How many follow ups are there to Night of the Living Dead? Go on, guess.
If you answered three, then congratulations, you’re one of the 12 people who remember Land of the Dead. But you’re wrong. If you answered five, then you’re one of the two people who actually watched of the last two Romero films. But you’re still wrong.
I’ll tell you. I count 28. 28! I’m not joking. And that’s not counting the homages, parodies, or myriad “of the dead” and “of the living dead” titles that have nothing to do with Night of the Living Dead. Actually, most of the titles on this list have nothing to do with Night of the Living Dead, but they are technically part of the series that started in 1968. In fact, there are so many that are only tenuously related that the only way to keep track of them all is to make a flowchart:
Clear now? So why so many sub-series from just one, low-budget film? Let’s take a look.
Night of the Living Dead
The original film, and still arguably the best of the entire series, was made in 1968 for the price of a small apartment. The brainchild of director George A. Romero and writer John Russo, the film evolved from a horror comedy to full-blown horror that, Romero himself admitted, was a rip off of I Am Legend (the novel, obviously). However, due to the low budget and improvisation from the cast, the final film is instead entirely its own animal, a brutal and gory horror film that resembles nothing else from that era.
Seriously, if you haven’t watched it, do so. It’s genuinely one of the most terrifying films ever made.
That’s not why it spawned so many sequels and remakes, however. That lies in a title change. Distributor Walter Reade insisted on a title change from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead to avoid confusion with 1964’s The Flesh Eaters, and then not only deleted the original title card from the film, but also the copyright notice. As a result, the film entered the public domain upon the first showing (that particular law no longer exists).
Getting no money from their creation naturally led to creative differences between Russo and Romero, leading to at least three different sets of follow ups. This on top of the remakes, which of course required no permission.
So let’s see the aftermath…
Romero’s of the Dead Series
The Dead series most will be aware of is Romero’s own series. With Russo retaining rights to any Living Dead movies, Romero made his sequels with little reference to the original, other than the overall tone and the apocalypse caused by the dead mysteriously coming back to life. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead follows the survivors of the apocalypse as they take refuge in an abandoned mall. While Night was an allegory of the civil rights movement, Dawn attacked consumerism, having the zombies return to the mall out of instinct.
Day of the Dead followed Dawn of the Dead in 1985, and told the story of what could possibly be the last people left alive on the whole planet. It follows a group of scientists trapped in an underground bunker and protected by a group of soldiers, examining the conflict between them and how an isolated society can spectacularly break down. Overacted to the point of hilarity and significantly gorier than any of the other Deadfilms, Day of the Dead was less well received at the time, but opinion has softened over the years.
After a 20 year hiatus, the series returned with Land of the Dead. The only expensive, mainstream film in the entire series, it boasted a relatively big budget and a cast boasting Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, and examined class conflict in a walled city that had (comparatively) not been affected by the zombie apocalypse. It’s a fine zombie film, but not as good a dystopian thriller as the Hopper/Leguizamo classic Super Mario Bros.
Believe it or not, there are three further sequels, two of which follow on from Night rather than Land. Diary of the Deadis a found footage film set during Night(the series is set in the perpetual now, so technically it’s not a reboot) and forms a sort of commentary on the information age. Survival of the Dead, the only direct sequel in the series, is an examination of how long an audience can put up with annoying, screeching characters.
The final film in the series is Day of the Dead 2: Contagium. While none of the Deadfilms have strong continuity, this one has nothing, literally nothing to do with Day of the Dead. However, it is unfortunately an official sequel, as it was produced by Taurus, who own the rights to the original. So yeah, it goes in this series, technically.
Don’t watch it though, it’s dreadful.
Return of the Living Dead series
John Russo, co-writer of Night of the Living Dead, decided to make his own series, and wrote a novel he hoped would be adapted into another Living Dead film. That novel was indeed picked up, and turned into a film by Alienand Dark Star’s Dan O’Bannon. However, while Russo’s The Return of the Living Dead was a serious affair, Return of the Living Dead (the movie) was a horror comedy punctuating the violence with punk rock and featuring running zombies for the first time (take that, Alex Garland).
And it was a success. Russo and Bannon had nothing to do with the follow ups, but the series successfully spawned four sequels. Part II, another comic horror (emphasis on the comedy); 3, more of a sci-fi horror; and the low budget, straight to DVD Necropolis and Rave from the Grave, which have nothing to do with the original three barring the odd reference.
Russo’s Living Dead series
John Russo had more up his sleeve than just Return. In 1999, he produced a 30th Anniversary Edition of the 1968 film that added 15 minutes of new footage (as in actual new footage, specially shot by Russo), removed 15 minutes of old footage to make way for the new stuff, and even brought back Bill Hinzman to play his star-making role of “Cemetary Zombie” again.
Yeah, it doesn’t sound good, does it? It’s terrible, from the new footage shot on a cheap video camera, to the new, poorly acted scenes, and the replacement music which just doesn’t work. No one anywhere likes this film. There’s no satisfactory reason I’ve found that explains exactly why this film exists, but it probably stems from the copyright gaffe. This movie, being technically a new one, at least made Romero and Russo some money.
The other explanation is that it could serve as a springboard for sequels, which happened with 2001’s Children of the Living Dead, executive produced by Russo and starring Tom Savini. Purporting to be a sequel to both Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead (referencing them as zombie outbreaks caused by Children’s antagonist), it follows a backward town trying to defend itself from a third wave of zombies disturbed by the building of a car showroom. There’s no point reviewing this, as even Russo himself called it the worst film he was ever involved in.
Night wasn’t the only film to get recut. Dawn of the Dead’s genesis owes a lot to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, who secured financing in exchange for international rights. His cut of the film, known as Zombi, took out most of the character development and focused on the action, turning it into something more similar to the Italian horror films he thought fans would enjoy.
And he was right. So right that it formed a series of its own. This is one that gets confusing.
Zombi 2 has nothing to do with Dawn of the Dead, except for some framing scenes in New York that were added to cash in on Zombi’s success. This 1980 film was directed by Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci and is notable for featuring on the Video Nasties list under the name Zombie Flesh Eaters. There’s a scene where a zombie fights a shark and a bit where someone gets their eye impaled on a nail.
This was followed, loosely, by Zombi 3, directed by Fulci at first, and later Bruno Mattei, who is easily the greatest man in the world. Why? His CV includes Jaws 5 (yes) and Terminator II (note the II, not 2). I love him more than anything, ever.
Zombi 3 had nothing to do with Zombi 2 aside from the vague idea of zombies and was a commercial disaster. In fact, it was such a disaster a sequel was greenlit in order to recoup the losses. Zombie 4 (aka After Death) has equally nothing to do with any of the other Zombi films.
Unofficial Zombi films
Defining a film as official in a series made by different directors with disparate stories doesn’t make much sense. That said, the official Zombifilms are 2, 3, and 4 (not Zombi, weirdly). In the UK, they were released as Zombie Flesh Eaters, with Zombi 2 being Zombie Flesh Eaters 1, and so on. And these three films have been released around the world with all sorts of weird titles, but largely just these three.
Not so in America. They have an additional three unofficial sequels.
The first, Zombie 5, is called Killing Birds everywhere else, and is notable for having no deaths by birds, and no zombies for about 90 minutes of the 91-minute runtime. It was also released in 1987, meaning it actually comes before Zombie 4 in the chronology. Even earlier is Zombie 6: Monster Hunter, which contains no monsters, no zombies, and is a direct sequel to Zombie 7: Grim Reaper (yes, they’re numbered backwards). Both of these were directed by Joe D’Amato, who made the films Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, and produced… Troll 2.
Both of his Zombi films, under the original titles of Anthropophagous: The Beast for Zombie 7 and Absurd for Zombie 6, were banned in the UK as video nasties, and the uncut versions remain some of the few films to still be banned.
There were even more movies that at one point or another were marketed as Zombi sequels. There are about half a dozen films claiming to be Zombi 3, for example. I’m not including them here because, as far as I can tell, it would be easier to list films that weren’t supposed Zombi films. I think Mary Poppinswas once marketed as Zombi 47: Umbrellisimus.
Our last category is remakes. There are a lot of remakes.
The first remake came in 1990, when Night of the Living Dead was remade by Tom Savini himself. Motivated by the lack of revenue from the original, the remake is largely the same as the original, save for updating the character of Barbara into a badass and removing the shock ending. It stars Tony Todd, who is worth the price of admission alone.
The next remake was not of Night, but Dawn. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead takes the abandoned mall concept, but not much else, and makes an excellent action horror film that, despite what you think of it, is so much better than the dreck passing as unofficial sequels. And this was the film (along with the following year’s Land of the Dead) that put the Living Dead films back in the public consciousness. From this point on, the floodgates opened.
The first shameless cash in actually was Day of the Dead 2. I’ve talked about that, so let’s move on.
Night of the Living Dead 3D arrived in 2006; that came about because the original had no copyright. It had nothing to do with the original film except for the basic premise and was terrible. It actually looks like it had less budget than the original. Still, this remake received a prequel of its own, Night of the Living Dead 3D: Reanimation, which was equally crap. This is not to be confused with Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated, which is literally a reanimated version of the 1968 film by various animators, but using the original soundtrack and dialogue.
Hoping to cash in again, a remake of Day of the Deadsurfaced in 2008. Early rumors suggested it would be a sequel to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, but true to fashion, it has no links to anything and is utterly dreadful. The only tie to Snyder’s film is Ving Rhames, although he plays a different character anyway.
We’re not done yet. There’s also a 2014 remake that went completely unnoticed, and another animated version, Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn, which came out in 2015. It might not be worth mentioning, but it stars Tony Todd in his second remake (that must be a record or something), along with Day of the Dead’s Joe Pilato and Tom Sizemore. But before you get your hopes up, the animation appears to have been done on a broken Atari Jaguar.
The latest release is another remake of Day of the Dead called Day of the Dead: Bloodline. It currently holds a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The rest of this paragraph basically writes itself.
These films aren’t officially part of the franchise, but since none of the official films actually have anything to do with each other, let’s include them anyway.
Flesheater was directed by Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie from Night of the Living Dead, and part of it was edited into Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary. Apocalypse of the Dead (aka Zone of the Dead) is an homage that stars Ken Foree from Dawn. A Chemical Skyline is listed on IMDB as a spinoff and purportedly is set in the same universe as Night.
And finally, Mimesis is a 2011 film where the characters are trapped in a Night-style situation, but have seen Night of the Living Dead and know what to expect. Meta.
So what’s next? Time will only tell. But there’s one thing that we can count on – none of what comes next will have anything to do with what came before. Kind of like a zombie.