I know it's hard to believe, but if George Romero didn't re-invent zombies in the 1960's, we may not have some of the modern superhero movies in both the Marvel and DC universe as we know them today. Let's trace the path, so that we can better appreciate the context of how movies can influence each other - even if they're decades apart.
Technically, there are spoilers in this article, but if you haven't seen these movies, you probably don't care. There are also some graphic pictures, but if you have seen these movies, you probably don't care.
Starting the zombie cultural phenomenon
In 1968, director George A. Romero made a low-budget film called Night of the Living Dead. It's mix of racial politics, social commentary, and shocking violence (for its time) gave the movie a permanent spot in the list of famous and influential horror movies.
Dawn vs. Dawn vs. Dawn...
A decade later, the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, was released. Romero wasn't able to find any American producers willing to finance the picture, but famous Italian horror director Dario Argento helped out, in exchange for the rights to distribute the film in Europe.
There are three "official" versions of Dawn of the Dead.
The Extended Cut or Director's Cut (139 minutes): Romero put this together quickly for competition in Cannes in 1978, and was never intended to be the final version.
International version (119 minutes): Argento replaced some of Romero's music, and cut out some of the the talking in order to emphasize the action. It was released in Europe in 1978.
US Theatrical Cut (127 minutes): this is the one that Romero approved for release in the US in 1979. It was given an X-rating for the brutal violence. But instead of cutting it down to get an 'R' rating, he released it unrated.
[Fun fact: this may be the movie with the most versions in existence. It was edited and censored for different releases at different times, in different countries. It's estimated that there are at least a dozen versions of this film, each slightly different from the other. There is also an unofficial fan-edit called The Extended Mall Hours Cut, which combines all three official versions into one movie, and lasts 154 minutes.]
Here's the trailer, in case you haven't seen the movie in awhile.
George Romero's US theatrical cut is sometimes criticized for being too slow. Some people prefer one of the other versions that emphasize the violence. But Romero's movie only seems slow if you think the zombies are the main subject. They aren't. As the trailer hints, the zombies are a metaphor, a framework to surround the real story. Once you recognize that, you see that Romero made some pretty savage statements about ourselves. The first 30 minutes is a commentary on poverty and racism. Then it slices into American culture as a whole. It's a bleak, violent, and pessimistic movie.
Romero's zombies are us
It's mentioned several times in the movie that the zombies seem drawn to the mall by instinct. There are scenes where zombies fumble with store merchandise, as if they know those things are important but they don't know why. Out of all the things that may stick in a former human's mind, it's shopping. And there are a few brilliant moments where zombies are pressed up against the door glass - a direct mockery of situations like the annual mobs waiting for stores to open on the day after Thanksgiving.
In addition, there's a element of fantasy here - what if you and your friends were living in a huge mall all by yourself? Romero shows us how awesome it would be - and how pathetic it would be.
Romero's humans are us
The movie is about what would happen if there were a complete breakdown of the social order. According to Romero, humans would react in one of two ways. We could find a way to recreate the old way of life, and pretend that nothing happened. Or else we could take advantage of the anarchy, and become like the raiders that invade the mall, adding to the mayhem and destruction instead of preserving what's left. Romero leaves us no third option.
In short, by using zombies to get our attention, George Romero's movie explodes American consumer culture and exposes the ugly insides.
Zack Snyder's new Dawn
In 2004, Zack Snyder, a guy who made car commercials and music videos, was picked to direct a remake of Romero's classic. Even from his first movie, Snyder showed his love for "re-envisioning" classic subjects. The movie was a hit (it's still his highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes), and he went on to have a successful, if controversial, career, eventually taking charge of DC's iconic superheroes, Batman and Superman.
Two years before we got Snyder's version, Danny Boyle reinvented zombies (again) with the British indie horror film 28 Days Later. This was the movie that introduced the zombie as a rage-filled, running monster that infects you with a bite (in Romero's movies, people automatically turned into zombies when they died). Snyder used Boyle's zombies for his version of Dawn of the Dead. He dropped a lot of the obvious social commentary, enlarged the cast (which cut out a lot of character development), and made more of a straight survival-horror film.
Compare the original trailer to this one:
On the surface, Snyder's version of Dawn is almost an entirely different movie than Romero's. But if you look close, you can see not only some commonalities between the two, but also seeds of Snyder's later cinematic themes.
It's just as bleak as Romero's version
If you look between the zombie attacks, you can see that Snyder's movie is a meditation on the abuse of power (the three mall security guards that declare themselves in charge of the whole building) and the dangers of ignoring reality (the father hiding his pregnant wife's bite). It's also about how good intentions can have unintended, tragic results (the plight of Andy across the street). These are themes that Snyder revisits in almost all of his movies.
Snyder's version has a couple of scenes involving the death of parents - we all know when that comes up again.
It's well-known among fans that Romero's movie was supposed to finish with the suicide of the last two remaining characters, but it was changed to be a little more hopeful. However, Snyder's movie is bleak all the way through - there is no happy ending. If you watch the credits, there is no hope, either.
The Dead Will Walk the Earth
One of the more interesting differences between the two versions is the context of the famous line, "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth." In Romero's version, the line is given as an African religious proverb, a way to say that we've created our own problems.
But Snyder puts an explicitly Christian spin on it, using a TV evangelist to declare that the zombies are God's punishment on America because of sex, abortion and gay guys. He flirts with other religious topics in this movie as well, which he will explore more deeply in his Superman films.
[Fun fact: Both of the famous lines are said by the same actor, Ken Foree]
An easter egg from the future?
In the original film, characters enter the mall through a skylight. But in what may be one of cinema's most interesting coincidences (or is it?), the characters in Snyder's film bust into the mall through a store... called Metropolis.
Let's not forget James Gunn
While many fans know how Zack Snyder's career went from Dawn of the Dead to Batman V. Superman, not as many people know that the script for the remake was written by James Gunn, who has had an even more interesting career. He started out in 1996 by writing my favorite version of Romeo and Juliet, the obscenely bizarre punk film Tromeo and Juliet.
In 2004, he wrote Dawn of the Dead. A decade after that, Gunn finally shot to full mainstream fame when he wrote and directed Guardians of the Galaxy. He was selected to write and direct the sequel, as well.
George Romero's vision of social horror in the 1960's stayed with us through the rest of that century and has carried on into the next. In addition, it has been so influential that it started the careers of a new generation of filmmakers, who have gone on to make influential films of their own, even if they are different genres.
So, my friends, when you watch and enjoy the further installments of Superman, Batman, and Peter Quill, please take a moment and pay some respect to the classic movie that made them possible.