In 1968 George Romero released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.
The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as Tom Savini proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead(1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by Zack Snyder who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.
None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.
Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild In The Streets (directed by Barry Shear) was both hippie exploitation and a political satire starring that fifteen minute idol, Christopher Jones, along with Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, and Richard Pryor. It became an instant cult hit and received predominantly good reviews. The Mini-Skirt Mob (directed by Maury Dexter), on the other hand, was a biker exploitation that was as bad as its title indicated. Not to be left out, Herschell Gordon Lewis contributed She-Devils on Wheels. It’s about (drum roll)… biker chicks. It’s pretty damned entertaining.
Joseph Sarno began his famous series of arthouse erotica with Inga, starring Marie Liljedahl, who became a very short-lived sensation. Sarno followed this with two more Inga films (minus Liljedahl) before going into actual pornography.
Back on the Gothic end of the spectrum, Boris Karloff barely made it through his last three films: Fear Chamber, House Of Evil, and Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar. It was on the set of Curse that Karloff caught pneumonia and died shortly after. Sewell fared no better directing Peter Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror. John Carradine continued a downward slide with Ted V. Mikel’s The Astro-Zombies, which justifiably makes a lot of “worst movie” lists. Shockingly, it reaped quite a profit on the drive-in circuit, but one has to image it was merely an excuse for rubber-necking or a nap, because it’s a wretchedly dull endurance test.