The Crazies (1973)
Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies concerns a plague that explodes America’s suppressive (and suppressed) tensions, though the monsters are left almost entirely off screen in this case, as Romero foregrounds the sociocultural textures of martial law. The Crazies reprises Night of the Living Dead’s mercilessly propulsive editing while introducing a bold comic-book palette that would be refined in Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. The film also abounds in inspired sketches of madness and infrastructural collapse, from the military’s dehumanizing uniform of black gas mask and white hazmat jumpsuit to an irrational image of an insane woman sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Even Romero’s self-consciously lyrical touches intensify the film’s textured canvas. The Crazies ironically understands fascism as being inherent in both the preservation and revolution of society.
In its obsession with vampirism as a symbol of a cultural legacy of oppression, Martin suggests a Caucasian response to Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, which featured Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones. Martin (John Amplas) is an intelligent but awkward and sexually repressed young man who’s been convinced by his insane Catholic relative, Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), that he’s a vampire, initiating a very Romero-esque exploration of nature versus nurture and the contrasting prejudices of differing generations. In a handful of the most disturbing scenes of Romero’s career, Martin drugs attractive women and rapes them, eventually slicing their necks and wrests with a razor and drinking their blood. These grotesqueries are offset, and intensified, by Martin’s unexpected aura of sweetness. One of Romero’s liveliest and most daring films, with grimy and claustrophobic imagery.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Romero’s legendary film debut remains intimately and peerlessly terrifying, offering one of cinema’s definitive portraits of societal collapse. Intuitively riffing on the tensions of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Romero fashions nightmarish images of seemingly found surrealism: of an old man chasing a woman in a graveyard; of car lights illuminating a growing army of shambling “ghouls”; of redneck militias who blow away the undead with a bravado that’s as creepy as the monsters themselves; of a girl hacking her mother to pieces in a basement. Every image and scene is centered on a domestic suburban America that’s burning down, its puritanical classism eating it away like corrosive acid. The marks of the film’s low budget—its spotty sound and alternately shrill and inky black-and-white cinematography—only amplify its wormy gothic intensity. Night of the Living Dead suggests less fiction than fact, rendering America’s endless oppressive legacy in shards of brutal DIY expressionism.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Whether he knew it or not, Romero was working toward Dawn of the Dead throughout the 1970s, his ambitions crystallizing into an operatic, seamy, tragic and trashy horror-action canvas. The preaching of Romero’s recent prior films is gone, replaced by lush pop-art compositions, Tom Savini’s visionary gore, Goblin’s satirical score, evocatively nasty dialogue, and the sharpest editing of the filmmaker’s career. Dawn of the Dead dramatizes cycles of revolution, following working-class characters as they get a taste of rarefied life, walling themselves off from the populace, in the traditions of our political leaders and celebrities, and resenting the people who come clawing at the gates for a taste of the wealth. When the protagonists are overthrown from the perch of their shopping mall, the new revolutionaries are corrupted as well, destroying a utopia that’s really a hell of impersonal corporate consumerism, leaving the dead—an endlessly evolving symbol of society’s marginalized outliers—to finally inherit the Earth. Yet Dawn of the Dead also revels in the promise of America. The film’s most exhilarating scenes show a miniature democracy in action, as men of color bond with white men and women to course correct a society that’s in its death rattle. They fail, but, in an ending that implicitly reverses Night of the Living Dead’s hopeless coda, they will themselves to rise again.