Night of the Living Dead

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Night of the Living Dead

In October of 1968, a low-budget horror film entitled Night of the Living Dead, directed and co-written by independent filmmaker George Romero, opened in Pittsburgh, far from Hollywood and the mainstream cinema. Shot in the Pennsylvania countryside using mostly amateur actors and boasting ludicrously low production values, Romero's short black-and-white film nevertheless managed to leave its first viewers disturbed, even traumatized, through its unflinching depiction of bloody violence and cannibalism. The film set a new standard for intense screen horror—a standard the Hollywood industry took notice of and appropriated for its own increasingly graphic product in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The story line of Night of the Living Dead, originally entitled at various development stages Night of Anubis or The Flesh Eaters, is deceptively simple and even derivative. George Romero has always admitted that his primary inspiration for the screenplay was Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, about the last surviving human on earth battling vampires created by a plague. Another obvious influence, in regard to the gore and cannibalism, is EC horror comics. In many ways, Night of the Living Dead at first seems little more than a rehash of 1950s science fiction cliches. A space probe has apparently brought back to earth an unknown form of radiation that has reanimated the corpses of the recently dead (other possible explanations for the plague were discarded from the final cut of the film).

What gives the film its taboo-shattering resonance is what Romero does with his scenario. The shambling, mindless zombies are motivated by one primal drive—to consume the flesh of the living. The plot, then, centers around the futile efforts of a small group of people, thrown together by circumstance, to fend off a zombie onslaught upon an isolated Pennsylvania farmhouse. The protagonists of the film are ill equipped to handle the crisis, and Romero makes it clear early on that they are doomed. Barbara, after witnessing the murder of her brother Johnny by one of the zombies in the film's opening sequence, is nearly catatonic and is finally devoured by a group of zombies, among which is her dead brother. Tom and Judy, two sympathetic young lovers, are unexpectedly killed in a truck explosion during an abortive escape attempt. The zombies feast upon their charred remains in the film's most horrific scene. Harry and Helen, an older married couple, are unable to stop their bickering and quarreling even as their daughter Karen lies dying of a zombie bite. Ben, the narrative's ostensible hero, is engaged in a power struggle with Harry for control of the group's ever-worsening fortunes. The group's defenses, both physical and psychological, crumble one by one, and the final zombie attack on the farmhouse forces Ben, the single remaining survivor, to lock himself in the cellar (ironically, the one part of the household that cowardly Harry had claimed for his own) and hold-out until daylight. The film ends on a truly nihilistic note as Ben, spared the grisly fate of the others, is fatally shot by a member of a sheriff's posse who believes him to be a zombie.

Romero's artistic breakthrough as an independent filmmaker also demonstrated that movies need not originate from within the California film industry to achieve public and critical recognition. Night of the Living Dead was financed by Romero and nine associates, each of whom put up $600 to form a company called Image Ten. The film was shot on weekends and at night over seven months and ultimately cost approximately $115,000. Romero showed the finished film to two distributors, Columbia and AIP, who rejected it. The Walter Reade company, initially hesitant, finally decided to buy the film and place it in drive-ins around the country. Initially, it seemed as if the film might be condemned to a short run of drive-in obscurity before final extinction. Public word of mouth about the film's graphic violence and relentlessly paced horror, combined with high-profile, savage critical denunciations in the pages of Reader's Digest, the New York Times, and Variety, however, brought the film to the attention of many who might not have otherwise heard of it.

When Night of the Living Dead went overseas in 1968, French and British critics in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema and Sight and Sound, respectively, were quick to praise the film as one of the year's best. American critic Rex Reed was also an early proponent of the film. In 1969, the Museum of Modern Art chose Romero's film as a notable first feature. Walter Reade was encouraged enough by this kind of recognition to bring back Night of the Living Dead into New York theaters, most famously the Waverly, for midnight showings. During the early 1970s, the film achieved "cult" status, and pirated copies quickly found their way to cities and television stations across the world. Because of copyright problems with Walter Reade, Romero's Image Ten company received little of the many millions of dollars the film was now grossing. Since the early 1970s, however, Romero has achieved some measure of financial compensation, as well as public and critical recognition, with the release of two sequels, Dawn of the Dead in 1979 and Day of the Dead in 1985, and a 1991 remake of Night of the Living Dead, directed by Romero special effects collaborator Tom Savini.

Though Romero did not invent the American "gore" film genre—that distinction belongs primarily to Herschell Gordon Lewis, director of, among others, Blood Feast —he demonstrated unequivocally that excellence in filmmaking can legitimate even the most disreputable genres and their trappings. Critics have praised Romero for daring to cast a black actor as Ben, the hero. They have argued that Ben's shooting by the white mob of hunters is an indirect allusion to America's shameful history of racist lynching. The critics have also identified the mass of featureless zombies as the Silent Majority of middle-class Americans. The film, released in one of the most violent years of one of America's most violent decades, captures perfectly the mood of the time—its nihilism, its anxiety over mob action, its radicalism and reactionary conservatism, its domestic wartime paranoia, its body-count newscasts, and its unspoken fear of radiation and nuclear war.

—Philip Simpson

Further Reading:

Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1987.

McCarty, John. The Modern Horror Film. New York, Citadel Press, 1990.

Russo, John. The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook. Pittsburgh, Imagine, 1985.

Samuels, Stuart. Midnight Movies. New York, Collier, 1983.

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Night of the Living Dead

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