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We look at the influential career of a genre icon and attempt to rank the impressive filmography of George A. Romero from worst to best.

Genres are usually nebulous things, formed from disparate sources and refined over a period of years, or even decades. It’s exceedingly rare to be able to trace a genre back to a single individual, particularly one as beloved and widespread as the zombie genre that has permeated nearly every facet of American popular culture.

While the name “zombie” originates with the mute, mostly-dead human slaves of Afro-Caribbean folklore, the image of the modern zombie — the shambling reanimated corpse with a ceaseless hunger for human flesh — can be traced directly to an independent movie shot outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1968, directed by a young commercial filmmaker named George A. Romero, setting out to prove he could direct a feature film. 

Romero’s influence on horror cinema is well-documented, and really cannot be overstated. Often called “the godfather of the modern zombie,” his vision of the undead has become one of the most beloved and recognizable figures of American culture, and the rules he created for them are still being used and expanded upon to this day.

But while his impact on zombiedom is undeniable, Romero had a long and varied career, working within a number of genres outside of his iconic DEAD series of films, crafting unique takes on witches, vampires, and even romantic comedy.

With the recent release of Romero’s long-lost film The Amusement Park (not included in this ranking, but you can read my full review here) — and having just passed the anniversary of his passing on July 16, 2017 — it’s a perfect time to look back on the highs and lows of the maestro’s career. 

Here’s my list of every George A. Romero film, ranked from worst to best. 

16. Diary of the Dead (2007)

After going bigger and bolder with each Dead film from Night to Land, Romero took it back to basics for his final two installments, essentially rebooting the franchise with 2007’s Diary of the Dead. Released at the start of the found footage craze, it finds Romero fitting into the trends of the era, accidentally or not, more than at probably any point in his career.

Taking place concurrently with the events of Night, though obviously in a different era, Diary follows a group of film students attempting to make a horror movie when the dead start rising up. His knack for social commentary is still present — if a bit obvious this time around — using the burgeoning social media era to touch on mass surveillance; the manipulation of media; and the idea that if something isn’t recorded, it may as well not have happened, something that would only grow more prevalent in the coming decade.

Looked at through a 2021 lens, the philosophy comes troublingly close to QAnon territory at times, with the politicians and media painted as liars, and anyone with a camera considered the only truth-tellers left.

Unfortunately, as chillingly prescient as the commentary is, the movie is undone by a clunky script and some seriously sub-par acting, with Romero’s signature hard-boiled dialogue landing with a thud coming out of the actors’ mouths. It has a handful of entertaining set pieces, like an extended sequence on an Amish farm, but these moments can’t save the film from falling flat and ending up, to my mind, the worst of his career.

WHERE TO WATCH: Diary of the Dead can be streamed for free (with ads) on Tubi.

15. There’s Always Vanilla (1971)

For his follow-up to the surprise smash hit Night of the Living Dead, Romero decided to make…a romantic comedy? Strange as it sounds, he did exactly that with his sophomore feature There’s Always Vanilla. Romero himself largely disowned the film after its release, often calling it his worst feature and “a total mess,” due in part, he claimed, to the screenwriter basically giving up halfway through production, leaving him with an unfinished script.

Thankfully, while not exactly a lost classic, There’s Always Vanilla is actually a better movie than I thought it would be; it’s a deliberately disjointed, arty take on the counterculture comedy.

Charting the romantic rise and fall of wayward youth Chris (Raymond Laine) and aspiring actress Lynne (NOTLD’s Judith Streiner), the film employs a number of unconventional techniques, from abrupt smash cuts to the acid-rock score by Barefoot in Athens (a band that I can find exactly zero information on). While there’s some interesting filmmaking on display, Chris comes off as a generally unlikeable character, and the gender and sexual politics are incredibly dated.

As a portrait of early 70s Pittsburgh, it has an appealing time-capsule quality, but it’s mainly just a mildly interesting pit stop for Romero, on his way to bigger and better things.

WHERE TO WATCH: There’s Always Vanilla can be streamed for free (with ads) on Tubi.

14. Survival of the Dead (2009)

Romero’s final Dead film, and final film overall, is a surprisingly small-scale and isolated affair, turning its attention towards tribalism and generational conflict and largely leaving the outside world behind.

The Dead films have always been as much about the dangers we pose to each other as they are about the flesh-eating undead, and Survival represents that theme at its most elemental. The film takes place concurrently with Diary, following a group of AWOL National Guardsmen who made a brief appearance in the previous film. They end up on an island called Plum, a tiny isolated community off the coast of Delaware where two families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, have been feuding bitterly for decades. Even far from civilization, they can’t escape the dead, or the evils mankind is capable of.

Survival’s tone is strangely lyrical, mythic, and even comic at times, with some moments that just have to be purposefully played for laughs. He makes great use of the lush landscape, shot largely in Port Dover, Ontario, and his characters’ differing attitudes towards the dead lead to some interesting philosophical questions.

Ultimately, while an improvement on its predecessor, Survival has its fair share of clunky moments, and the reliance on CGI gore — more common with each post-Millennial Dead installment — ends up making the film look cheap. The acting’s definitely a step up from Diary, with great character actors like Kenneth Welsh and Richard Fitzpatrick as the warring patriarchs.

Overall, it’s a strangely muted, at times elegiac coda to a singular career, not entirely successful but not without its charms.

WHERE TO WATCH: Survival of the Dead is available for rental, or can be streamed for free (with participating library card) on Hoopla.

13. The Crazies (1973)

1973’s The Crazies takes a different approach to the outbreak story, taking place in a small town beset by a military bioweapon that turns the residents into raving, murderous lunatics.

Focusing less on the outbreak and more on the military’s efforts to contain it, The Crazies is a chilling parable that illustrates how quickly individual liberties can be taken away in the event of an emergency, and just how much our freedoms are really worth to the people in power.  

While the concept is effective, I wasn’t a huge fan of the execution.

Most of the story is carried along by scenes of men shouting at each other in rooms, and the action is too few-and-far-between, leading to an at times tedious experience. It’s definitely scary on a conceptual level, but I can’t help but wish we got a little more of the outbreak and a little less arguing. I applaud Romero for trying out a new approach to what is essentially a zombie story, but I think his reach exceeded his grasp on this one. 

It’s one of the rare situations where the remake is actually a more enjoyable movie than the original.