“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”
They came, alright, and not just for Barbra. The living dead came for us all, eventually. Romero’s ghouls – the word ‘zombie’ isn’t even uttered in the original film – stalked out of Pittsburgh through drive-ins, small theaters and midnight screenings to devour the whole world. Zombies stagger across screens both big and small, shamble in books and games and even find themselves referenced in business and science. Though their popularity may wax and wane, the “dead neighbors” of Night are with us to stay.
Night of the Living Dead was a watershed film; it’s hard to imagine what horror movies and television today would be like without it. Similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, its influence has become so ingrained in popular culture that it’s difficult to separate the movie from its effects. Many of the basic conceits of the film – the isolated location, the inter-personal struggles that cause everything to fall apart, the gore – have become so common as to make the film feel clichéd. When it was released, though? It was one of the scariest films ever made. A review in Variety even called it “an unrelieved orgy of sadism.”
What Night of the Living Dead Means to Us
I couldn’t tell you how many zombie movies I watched and fell in love with before I finally saw Night of the Living Dead. I think I even saw the remake before I saw the original. I was used to zombie’s that moved fast and even talked before I gave NOTLD a chance but then I did. And I loved it. The black and white look with how slow but effective the zombies were made the whole experience very thrilling to me. I hated Barbra and thought Ben was the man. He took charge, slapped fools around, and tried to keep everyone alive. It also gave me an appreciation where this subgenre received its start. I wouldn’t have Return of the Living Dead without it. NOLTD is a movie that is so much more than just flesh-eaters chasing knuckleheads through the streets. It became one of the first horror movies to have something to say and helped spark a generation of horror films and filmmakers to do more than just show gory kills and being scary. Romero helped bridge the gap between classic and modern horror. This movie means so much to me and horror.
– Vincent Kane
When it comes to music, critics and fans say there’s only two eras of music: before Bob Dylan and after Bob Dylan. One man had such an impact on the industry, that more than all of recorded history is technically irrelevant because he wasn’t involved. Now, obviously they’re half serious but I think the same logic can be applied to movies. Cinema is such a new art form, that you can honestly find a middle point in which it changes.
And there’s a strong case to be made for Night of the Living Dead being that point. Coming at the tale end of Hammer (which began after the Universal Monster films ended) but arriving before Halloween, It’s literally at the apex of two major cinematic movements.
Not only did it help usher in the new Hollywood independent system but it single-handedly created zombies. We take it for granted but try and wrap your head around that. Every other monster in history, existed hundreds of years before the invention of celluloid. Vampires, ghosts, witches, wolf men, all were recorded years before someone decided to add them to a story.
Zombies on the other hand, were always tied directly to voodoo or other Haitian black magic practices. They were always depicted as reanimated slaves but then Romero made them flesh eating ghouls and the rest is history. This film single-handedly created an entire genre and without it, my love of zombies wouldn’t exist. Zombies are far and away my favorite cinematic monsters and I have Romero and this film in particular to thank for it. I may like the sequel and most of its imitators more but I can’t deny this films impact on me. It’s as important to me as Star Wars is for most others.
– Sailor Monsoon
The Dawn of Night of the Living Dead
“I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? … And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this.”
George Romero had founded a commercial and industrial film company called The Latent Image with John Russo and Russel Streiner. Though it was a successful enterprise they were all interested in making “real” movies and saw an opportunity in the late sixties American film landscape to finally make the leap into feature films. The script was heavily modified from an initial horror/comedy about corpse-chomping aliens and the locations were limited by financial necessity. The script was continuously revised over the course of filming as well – in part due to the casting of Duane Jones in a role initially intended as a simple truck-driver. Jones rewrote much of the dialogue himself, with some scenes – like the one where Ben and Barbra (Judith O’Dea) tell each other how they came to the farmhouse – being mostly ad-libbed.
Over the course of nearly nine months in 1967 Romero, the cast and crew toiled in rural Pennsylvania, shooting on 35mm black and white film to save costs. Almost everything about the film was threadbare and catch-as-catch can. Russo appears as a zombie, Steiner as Barbra’s brother, Johnny and the gruesome “flesh” the zombies eat was provided by a cast member that owned a butcher shop.
What they ended up with is an odd mish-mash of a film. It has its roots in two different eras. On one hand it has a distinctly 50’s monster movie feel, with the black and white film, the music, and even the psuedo-science info about a Venus probe that comes via TV and radio. On the other hand there’s a definite counter-culture vibe, with the flawed protagonists, realistic violence, the failure of the authorities to come to the rescue, and a nihilistic ending. None of this should work together, and yet somehow it transcends the awkwardness and flaws of production to become a work of art.
One of the reasons the zombies of the type popularized by Night are so ubiquitous is the fact that the film was almost immediately in the public domain. An error by the distribution company (during a title change from Night of the Flesh Eaters) left the copyright notification off prints of the film. Prior to 1976 this notification was required, and not having it meant Night of the Living Dead was released without copyright protection.
Without the fear of legal consequences an entire generation of horror filmmakers were able to create movies using the same basic rules that Romero and co. had set down: zombies were the returned bodies of the recently deceased, they craved the flesh of the living (intestines seemed to be a popular choice), and they could only be destroyed by a blow or shot to the head. Though some filmmakers would try to deviate from this formula – Lucio Fulci’s Zombie links his undead to the classic Caribbean version for instance – the characteristics would become defined enough that such monsters are now referred to as “Romero Zombies” to differentiate them from offspring like 28 Days Later’s “rage zombies” and the more modern “fast zombies” of films like Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead.
With the film in the public domain there have been numerous home video releases. I currently own something like seven different versions, between VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and a number of digital formats. And those are one’s I’ve paid for. You can find a dozen (or more) versions for free on YouTube right now. (Though I highly recommend the Blu-ray from Criterion, if you want to see it in the best possible format.)
Ben and Barbara
Romero always insisted that casting Duan Jones as the lead had nothing to do with race. “We cast him because he was the best actor,” is how he usually put it. Having a black man be the lead in a horror film was, however, unprecedented and having him be the heroic, calm voice of reason was something that was carefully crafted – not the least by Jones himself, in creating dialogue that fit more with how he saw the character.
And although Romero may not have intended any racial overtones they exist, simply because he (and we) live in a world where that is the case. An older, angry white man who hides in the basement and engages in petty power struggles echoes now just as much as it did 1968. A black man slapping a white woman is still startling. Watching a band of (all white) armed vigilantes shoot a black man and toss his corpse on a pile to be burned is horrifyingly relevant now. How Night reflects and examines the problems of race relations is a deep well and worth further study, if you have the time and inclination. (You can start with some of the interviews Duane Jones gave – he was pretty aware of his place in horror history.)
O’Dea’s Barbra has gotten shorter shrift, in part because her character fits into a pretty well defined film stereotype – that of the “woman in distress.” That she also essentially fades into the background once the Coopers and Tom and Judy appear doesn’t help, but I’ve always liked the character. Yes, she essentially has a nervous breakdown once the reality of her situation hits, but then she manages to pick herself up and help Ben try and keep out the hordes. And before then she keeps moving, keeps fighting, it’s only in a moment of relative safety that her fear overwhelms her – something I think I can identify with.
The Modern Zombie
Before Night of the Living Dead the zombie in film was a tragic figure, a mindless creation of evil forces used as muscle or intimidation. Primarily based on the Caribbean “voodoo” zombies as described in William Seabrook’s 1929 travelogue The Magic Island and first appearing on-screen with Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, zombies were minor movie monsters, rooted in white American’s ideas about race and sex and religion. As creepy as they could be – and Carrefour in I Walked With a Zombie is pretty damn creepy – they were still essentially passive creatures, slaved (an often intentional reference) to another’s will.
Romero and Russo’s Living Dead are anything but passive. Instead, they’re filled with a restless, nihilistic energy that cannot and will not stop until it gets what it wants – our tender flesh. In taking religion and racial issues out of the monster they created a universal template upon which filmmakers and viewers could imprint their own issues and concerns. They represent the fear of death, the mindless consumer culture, a faceless mob, or the “other” in whatever form your particular idiom requires. The zombies of Night are a cypher and a promise – an unexplained menace that looks like us, but is not us, and that we will become if we let our baser natures get the better of us.
Legacy of Night of the Living Dead
There are horror movies made before Night of the Living Dead and there are horror movies made after, that’s how pivotal it is. For many, horror movies prior to Night had become safe horrors, friendly monsters, all cobwebbed castles and Vincent Price hamming it up in period dress. Horror had become so safe that Night was even initially released on a matinee billing, leading Roger Ebert to pen a warning to parents in the pages of Reader’s Digest, because a ton of children went to those afternoon shows. Those poor kids had no idea what they were watching – hell, I’m not sure the adults who saw it back then did either.
Night put the horror in the present, menacing people like you and me, with real and (literally) visceral consequences. It refused to explain itself and refused to give us a happy ending. It upset expectations, killed its heroes and gave us the first modern monster, one that still resonates. “What’s happening?!” Barbra screams at one point of the film, and audiences at the time must have felt much the same way.
Night of the Living Dead lead to a horror renaissance, especially for independent filmmakers. In particular it showed how a big impact could be made on a small budget. Without it we probably wouldn’t have films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween or Last House on the Left, to say nothing of Romero’s own follow-up Dead films and their slew of imitators. (And yes, to echo Kane, we wouldn’t have Return of the Living Dead either.)
Romero’s neighbors are still with us. The TV show The Walking Dead, probably the most direct descendant in current popular culture, shambles on, having recently been renewed for an 11th season (and with at least two spinoff series). Game of Thrones had it’s own particular blue-eyed brand of zombie, and half a dozen other zombie-themed TV shows prowl the channels and streams. Movies still provide a bevy of undead menaces, with last year’s Zombieland: Double Tap and this year’s upcoming sequel to Train to Busan being only two of many. Every time the genre Night created seems about to slow down and disappear something seems to – pardon the pun – bring it back from the dead. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So what about you? What do you think of Night of the Living Dead? Do you have a fun fact, piece of trivia or memory of the film? Share it in the comments below!