The grandsire of modern movie zombies, Night of the Living Dead remains as compelling today as it was upon its release in 1968. Made for next to nothing by a group of friends in and around Evans City, Pennsylvania, the picture became a worldwide success. Fifty years later, few films have matched its impact as a milestone of independent horror cinema.
The 1960s were among the most tumultuous decades in the history of our country, marked by social dissent and anti-war protests. Racial profiling and police brutality led to one of the largest riots in the history of the United States in 1967. Thousands of protestors stormed the 1968 democratic convention in defiance of the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were all treacherously assassinated. The violent upheaval of our nation was transmitted nightly into people’s living rooms by NBC and CBS. Day after day, viewers were met by images of violence and suffering both here and abroad.
At its heart, Night of the Living Dead is a zombie flick about a horde of recently dead bodies rising from the grave and attacking the living with the purpose of consuming their flesh. Like most classics of the genre though, it addressed the fears and anxieties of viewers at the time. It actualized the spirit of the American people and offered insight about the violence plaguing our nation. It wasn’t diversion from the everyday, it was immersion into the everyday.
The marauding dead maintain a semblance of life as they raid for human plunder. They look and dress the same as their would-be victims. Their hostile attacks function as a metaphor for our decaying democracy. As John Kenneth Muir observed in his review for Anorak, “The chaos visualized in Night of the Living Dead seems only to multiply because so-called authorities can’t – or won’t – distinguish between people who might be “ghouls” and people who are but average citizens. So much like the violence marring America at the time, the [George] Romero [directed] film is really about a Neo Civil War, a battle between the new social order which appears incomprehensible, frightening — and again, overwhelming — and the old social order, which appears corrupt in its response to that threat.”
By the time of the film’s release, the counter-culture movement was in full swing. An anti-establishment sentiment radiated throughout much of the western world. Animated corpses devour muscle and fat in Night of the Living Dead the way America’s liberal youth dismantled societal dispositions concerning race and sexuality, women’s rights and limits of authority. Audiences shriek at the sight of zombies chowing down on body tissue while subconsciously pondering Romero’s cultural observations.
In the end, the old order wins out. Sheriff McClell (George Kosana) and his posse of armed associates cut through the horde of flesh-eating automatons and toss their bodies onto a pillar of fire. “The zombies or ghouls in Night of the Living Dead represent the appearance of change, but it is the old order that wins the day, re-asserting its authority in the film’s final moments (Muir).”
The film’s protagonist, Ben, is portrayed by a black American (Duane Jones) who exhibits the qualities of a good leader. Confident, passionate and well-spoken, he delivers spur of the moment decisions that have a profound impact on the group. Most are inspired to follow him, however, he is viewed as a threat by one. Harry (Karl Hardman), a middle-class white man undermines Ben at every turn. In the final act of the movie, as a mass of flesh-eaters break through the boarded up doors and windows, Harry turns his weapon on Ben. A struggle ensues. Ben gets the upper hand. Harry is shot and killed just before Ben escapes into the protection of the basement. Harry’s prejudice outweighs his impulse to survive. The sequence captures the hostile trend of thought of the period. Racial intolerance rears its head even in times of great disaster. In the end, Ben is gunned down by McClell’s angry lynch mob. After investing ninety-plus minutes in the character, he is ripped away in a radical moment of visual shock.
Night of the Living Dead is a reflection of the depths and foibles of the human condition anchored in the form of a movie. The independent spirit and entertaining scare tactics of the film mask the sociopolitical commentary and allow it to pack a major punch.
There is a commendable simplicity to the proceedings that lends the film a sense of immediacy. The black and white photography and quasi-documentary feel provide the film a semblance of truth (Robert Lowell calls this the ‘stab of actuality’). We are forced to substitutionally endure the onscreen panic of the characters.
Romero and team cut their teeth shooting TV commercials in the Pittsburgh area. They were very much in the practice of making good use of the resources available to them. Night of the Living Dead plays off its own limitations. Characters are played by friends and members of the crew, vehicles were borrowed, the farmhouse was scheduled for demolition. The modest budget and restricted resources become useful tools in the hands of Romero. He embodies in the most impressive form what it means to be a “filmmaker.”
The run-and-gun approach to violence depicted in the film’s opening scene infuses the film with a formidable energy. Barbara (Judith O’Dea) flees an aggressive flesh walker and takes refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. She slips and falls, is confronted by menacing zombies, and comes face-to-face with a decaying corpse, all with shaky camera movements and Dutch angles. We are forced to view the action in an unnatural manner, creating a sense of uneasiness and fear. The sudden traumatic event causes Barbara to go into shock, her face an uncharacteristic grey, her movements robotic. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombism on film was limited to visions of Haitian folklore. Though a billion dollar industry now, the concept of zombies as brain-eating monsters was unheard of at the time. Barbara’s sudden bewilderment mirrors that of the audience.
The non-synch sound camera used to photograph the movie had a loud motor. To drown out the noise, the crew encased the photographic device in a plastic enclosure referred to as a blimp. The heavy case rendered the camera immobile. It remained locked down during dialogue scenes. When sound wasn’t an issue, the camera was broken out of the container. Romero used a handheld approach in these scenes creating a sense of disorientation and frantic desperation.
Extended scenes and lingering takes precede fast-paced action sequences creating an edginess in viewers. Breaks in screen direction and moments of soft focus result in feelings of anxiety and frustration.
A feature on the new Criterion release of the movie dubbed, Limitations to Virtues, emphasizes the creative blocking of scenes. Because of the restricted camera, actors were instructed to move about during scenes of extended conversation. Filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos argue that the number of setups results in a high energy and allows for a rhythm of editing. The static shots and quick cuts afford the viewer an intimate experience. The farmhouse where the characters spend the bulk of the film’s running time becomes almost majestic with different survivors occupying different corners of the space.
Night of the Living Dead is a frightening, thought-provoking exercise in horror that imbues its thrilling, blood-drenched narrative with incisive social commentary. It established the rules for zombies the same way Dracula did for vampires. It was the first film to depict the creatures as flesh-eating monsters. The soulless beasts terrorize suburban America in a manner that is real. Superbly directed by George Romero, its rank increases with each viewing.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Night of the Living Dead was well ahead of its time. George Romero went on to create Dawn of the Dead, a satirical sequel that many fans prefer to the original, along with the compelling coming-of-age vampire flick, Martin, the amusing Arthurian send up, Knightriders, and the awesome anthology film, Creepshow. Originally dubbed, Night of the Flesh Eaters, Night of the Living Dead underwent a title change before being screened. The title card was swapped out on early prints. When the film was renamed, the filmmakers failed to include a copyright notice. The picture fell into the public domain and the gifted creative team behind it saw little to no money. The public status of the film ensured it would play at grindhouses and drive-ins for years and likely contributed to its popularity. In an attempt to cash in on the success of their debut, the crew regrouped in 1990 to produce an inferior remake. Night of the Living Dead is available in many formats, the best of which is likely the aforementioned Criterion release.