Despite being lauded for their social commentary the Dead trilogy are first and foremost horror movies, and an atmosphere of dread and terror underlies each one. It's in the first of the trilogy, Night of the Living Dead, where this is most apparent. Following a basic premise and storyline, the film is pulled off with such stark simplicity that seeing it for the first time can be quite shocking. From vague radio reports of crashing satellites fading into static, leaving the characters lost and alone; to a claustrophobic, besieged farmhouse and the bleak, downbeat ending, traditional filmic constraints of everything happening for a reason, justice prevailing, and good triumphing over evil are casually dispensed with. Romero's debut changed the face of horror as nightmare after nightmare piled up with no hope of escape. It dragged popular cinema into the modern, post-religious world of the sixties, showing that unexplained forces outside our control can unfairly and painfully kill us.
1968, the year of Night of the Living Dead's release, was an important one. Cultural commentators talk of the summer of love, when in fact the concerns of most American citizens centred on Vietnam and the draft, civil rights, perceived moral breakdown and looming nuclear armageddon. There was a latent fear that all the hard-won prosperity of the postwar years could be snatched away in nothing less than the end of civilisation. Romero - perhaps subconsciously - played on this without resorting to ham-fisted metaphor, the result a lean film of uncomplicated, relentless terror. Of all the Dead films, Night of the Living Dead is the only one that isn't the slightest bit funny. It leaves you with a queasy dread few horror films can match.
That the central character is black was unprecedented; his portrayal as a normal person revolutionary. In this casual dismissal of movie norms Romero, quite accidentally, set himself up as a rebel - he has always said that Duane Jones just gave the best audition. There is a feeling that Romero didn't consciously set out to make a groundbreaking movie, but rather picked up on the mood of the times accidentally, helped by a tiny budget that precluded a more conventional approach. Whether the same can be said of the following films is open to debate.
It was another ten years before Romero made a sequel. By 1978 zombies were out of fashion, replaced by the modern, all too real horror of the serial killer - the subject of the groundbreaking Halloween and tens of imitators. With his next film, Romero really had to up the game.
Dawn of the Dead is a complete departure from Night of the Living Dead. A sprawling, morally unclear, practically plot-free epic, it employs a cast of hundreds of undead, replacing claustrophobia with agoraphobia in sprawling suburban Pennsylvania. Where before the central characters were trapped, now they have complete freedom but no-where to go in a world where zombies are winning the war against the living. After the horrific opening scenes, where gung-ho policeman raid a welfare hotel, indiscriminately killing living and dead alike, humans become an increasingly rare sight. Eventually the central characters hole themselves up in a shopping mall where most of the film plays out.
Horror films of the time were reaching unparalleled heights of unpleasantness - this was the age of Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave and the astonishingly named SS Experiment Camp - and Romero knew he couldn't rely on out-and-out horror to make his film stand out in an increasingly crowded genre. Whether it was these market forces that made him change direction, or his growing maturity and experience as a director, it is hard to say. What isn't in doubt is that Dawn of the Dead marked another revolution.
There has always been an element of comedy in horror films - laughing is a natural response to terror as spectacle, to the communal jump-out-of-your seats in the cinema, and to rubbish special effects. What Romero did was merge humour with the social commentary of early horror literature like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, and bring satirical comedy to the genre. Dawn of the Dead is a biting satire of consumerist society.
The characters' free-reign of the mall has them trying on expensive clothes and parading in jewellery, before realising it is all useless and belatedly stocking up on guns and supplies in panic. As the zombies descend on the mall, riding escalators and pressing their noses against store windows, they accidentally turn on a speaker system and lurch around to gentle muzak. When one of the characters explains the undead must have come to the mall out of "some sort of instinct", the satire is complete. Not to forget that Dawn of the Dead is a horror film - a TV evangelist intoning "When there's no room left in hell, the dead will walk the earth" is one of the most chilling lines in cinema.
Whilst its cultural importance arguably outshines both Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead, as a film Dawn of the Dead is weakened by being overlong, repetitive and relying too much on the inherent funniness of the stumbling undead - essentially disabled people it's OK to laugh at. Not to say that Dawn of the Dead isn't an original, shocking and important film; but of the three, it rewards repeat viewings the least, despite being the quintessential zombie movie in many senses. This is an unpopular opinion - but then so is my love of the misunderstood Day of the Dead, seen by many as the weakest of the trilogy.
1985's Day of the Dead suffered high competition in an age of classic horror movies. On the independent side, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a bleak, amoral and genuinely disturbing imagining of the confessions of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and remains to this day a true video nasty to be approached with caution. But it was Hollywood slasher movie A Nightmare on Elm Street that stole Day of the Dead's thunder - its outrageous special effects, pop sensibilities, dark-as-night humour and compelling storyline remained unmatched for years, only its own sequels coming close. On top of that it was genuinely scary.
Maybe it's because the competition was so high that Day of the Dead is such a relaxed, fun movie. The appalling acting provides comedy in itself, and the gory special effects are the pinnacle of a pre-CGI lost age, employing genuine animal entrails to realistic effect. It's these effects that fans remember most - the horrible slop of guts falling out of a corpse as it rises from an operating table; and of course the iconic death scenes in the film's final minutes, where various characters are pulled apart whilst laid on their backs, giving the audience a spectator seat overlooking the rending of flesh. A victim sputtering "Choke on 'em" as his intestines are devoured by a crowd of zombies is one of the trilogy's most savoured moments.
Day of the Dead is in my opinion the funniest of Romero's films, and these gory scenes are paradoxically hilarious - but why are they so funny? The subtext of Day of the Dead is that the living act no better than the undead, and in seeing them die we revel in a justice missing from the previous films. Trapped in a laboratory complex which the film never leaves, military personnel turn on the scientists they are meant to be protecting, dismayed by their pointless experiments. The most sympathetic character in the film is a zombie, taught by mad scientist Dr Logan to read Stephen King novels and enjoy listening to a Walkman.
Whilst there is an underlying traditional horror in Day of the Dead - the claustrophobic complex's vulnerability, and the collapse of normal human relations within - the real horror of the film comes from its message. Often seen as a critique of Reagan's gung-ho military policy, it could be said that all the living in Day of the Dead are distasteful - from the trigger-happy, ignorant military personnel; to the self-indulgent scientists concentrating on rehabilitating zombies, when it is obvious there are too many and the process is too slow. Through rehabilitated zombie Bob we see that the undead are still human, and come to an awful, unpalatable conclusion, the bleakest message of the trilogy - they're really not that different. We might as well give up and join them.
The trilogy builds up to this moment, and it is done with such deft hand and subtlety it is hard to think that Romero didn't have it planned that way all along. From the initial shock of Night of the Living Dead, where the dead suddenly rise and no-one, not least the audience, has a clue what's going on; to the armageddon of Dawn of the Dead where we get the first hints that the undead might have thoughts of their own; to Day of the Dead's focus on our humanity collapsing under pressure, making us worse than those we are meant to be fighting. The trilogy is seamless in its chronological portrayal of society in collapse and human reaction to it, despite the ten-year hiatus between the films.
Do we just have the benefit of hindsight? I think so. It is more likely that the relative simplicity of each film allowed Romero to develop his ideas as funding came along. His place in the movie industry was so tenuous he didn't know if he'd still be making films one year to the next - Romero was always fiercely independent, and didn't have the commercial weight of Hollywood behind him. A true maverick, he existed outside the worlds of both commercial and arthouse cinema, with only a handful of critics and clued-up film buffs on his side.
It's hard to pin down the time exactly, but in the 1990s Romero's films started getting noticed again. Horror peaked with the socially and politically-conscious Candyman, Jacob's Ladder and disturbing Belgian satire Man Bites Dog in the first few years of the decade, after which the genre went through one of its bleakest periods. Fans were drawn to the past to find their thrills.
In the UK 1970s horror held a certain mystique, in the main due to the swathe of cheap "video nasties" banned in the early 1980s by a paranoid Conservative government. Myself and many like me remembered friends' older brothers telling us about illicit pirate tapes they'd seen - Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Driller Killer - and started looking for other, more available films from what we saw as a golden age. A well-realised 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead piqued curiosity, and desperate fans like myself rediscovered the Dead trilogy in our scouring of video shops for classic horror.
Cult status became critical acclaim and trickled down to the mainstream. The reappraisal of Romero's films was accelerated by the commercial success of Capcom's zombie-themed Resident Evil video games, and eventually the slow-moving film industry caught on. The first contemporary zombie movie was the UK independent 28 Days Later, a low budget reworking of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids with virus-stricken zombies replacing GM plants as the source of terror. Admirable, but unfocused and not very scary, 28 Days Later made everyone realise the genre was due a revival. It was closely followed by a decent Hollywood remake of Dawn of the Dead, which despite some great scenes fell at the same block 28 Days Later did by making zombies fast moving, removing both their comedy and menace in one fell swoop.
What really kicked off the revival was low-profile British comedian Simon Pegg's budget independent Shaun of the Dead, a surprising critical and financial success. It explicitly upped the comedy of the Dead trilogy: horror underlies humour in perverse inversion of Romero's ethos. A comment on social ennui, Shaun of the Dead is hilarious and unsettling in equal measures, finding its comedy in the zombie-like laziness of the modern, thirtysomething man.
With a zombie revival in full swing, Romero secured funding for a fourth installment of the Dead series, Land of the Dead. Released only a few months ago, I have held back from writing of it in the same context as the Dead trilogy. It is too soon to see what impact the film will have and whether it will attain the same cult status as the other three films. Opinion is divided on Romero's latest, with some saying Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead is a more worthy successor.
Land of the Dead is different from Romero's earlier films. Epic and deftly constructed, it seems more influenced by the sci-fi of Paul Verhoevan's Robocop than recent horror films, dismissing the unfortunate arrival of irony in modern Hollywood slasher movies in favour of straight action, political commentary and dark, unsubtle humour. It feels a little dated in its cyberpunk view of the future, and sits uneasily with its contemporaries.
Concentrating on unfair social stratification, of which the undead make up an unwanted bottom tier, Land of the Dead is an explicit comment on class conflict and control. Quite by accident, scenes where zombies wade through water to reach the rich man's haven uncannily echo the New Orleans underclass in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - yet again, Romero has hit on the preoccupations of our time. As with Day of the Dead, when we look back in a few years Land of the Dead might be seem all that more important, a snapshot of contemporary America.
The importance of Romero's dead trilogy is undeniable. The purity of Night of the Living Dead changed horror for ever, paving the way for the nightmare movie where terror is the central tenet - without it there would be no Halloween, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no Blair Witch Project. Dawn of the Dead put intelligence back in the genre, showing it could have the same allegorical power as science fiction in critique of mass society. Day of the Dead went further and looked inward at psychology and behaviour, leading us to question our humanity. Maybe Land of the Dead will stand the test of time as a film that looks explicitly at contemporary politics without preaching, powerfully and subtlety relevant to its age.
There is no doubt that Romero is one of America's greatest living directors. Unpretentious and cannily populist, subversive and political, gleefully gory and with a healthy disregard for the art of acting, he ignores the norms and fashions of film-making to make outlandish, funny and chilling cult classics. I suppose some people would call him a one-off, an auteur. I'd call him a genius.