It may seem like a contradictory idea, but not a whole lot of “drive-in” horror movies of the ‘60s really tried to be that scary. Oh, they wanted to shock and startle and get the kids to jump whilst they necked (do people neck anymore?), but that was about as deep into the terror as it got; they didn’t horrify or disturb, despite their ad campaigns. That is, of course, until a group of young filmmakers from Pittsburgh who were known for making industrial films and commercials made a little black and white independent horror film that went on to be one of the most influential and lasting horror pictures of all time. That movie, of course, is director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Made on a budget of only $114,000, the film would go on to gross $30,000,000 worldwide and be the tenth biggest money-maker of 1968.
Romero and company shot on weekends in a secluded area about 30 miles away from Pittsburgh. The abandoned farmhouse proved to be the ideal setting for low-budget horror, and would become the norm for movies about the living dead, where the survivors have to fortify a single, small location. This was cost effective for them, as it would negate the need for multiple locations or a large cast, but it also proved ingenious for the purposes of tension. This isn’t about a city dealing with an epidemic, or even a small town, this is one house with seven people in it. The radio and television bulletins are the only glimpses into the outside world, and it doesn’t seem the authorities are having much better luck than our squabbling protagonists.
One thing that’s very noticeable about Night of the Living Dead, especially on repeat viewings, is just how talky it is. For a good portion of the film, the characters just talk about things and board up windows and argue about who is the boss of where. It only made sense that the film would spawn several stage adaptations, because, really, it’s a drawing room drama with the undead. Weirdly, this adds to the creepiness of the movie. It feels like we’re watching people really dealing with a wholly unreal situation. People are ego-driven and petty, and even when the dead are feasting on the living, focused on personal prejudices and proclivities. These are broken up with scenes of the titular monsters milling about in the field, surrounding the house, or, after a human plan goes awry, feasting upon flesh.
Even in this, his first film, we see a lot of the no-holds-barred tendencies of George Romero. He’s not afraid to kill of any and all main characters or even for the audience to witness them getting devoured. While it’s not as technically proficient or as bombastic as his later Dead pictures, this movie nevertheless doesn’t shy away in the gore department. Headshots and dismemberment abound, which would have been quite shocking at the time. One wouldn’t expect a movie with a budget as low as this to treat the violence so seriously and so realistically, but in 1968, with the Vietnam War becoming an ever more present issue, and reports of atrocities being committed on both sides filling the news, audiences responded to a movie like this being both fantastical and straight-shooting.
As with every one of Romero’s Dead films, the ghouls in this movie represent something greater than just corpses who walk around. The late ’60s were all about counterculture and rioting and youth trying to shift the status quo in a radical way. This is precisely what Romero is commenting on. Society in Night of the Living Dead is in turmoil after a sudden status shift. The monsters aren’t some unseen force or otherworldly menace; the threat comes from the neighbors, the untrustworthy in the community. It’s a new and radical society literally rising up and consuming the only guard. There’s no making peace with them or cohabitating when mindless, insatiable corpses are your adversaries. And in the end, the real threat to our way of life comes not from “the other” but from ourselves attempting, poorly, to deal with “the other.” This is Romero’s gift to horror. He doesn’t try to say that we can overcome our differences and fend off the dirty, pale menace, but that we’re waging a perpetually-losing battle against each other while the real New World Order casually sets up shop. If the people in the house could get along, there’d be a whole different (and admittedly boring) ending to the film.
The characters, for the most part, are quite intriguing and atypical of horror films of the time. The audience identification character, Barbara (for whom they are “coming to get”) is a woman who is at various points whiny, hysterical, and catatonic. She barely has any lines for the last hour of the movie, becoming the mythical “huge load” which causes the other characters nothing but grief. Romero would change this paradigm later in his films, with the females becoming more and more important and self-sufficient until Day of the Dead, when the lone woman is the undisputed hero(ine) of the piece.
In the cellar, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper care for their wounded and ultimately doomed child. Harry Cooper is a petulant, mean-spirited creep who seems to only be interested in keeping himself alive, not even really his wife and daughter all that much. He’s probably very used to blustering and eventually getting his own way, and probably railroads people fairly often. His wife, Helen, seems to just go along with her husband until he does something especially stupid, like neglect the fact that upstairs has a radio. They are flanked by Tom and Judy, a young, naïve couple who think love will solve everything. They’re earnest and forthright, and that’s not going to help anybody, is it? It’s their sad deaths that really set off the feud between Cooper and the real hero of the piece.
Ben (Duane Jones) comes from seemingly nowhere and immediately takes control of the situation. He deals with everybody in a forceful manner, albeit not always with the best results. He maybe should have been more open to Cooper’s cellar idea, but that’s a maybe. He’s always willing to try something new, and has apparently no compunctions about killing all the dead people in his way. As the one who survives the longest, he’s clearly got most everything worked out. The casting of Jones in the role is a brilliant one in hindsight, but was initially borne out of the necessity for a good actor. In 1968, the idea of having the lead of your movie be a black man, and to have him be the smartest, bravest, and most capable, and to have him basically tell everybody what’s what, was totally unheard of unless he was Sidney Poitier. For him to then, after everything, be picked off at a distance by some redneck yokel with a rifle, and becoming “another one for the fire,” is devastating and so very poignant.
As the story goes, once the final edit on Night of the Living Dead was finished, Romero and associates threw the film in the trunk of their car and drove to New York. That was the very night Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and they knew, given the social climate, what kind of thing they might have on their hands. In truth, the thing they had on their hands was almost too shocking for people to handle. Roger Ebert at the time wrote a famous review citing Night as being more than just a movie, and more than even a horror movie; “This was something else,” he wrote. People, stupidly, brought their young children to the theater as they evidently had to numerous horror pictures, but this one “stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying,” mentioning the death of the hero having a huge impact on the children. In a year that would also see the release of Rosemary’s Baby (more on that next week), it seemed that horror filmmakers were not longer content merely to “delightfully scare.”
The sad part of this film, which continues to be influential and terrifying to this day, is that Romero and his Image Ten group failed to recoup any of the royalties for the movie due to a copyright snafu. In 1968, federal law required each print of the movie to contain a notice of the copyright on the title screen. Image Ten had done this on the movie’s original title, Night of the Flesh Eaters, but when the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead, the notice did not carry over. As such, the film entered public domain status shortly thereafter and it is now able to be screened, distributed, futzed with, remade, parodied, and pretty much any other manhandling someone could do to a film without any paperwork or royalties paid to anyone. Romero should have gotten rich off this movie, but it wouldn’t be until Dawn of the Dead made a killing that he actually started to see some residuals from the genre he pretty much singlehandedly created.
You’ll notice, through this entire review, I didn’t once mention the “Z” word. This is because it’s not mentioned in the movie, nor, really, was the concept of what has become a global phenomenon even really on people’s minds. “Zombies” were Haitian voodoo-created things that were controlled via mind powers, and certainly not literal undead flesh eating ghouls who were reanimated by God knows what. While Night of the Living Dead is the prototype for the zombie movie, the genre’s conventions wouldn’t become cinematic law until 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. However, Night still remains an eerie, influential, and effective independent film that started something in horror that surely shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.