31 Days of Halloween #1: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero’s legendary horror film kicks off a month of chilling entertainment. 

Who made it?: George A. Romero (Director/Co-Writer),  John A. Russo (Co-Writer), Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner (Producers).

Who’s in it?: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon.

Tag-line: “They won’t stay dead.”

IMDb rating: 8.0/10.

George A. Romero’s savage and thought-provoking horror film works on a multitude of levels. It can be read as a straightforward and grim exercise in unrelenting terror (well, maybe not these days), or it can be taken as a deadly serious slice of social commentary, depicting the turbulent American climate of the 60s through blood-tinted glasses. It is a film where the gore and subtext work seamlessly together. So effective is Night of the Living Dead that it’s surprising to discover that many of its perceived themes were incidental or even accidental. To the producers, it was a down-and-dirty exploitation flick and little else. Yet to call it such would be doing it a great disservice.

I’m sure some fans will be outraged when I call Night the best chapter in Romero’s Living Dead cycle. Yes, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead was the most successful, commercially at least, but the original provides the biggest gut-punch. Ultra low-budget and shot in grainy black-and-white, it persists as a true classic of the genre. Night of the Living Dead’s impact on underground filmmaking has never been in doubt. The rough documentary style has been copied to death, the story and monsters are often lampooned, and it has been released in a hundred different forms since it first appeared. But most importantly, it has inspired generations of filmmakers to make their own demented art. Over forty years later, it refuses to go away.

While it no longer terrifies audiences, Night’s grim vigour still unsettles. Romero and co-screenwriter John A. Russo don’t waste any time setting up the action – from the first scene onward its an oppressive film. The opening cemetery attack is probably my favourite sequence, if only for its sudden jolt to the system. We are introduced to “heroine” Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), who are visiting their parent’s grave. He jokes about the cemetery scaring her as a child while a storm erupts – a must for any film of this kind. Then, from the back of the frame, lumbers a seemingly harmless old man. Without warning, the corpse lunges at Johnny, killing him with a blow to the head. Barbara manages to get away (surprising, considering this is probably the fastest zombie in Romero’s canon), and comes across a deserted farmhouse out in the Pittsburgh countryside.

The distraught Barbara is later found by the resourceful Ben (Duane Jones), who attempts to fortify the shelter from the rampaging undead. But, as the night wears on, the battle to keep the fiends at bay becomes increasingly difficult, especially when Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) and his family enter the fray. Tempers in the house rise, and with flesh-eaters surrounding them, it’s unclear who will finish them off first – the cadavers or themselves…

Living Dead established the modern definition of a zombie. Before then, the word had its roots in Voodoo culture, referring to a drug that gave people the appearance of death (and were buried alive in most cases). The Val Lewton-produced I Walked with a Zombie (1943) could be considered the first real stab at the genre. So removed is Living Dead from such historical context that it makes complete sense when you realise the Z word is never said once. Romero refers to them as “ghouls.” It has always amused me that audiences are to blame for the archetype, not the filmmakers. Yet the movie went a step further – it also established the belief that zombie films couldn’t survive on viscera alone and that they needed sociopolitical underpinnings to truly succeed. In a genre known for placing guts over ideas, such efforts should be congratulated.

The film jumbles the era’s fears into a macabre melting pot. Class and interracial struggles combine. Children are corrupted. Society teeters on the brink of destruction. And the government’s answer to the situation is no different to Vietnam or the recent conflict in Afghanistan. Fire is fought with fire, and innocents only get in the way.

The most successful element of Night, in my eyes at least, is the tightly-woven screenplay. It’s a perfect example of economical storytelling. The set-up is short and sweet – all Romero has to do is lock his characters within the principal location and let them duke it out, while hell rages on outside. It’s a common thread in any disaster picture (and lets face it, the end of the world is certainly a disaster), with Romero and Russo taking great pleasure in showing the tensions and differences between their core protagonists. It provides the heart and soul of the film. The zombies are almost an afterthought – the emphasis is placed on Ben and his comrades from the outset. In most respects, it allows the director to show the true nature of human beings on a primal level. When the shit hits the fan, you can always rely on people to look after number 1. Here, the clashes between Ben and Cooper provide most of the friction, allowing the audience to read any racial connotations they please.

Jones dominates the film as Ben. He’s strong-willed and commanding, making you believe in the character’s determination. As written, Ben would have been a truck driver sort and far-removed from the eloquent, intelligent survivalist here. He is assisted ably by Hardman, who leaves an impression as the hot-tempered Harry Cooper. His performance flip-flops between hammy and credible, but he provides Night with its true villain. The character almost personifies America’s fear of the unknown. As Romero later put it, the zombies were “the new society devouring the old.” There is a gulf between the generations in this film that says everything you need to know about the 1960s.

Whenever a critic mentions Romero’s debut, there’s always a paragraph or two about the civil rights metaphor, which is arguably the most obvious in the picture. Jones’ involvement certainly emphasises that. The director has often stated that the African-American actor was cast due to his talents as a thespian, but it certainly gives the film an interesting slant. In 1968, it was still uncommon to see a black man in a leading role, a move made all the greater by Night‘s fatalistic ending. The fact that Martin Luther King was assassinated mere months after the shoot gives the coda a greater significance than it might have had otherwise.

The supporting cast around Jones is decidedly weak, especially Keith Wayne as the well-meaning (and persistently blinking) Tom. O’Dea is frankly annoying as the terrified Barbara, occupying an outdated view of women that draws attention to itself. It’s a release for the audience when Ben smacks her across the face. Seeing that today provokes an entirely different response. How times have changed.

Romero in the early 70s

On a technical level, the film is still impressive for an amateur effort. Romero handled the camera himself and his composition is carefully controlled. With help from Streiner and Hardman (who formed their company Image Ten), the picture just about covers over its filmic shortcomings, never drawing attention to the crew’s lack of experience (although the use of library music for the score reveals the absurd low-budget). Having made hundreds of commercials, Romero brought a sure-footing and competence to the picture that allows you to forgive the cheesier aspects. He also possesses a gift for effective editing, giving the film a relentless pace atypical for the period. While it didn’t win any awards for filmmaking skill, Night of the Living Dead was, and still is, heads above most films of its ilk. The reason is simple: the filmmakers took the material seriously.

The movie really shines when depicting the reaction to such an event, effectively conveying a rising tide of hysteria without ever leaving the farmhouse. The news footage in Night is very realistic, providing us with details but denying us the bigger picture. We never discover why the dead are walking but there are theories. It only makes the situation creepier. These snippets of the outside world give Romero the chance to show how the government is handling the situation and it’s typically grim, depicting the local authorities as gung-ho rednecks who have been itching to use their rifles. Likening them to lynching mobs, the sight of these country bumpkins merrily slaughtering zombies isn’t as comforting as it would be in any other horror picture. This isn’t the cavalry… this is the final nail in the coffin.

While he has developed considerably as a craftsman, this is easily Romero’s finest work as a screenwriter. In my opinion, his subsequent efforts haven’t matched the skill on show here. Night of the Living Dead is horror cinema at its purest and most confrontational. Time may have dimmed its former shock value, but it still possesses enough meat on its bones to keep audiences enthralled. And the best thing about Night? It’s free. Due to a fudging of the copyright by the inexperienced filmmakers, the title eventually wound up in the public domain. Anyone can release a copy of Living Dead. Head down to your local HMV and you’ll be amazed by the amount of releases available (although, for my money, the best copy is still Elite’s 2002 “Millennium Edition” with a THX-certified transfer). Since it’s free to watch it and download it, why not revisit Night of the Living Dead right now? Consider this a SquabbleBox first. Enjoy.

The Aftermath

Night of the Living Dead was one of the last notable hits on the drive-in circuit, eventually becoming one of the most successful independent films of all time. Its critical acceptance didn’t happen overnight, however. It was only due to its secondary re-release as a “Midnight Movie,” and the accompanying cult following, that it matured into a genuine classic. The film’s popularity sparked a raft of imitators, especially in Italy, where filmmakers like Lucio Fulci produced increasingly graphic zombie movies. By the mid-70s, the sub-genre had blossomed.

Romero tried to distance himself from his debut as a result, venturing into rom-com territory with There’s Always Vanilla (1971), a financial failure. The lure of horror proved too strong, and he would go on to work exclusively in the genre, directing the post-modern vampire flick Martin (1978) and The Crazies (1973), which was a spin on Living Dead’s concept. This time, the inhabitants of a small American town are infected by a military compound leaked into the water supply. The low-budget film wasn’t a hit at the box office, but eventually found a following on home video (resulting in a rather great 2010 remake).

It would take ten years for Romero to produce a sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which was partly financed and produced by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. It remains the most famous entry in the cycle.

Due to the copyright issues involved with Night, Romero later produced a 1990 remake of the film, which was directed by Tom Savini. It starred Candyman himself, Tony Todd as Ben, and Patricia Tillman as Barbara. Notably, this version of Babs was closer to Romero’s original intention; a tough, self-sufficient character in the mould of Alien’s Ripley. As remakes go, it is entirely serviceable and provides enough tweaks to the plot to surprise fans of the original.

The other films in Romero’s series are Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009).

Useless Trivia

  • The first movie ever shot in Pittsburgh.
  • Readers Digest tried to deter people from watching the film in 1968, stating that it inspired cannibalism.
  • Pittsburgh broadcaster Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille cameos as a news reporter. His daughter, Lori Cardille, would later star in Day of the Dead.
  • Many years after filming, a tornado tore through the cemetery used for the shoot, and ironically, unearthed several graves.
  • The film-makers used Bosco chocolate syrup for the blood. Shots of zombies eating human remains were achieved by smothering roast ham with chocolate sauce. Yum.
  • In the opening chase scene, Barbara crashes the car into a tree. This was because of a real fender bender before filming, so Romero wrote it into the script to give the scene “production value.”
  • Savini, who would become a legend after creating the make-up effects for Dawn of the Dead (1978), was originally approached by Romero to do this film, but he was drafted by the US Army to serve as a combat photographer in Vietnam.
  • The stock music used for the score was originally featured in Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), a.k.a. The Gargon Terror.
  • In the final interview before his death, Duane Jones admitted to never having seen Romero’s other Dead movies.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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