If you’re a fan of zombie films, or even horror cinema in general, then you know George A. Romero. As I’ve often mentioned in my recent “Romero Retrospective” installments, the “Grandfather of the Zombie” is remembered as a maverick director who revolutionized the world of horror movies with his seminal Night of the Living Dead, ushering in a gory era of over-the-top splatter films and completely redefining the zombie genre, while at the same time weaving poignant social commentary throughout his dismal tales of ghoulish creatures terrorizing the land. In subsequent films, particularly his magnum opus Dawn of the Dead, Romero continued to take a bloody bite out of contemporary society, attacking everything from America’s consumerist mall culture to modern views on war and terrorism. Aside from all the gut-wrenching carnage and biting satire, each of Romero’s films is populated with a cast of unique and memorable characters, and humor is no small aspect of the director’s attempts to make his films enjoyable for diehard fans and newcomers alike.
But what are those scenes that we all really remember? What are the images that are burned into our memories and haunt us to this day, or simply cause us to laugh out loud in spite of ourselves upon recalling them? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but as the epilogue to my Romero Retrospective, I intend to take a look at the nine scenes that were most memorable to me throughout Romero’s six Dead films.
9) The Sarge lights his cigarette…with a burning zombie head (Survival of the Dead)
While it was hard to find anything truly memorable about Survival, my least favorite of Romero’s epics, I have to post something, and it may as well be this utterly ridiculous scene where our heroes are on the ferry to Plum Island. The Sarge somehow uses a flare to ignite a rather passive zombie by shooting it into his chest, which somehow results in the creature’s head bursting into flames. He then lights his cigarette from the corpse’s still-smoldering skull, and proceeds to knock the unfortunate revenant off of the boat with a sidekick, in a move that even Chuck Norris might approve of. To be honest I am torn between two reactions to this scene: A) Holy shit, that is so bad-ass, and B) Wait, how is that even possible why the hell am I watching this shit. Now, I’m not a man of science, and if I were to nitpick about physics in this film (or any zombie film, for that matter) we would be here for weeks. However, the sheer improbability of this scene is, in my opinion, too distracting and “zany” for what we know as a Romero film, and it sets the standard for the Looney Tunes antics that follow throughout the movie. You can call it nuking the fridge (or frying the Coke), but in any case this is one of those scenes in Survival that had me shaking my head in sorrow and remembering it for all the wrong reasons.
8 ) The Pie Fight Scene (Dawn of the Dead)
Notwithstanding the entry above, to his credit Romero does know how to effectively work humor (even slapstick) into his films without destroying the overall atmosphere. Take the pie fight scene in Dawn of the Dead. The entire film maintains a good balance of gritty violence and well-timed humor, and this particular sequence comes in after we have seen the death of one of our heroes and the steady descent into despair as the remaining three survivors attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy in what has now become their very comfortable prison. After the scene we are treated to some fairly heavy doses of gore, and I think the circus antics of this wacky scene blend in and serve as a welcome distraction, complete with pies and seltzer water a la The Three Stooges. That said, I still prefer Dario Argento’s Italian version, which deleted this and other scenes in favor of tighter pacing, but it’s still a hoot to watch. And if you’re really observant, you can even catch George Romero run by in a Santa suit. Random, I know.
7) Samuel’s glorious death (Diary of the Dead)
Samuel rocks. No, not Samuel L. Jackson, although he also rocks hard. So, who is Samuel? Well, in a film populated almost entirely by whiny university students (okay, so they had that alcoholic British professor too), the Amish man known as Samuel was by far one of the coolest characters in Diary. Old, deaf, and presumably mute, Samuel helps our hapless heroes escape the zombie menace, and valiantly sacrifices his own life to save them…by driving a giant scythe through his own skull and into the brain of the zombie behind him. I had already stopped expecting Diary to be an enjoyable film at this point, and so I wasn’t surprised to see such a unique character bite the dust so quickly (and unrealistically), but at least he went out in a totally kick-ass way. If he weren’t mute, right before he died he probably would have shouted something like, “Verily I shall see thee in Hell, bitches!”
6) The Death of Captain Rhodes (Day of the Dead)
Let’s face it. If there’s one thing that we can all agree on about 1985’s Day of the Dead, it’s that Captain Rhodes is just one of those villains that just we love to hate. Stuck in an underground facility babysitting a group of scientists as they experiment on zombies to find a solution to the plague, Rhodes is a man who hates his job, and can barely contain his loathing for Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan and his increasingly suspicious activities. Setting himself up as a de facto dictator of the facility, Rhodes proceeds to make a royal asshole of himself throughout the film, and I think all of us cheered (if only on the inside) when this jerk was hunted down by Bub and ripped to shreds by the other zombies. The best part is that, even as he is being forcibly eviscerated by a horde of corpses, Rhodes still manages to curse his undead attackers out of sheer spite, shouting “Choke on ‘em!” with his dying breath. Well said, my friend, well said.
5) Kaufman does something he might not have done otherwise (Land of the Dead)
One of the high points of Land of the Dead was another villain, Paul Kaufman. Portrayed with impeccable wit by the late Dennis Hopper, Kaufman is the coldblooded businessman who rules over the human citadel of Fiddler’s Green, where rich survivors live in luxury while the masses occupy the streets below in a post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh. The scene above offers a prime example of his ruthless nature, and still cracks me up to this day with its pure comedic timing and dry delivery. Perhaps even better is the following dialogue where Riley tells him on the phone that the critical situation has been successfully resolved. Riley senses something is amiss and asks what’s wrong, to which Kaufman replies in a deadpan, “It’s just…I’ve done something I wouldn’t have done otherwise.” Classic.
4) Head Explosion (Dawn of the Dead)
Romero’s films have come to be known for their violence and the outrageous gore effects that steadily progressed in terms of realism and “splatter factor.” Looking at 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, we see a black-and-white film with images that, while shocking at the time, would probably barely phase a kindergartner these days. On the other hand, the 1979 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, significantly upped the ante in terms of body count and shocking scenes. Dawn was one of my first zombie films (one of my first horror films, for that matter), and I have to admit that I was floored when, in the very beginning of the film, a man’s head was blown clean off of his shoulders with a shotgun blast. The brutality of the scene comes out of nowhere, and the image remained burned in my mind even after seeing the various atrocities later on. The head model blasted apart in the sequence was originally to be used in an alternate ending, but was later appropriated for the opening of the film. Say what you will about Romero, but he certainly knows how to start things off with a bang.
3) Bub the zombie (Day of the Dead)
Okay, let’s get this out in the open. I believe that Bub is the single most memorable zombie among all of George A. Romero’s films (also see him in the #6 video above). Bub is the first zombie to be given a (posthumous) name, and Sherman Howard’s outstanding performance combined with the fantastic makeup effects of Tom Savini’s crew combine to also make him the first zombie that we genuinely sympathize with…even more so than many of the human characters! The scenes between Dr. Logan and Bub are especially moving…we can’t help but hold our breath and hope that Bub will show curiosity and an intelligent response to the items placed in front of him and cheer when he does, and there is even a sense of antipelargy with the doctor as a father figure. Bub’s complexity and outstanding makeup certainly earn him a high spot on this list of memorable moments in Romero’s cinematic legacy.
2) Ben survives only to be… (Night of the Living Dead)
If you haven’t seen NOTLD for some reason, please refrain from watching the clip above (and reading the following sentences) until you have seen this superb film from the very beginning. That said, this is a truly masterful ending. After a harrowing night battling against foes both living and dead, the courageous Ben weathers the ghoulish onslaught and walks forth into the light of day as his would-be rescuers approach…only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot down by the very posse that was supposed to protect him. Even though I was aware of standard horror movie conventions at the time, I still had to pick my jaw up off of the floor as the hero, the only level-headed, intelligent, and identifiable character in the whole film, was gunned down by a bunch of rednecks at the very end. Of course, this shocking conclusion raised racially charged questions, since Ben was the only black character in the film and the social climate of 1968 was very different from what we know today. For its surprising twist and its thought-provoking implications, this final chapter of Romero’s first Dead film certainly deserves a significant place on this list.
1) Anything involving Asia Argento (Land of the Dead)
Okay, okay, while I realize this is a bit of a copout, just cut me some slack (you see what I just did there?). Daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Asia is not a talented actress and director, but also drop-dead sexy and a very interesting and multifaceted individual outside of her acting roles as well. George Romero has known her since she was, in his words, “knee-high to a grasshopper,” and he expressed his pleasure at being able to work with her in one of his films. Land is one of my favorite installments of the series, and Asia’s performance is definitely one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. And yes, in my humble opinion she is drop-dead gorgeous. Did that have a very large bearing on her placement on my list? Well, let me ask you something: Do zombies eat brains?
So there you have it, my Top 9 Most Memorable Romero Moments! These are, of course, my own personal opinions and are directly correlated to my own subjective experiences viewing Romero’s films and how I relate to them. All of them are unique and unforgettable in their own way, and I can’t recommend them enough. So now, tell me about your most memorable moments! What were the things that left the biggest impression on you? What scenes really struck a chord with you personally? Let me know! Until next time, stay sick!