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Hierarchy of the Dead or George Romero’s Top Ten Fright Flicks

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With the Toronto Film Festival debut of George Romero’s Survival of the Dead just around the corner, it’s time to evaluate his bloody body of work. And contrary to what some people believe, it’s not all about the living dead.

10. The Dark Half (1993)
Not tip-top Romero, but easily one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel out there. Timothy Hutton is terrific in the dual role of a mild-mannered literary novelist and the alias who somehow comes to life after the writer publicly “kills” him to thwart a blackmailer who’s threatening to blow the lid on his sideline in sleazy thrillers.

9. Monkey Shines (1988)
The creepier you find monkeys, even cute ones, the better this off-beat thriller plays. A college athlete-turned-paraplegic is given a helper monkey whose ministrations help bring him out of his funk. But the human brain cells with which the monkey was dosed (in some mad scientist effort to make her smarter) made her telepathic, and in no time flat, she starts acting on her owners very angry thoughts. Four words: Mad monkey with razor.

8. Knightriders (1981)
A reminder that Romero genuinely can make non-horror movies, this offbeat drama revolves around a group of bikers who style themselves as modern-day Arthurian court and pay the bills by staging jousting tournaments. It’s flawed, but the power struggle between Ed Harris and Tom Savini, respectively the troupe’s principled and slightly nutty “king” and the swaggering, self-aggrandizing sellout who wants his crown, is pretty damned entertaining. Effects-artist Savini, who subsequently became a regular in low-budget horror movies, holds his own against future Oscar-nominee Harris.

7. Day of the Dead (1985)
It’s frustratingly truncated (financing collapsed just as Day was about to start production and the story was scaled way back), but the overall atmosphere of testosterone-poisoned claustrophobia is suffocating. The bunker where a handful of survivors, including a scientist who thinks their only hope lies in taming the zombies, is the ultimate dead-end basement. When Romero finally unleashes the zombie mayhem it’s truly shocking, but not half as frightening as the spectacle of the bored, edgy, increasingly hopeless survivors turning on each other like caged weasels.

6. Land of the Dead (2005)
No, the the post-9/11 paranoia and class war metaphors aren’t subtle. But it’s nice to see Romero get a second chance to make the movie he wanted Day of the Dead to be. Plus the cast is great — Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo and cameos by Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg — and the sight of luxury housing fortress Fiddler’s Green being overrun by howling hordes of the miserable unwashed (OK, undead) is pretty damned satisfying.

5. Diary of the Dead (2007)
Yeah, I know: The haters really hate it. Screw ’em. Diary returns to the stripped down, no-bull sensibility that made Night of the Living Dead so harrowing. Diary goes back to the beginning and documents three days in the death of the world as we know it through the eyes of kids for whom the unrecorded life is not worth living.

4. The Crazies (1973)
Move over 28 Days Later: George Romero jumped on the bio-hazard horror train while it was idling in the station. A downed military plane releases a psychotropic-virus into the waters around Evans City, PA and the locals go bughouse crazy. Enter the military, who make the whole mess just that much worse. Shot as Code Name: Trixie, it was so ahead of its time, it’s being remade as we speak.

3. Martin (1977)
Grim, low-key and gritty enough to give a John Cassavetes movie a run for its money, Romero’s Martin is one of the most underrated movies of the ’70s. Pale, awkward Martin (John Amplas), who believes he’s doomed to an undeath of vampirism, is shipped off to live with relatives in Pittsburgh. Is he really a blood-drinker, or is he just a sad, alienated misfit looking to get lost in the anonymity of late-night radio call-in shows and blue-collar streets? Martin is the crème de la crème of kitchen-sink horror movies.

2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The levees are breaking and the dead are flooding the world. Dawn has the breadth and depth of which Romero could never have dreamed ten years earlier, along with that kick ass metaphor: The dead as ultimate consumers. Four desperate refugees from society’s total collapse set up house in an abandoned shopping mall, only to find themselves surrounded by the milling dead, inexorably drawn to the place they gathered in life. Scary, funny, haunting, groundbreaking; Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake is fine and all, but the original is in a class all its own.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead is more technically accomplished, but Night is ground zero. Before Night, zombies were Haiti’s problem, the product of voodoo curses and colonial lust for cheap, disposable sugar-plantation labor. After Night, they were everybody’s problem: Shambling, flesh-eating, funhouse grotesques driven by a gnawing hunger for flesh and poised to win the war between the dead and the living by sheer force of numbers. Night of the Living Dead is the real deal, a total nightmare that offers no way out.

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