Children of the Living Dead

  • Children of the Living Dead 2001 wiki imdb

Russo took another stab at making a NOTLD sequel with the producing direct to DVD film Children of the Living Dead.  It is generally considered to be not good and to make little sense, even by zombie movie standards.

Russo’s Escape of the Living Dead

  • Escape of the Living Dead ???? wiki imdb

Russo has been successful in creating a Night of the Living Dead sequel comic book series titled Escape of the living Dead.  A film adaptation is supposedly in development.

The Walking Dead

The-Walking-Dead

  • The Walking Dead (TV) 2010- Current wiki imdb
  • The Walking Dead Webisodes 2010 – Current webpage imdb
  • Untitled Walking Dead Spin Off 2015? wiki

Robert Kirkman wanted to write a zombie comic book, exploring what happens during the zombie apocalypse over the long term.  He thought that a good way to build quick interest in the series would be to give it a recognizable name, so he started to develop a series set loosely in the world of Night of the Living Dead.  That was until Jim Valentino at Image comics told him that if he was going to make an original comic he was better off owning it.  A few slight changes to his script and it was renamed The Walking Dead.  It was first published in 2003, and is still running.  The TV show premiered on AMC in 2010 to rave reviews, and a spin-off of that is in the works.

The Walking Dead TV series came at a time when the energy created by 2004’s Dawn of the Dead was wearing off.  It is currently keeping the zombie genera alive (pun!) by using the zombie apocalypse as a backdrop for a character driven human drama rather than as a central focus.

Thanks to everyone on Facebook and r/horror who helped me put this together! What is your favorite zombie movie? What was missing from this list? Tell me below!

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