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The DefinitiveS
An ongoing series of in-depth essays and appreciations on the very best of cinema

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, and Russell Streiner
Rated: Unrated
Runtime: 96 min.

by Brian Eggert

The Definitives:

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Night of the Living Dead birthed not only the phenomenon of zombie horror, but subsequent decades of exploitative filmmaking hell-bent on scaring audiences out of their seats. Arriving at Saturday matinees and frightening the willies out of the mostly adolescent attendants, and the adult ones too, George A. Romero’s debut film awakened viewers out of their complacency toward the horror genre with a gritty filmmaking style lending startling realism, biting potential for harsh allegory, and a merciless, unconventional finale. Accustomed to pulpy B-movies wrought with space aliens and monsters and atomic-era mutations, Romero’s film featured thematic undercurrents punctuated by a carnival of cannibalistic violence. Moviegoers had seen nothing like it before.

Horror films of the 1950s and 1960s took low priority for producers; certainly not prestige pictures, they were often produced with lower budgets and lesser talent, save for a few select exceptions. British company Hammer Film Productions released numerous color features detailing alternate takes on classic horror icons, as seen in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), both featuring Christopher Lee’s breathtaking portrayals as the respective monsters. Alfred Hitchcock broke mainstream ground by uncovering suspense-fuelled psychological horror with Psycho (1960), and elevated the common nature vs. man theme to artistic highs with The Birds (1963). While the market for horror remained minuscule, however, it maintained formulaic expectations, wherein following a procession of thrills, the hero delivered a happy ending.

Romero changed all that with Night of the Living Dead. His concept was deceptively simple, if not already explored in previous film and literary texts. Recently dead bodies reanimate and stagger about with outstretched arms, ravenous for human flesh. They tear into you, rip out your innards from your belly, and as your body is eaten, the grim realization surfaces that within a short period you too will hunger and feed. Survivors take refuge in a farmhouse, board the windows and doors, and attempt to understand the situation. Outside, grotesque figures pale with torn flesh and drooping postures slowly reel closer, banging on the structure, gathering in numbers.

Panicky Barbra (Judith O'Dea) barely makes it to the farmhouse alive after her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) is killed by a ghoul in the cemetery. “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” he quips in a vampire voice—a jab at faux Hollywood monster movies that suddenly become bitingly real when a zombie attacks and kills Johnny. Ben (Duane Jones) approaches the farmhouse in a pickup sporting an empty gas tank, bludgeoning the living dead with a tire iron. He sits Barbra down and tries to talk it out, finding her catatonic. Reinforcing the makeshift stronghold, Ben soon realizes that more survivors have hidden themselves in the basement, bringing to fruition a conflict between the living almost as graphic as that between the living and the undead. As the threat of being eaten alive slaps its many hands against the house’s exterior, indoors displays of cowardice and petty survivalist instinct stoop to their lowest potential, illustrating human nature at its worst.

Romero’s vision refuses escapist gloss that would permit viewers to dismiss the events as mere entertainment. The characters’ practicality reaches realist extremes; televised debates show the government and scientific communities discussing the happening, apparently a widespread event, with extreme lack of sympathy; dramatic turns render characters, thus the audience identifying with them, helpless. Romero hoped to provoke his audience, to remove them from their safe position as viewer and involve them in a claustrophobic situation wholly unsafe from all angles, unlike most then-modern horror movies rooted in mythology and fantasy. And when his film ends with everyone dead, the lone surviving hero accidental shot by the ugly militia goons, his audience is left unsafe, vulnerable, and utterly disturbed. Originally titled Night of Anubis (named after the Egyptian embalming and flesh-eating god) and later Night of the Flesh Eaters, Romero’s script called his living dead “ghouls”, and nowhere within its pages used the word “zombie”. Early script drafts involved aliens and teens in a more mainstream context, but later took inspiration from Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which first popularized flesh-eating zombies in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Romero’s artistry derived influence from his shoestring budget, gathered by his own production team Image Ten. Though color was then standard, he used grainy 35mm black & white film stock to save on costs. Cheaper special effects could be hidden by the mask of colorless filmmaking, such as the use of Bosco Chocolate Syrup for blood, or shaped mortician’s wax to create zombie wounds. Volunteer actors hoping to play zombies seemed to just arrive on set from surrounding locations near Evans City, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburg where filming took place. Off-putting cockeyed camera angles and chiaroscuro use of lighting gave the result a haphazard atmosphere, as if the proceedings were covered by a documentary film crew following the unfolding horror at random. Romero asked that his actors improvise their lines according to the situation, rendering their characters based on how they should feel, versus adherence to the shooting script. Further adding the chaotic procession of captured events, Romero’s forced minimalism facilitated his blue-collar style, and therein his realism and its consequent effect on the audience.

Hollywood studios like Columbia and American International Pictures refused to distribute the picture without serious alterations to its graphic violence and exclamation-point ending, and so the release was independent and limited to Saturday afternoon matinées at first. Released a month before the Motion Picture Association of America established its new rating system, Night of the Living Dead was distributed without a prohibitory score, leaving theater owners to allow any and all ages into their screenings. Average showings were often filled exclusively with youngsters, typically teens. Roger Ebert commented on the film’s release, “I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them.” But like a wildfire the film’s popularity shifted from matinées to midnight movie showings, from children to adults, inevitably becoming a cult sensation.

Shocked critics believed the film to be exploitation, purveying gore just to prove it can, and promoting debate about the impending MPAA censorship. Most called it trash, an “unrelieved orgy of sadism,” influencing theater owners to refuse exhibitions. Few others believed it a contemporary masterpiece. The New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “It would be fun to be able to dismiss this as undoubtedly the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh, but it also happens to be one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made.” The polarized reactions fueled its popularity, spurring not only a successful circulation that would earn $30 million worldwide, but passionate theorizing as to Romero’s hidden meaning.

Undoubtedly, Romero’s style echoes his control over the picture, inspiring critics and scholars to read his assured filmmaking on Night of the Living Dead as pregnant with commentary. Zombies are a cipher for metaphor that when decrypted present a symbol for society’s problems. Commentators interpreted the film’s zombies as capitalists, racists, counterculturalists, and extremists, to name a few. The cannibalism was described as humanity’s irrational compulsion for violence—our seemingly imbedded need to destroy one another. In total, the film was commonly explained as a protest against the current Vietnam conflict, a critique of the media, cynicism toward familial and governmental establishments, and a severe blow against civil defense. Which of these readings was correct? All of them. None of them.

Romero insists that he cast Duane Jones as the hero simply because the actor gave the best audition, but certainly he was conscious that a black hero, calm and straight-headed, dealing with the hysterics of white people, would not go unnoticed in his era ripe with discussions of civil rights. Slapping the frantic Barbra to calm her down, shooting the crazed father of a sanctimonious white family determined to hide in the fruit cellar, and existing as the only survivor of the ordeal, only to be shot down by a white-trash militia there to save the day, Ben single-handedly revolutionizes the presence of African Americans in cinema. Furthermore, his fate was viewed as a firm parallel to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and to believe Romero would conveniently overlook such significant casting gives the director insulting low credit.

With subsequent zombie-themed sequels, Romero’s specific focus becomes unflinchingly clear in each example, his lucid arguments canceling out the widespread and varied interpretations that accompanied his first feature. Dawn of the Dead (1978), arguably Romero’s masterpiece, condemns modern consumerism, its zombies representing shoppers that horde and unconsciously feed their hunger for mall surroundings. Day of the Dead (1985) strikes at the government and scientific community’s maniacal drive for control. Land of the Dead (2005) satirizes the economic divide deepened by the Bush Administration. And Diary of the Dead (2008) addresses the obsessive modern media in their numbness with capturing, propagandizing, and dispensing all manner of information.

Everyone had a message in 1968, Romero would defend, refusing to confirm any of the dozens of hypotheses into his film’s intended meaning. Indeed, offering vast potential for analysis, consider Night of the Living Dead the genius work of a provocateur whose invention constructs an open-ended allegory onto which the audience projects their subjective meanings. Structured around a figurative setting and characters vague enough to remain universal, but also active enough to be construed as something profound, Romero’s evident purpose resides in setting an abstract narrative trap for his audience, shared in its themes of revolution and human survival so that a viewer cannot help but assign their own specific significance.

Night of the Living Dead’s ambiguity toward its intended implication has motivated its legacy and elevated this rough and bloody B-movie into a classic saluted by both the Library of Congress in 1999 with inclusion into the National Film Registry, and by the American Film Institute’s 100 Years...100 Thrills list in 2001. Horror films sometimes lose their potency after repeated viewings, particularly those with shock-based finales. Psycho, for example, will never be as satisfying as the first viewing now that we know Norman Bates’ secret. And so, looking back at Romero’s first film, we must question: Does the film’s legacy overshadow the product itself? Beyond discussions of social commentary and cultural reflectivity, the timelessness of allegories, and the stark suggestions made by the visual presentation, Night of the Living Dead is great entertainment—the kind of late-night chiller that prompts viewers to turn on the lights when the credits roll. After forty years it still crawls under the skin and festers there, causing us to bolt and squirm better than any zombie film since. Nightmarish in both content and presentation, Romero’s debut contains the raw power that few films can muster, while remaining a subversive landmark in the horror genre.