To say that the horror world lost an irreplaceable icon this past weekend when George A. Romero passed away is an understatement. Although he made movies about vampires (Martin), witches (Season of the Witch), and killer monkeys (Monkey Shines), and had some legendary collaborations with superstar horror writer Stephen King (Creepshow, The Dark Half), Romero was, and always will be, known as the father of the modern zombie movie with his “Living Dead” series of fright flicks. And it all started in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead begins with a woman named Barbra (Judith O’Dea) visiting her father’s grave in rural Pennsylvania with her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner). They are attacked by a creepy man, and Barbra is able to escape while Johnny is killed. As Barbra flees from more creepy “ghouls,” she finds a house and is taken inside by a man named Ben (Duane Jones). After boarding up the doors and windows of the house in preparation for a siege, Barbra and Ben learn that there is a group of people already hiding in the cellar of the house: a married couple and their daughter (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and Kyra Schon), along with a teenaged couple (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). Through television and radio news reports, the trapped people learn that radioactive fallout from a recently returned space probe has caused the dead to rise…and has also given them a taste for human flesh. At first, the group is divided as to how to deal with the situation, but soon enough, they have to put aside their differences in order to fight off the living dead that are pummeling away at the doors and windows of their shelter.
Drawing inspiration from the dystopian Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, Romero wrote the screenplay for Night of the Living Dead with his college friend John A. Russo. Initially, it was to be a horror comedy, but as the pair started experimenting with the concept of the flesh eating undead, it became a pure horror script. Sure, there were zombie movies before Night of the Living Dead, b-movies like White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies, but Haitian voodoo zombies are a whole different beast. Romero’s zombies were different. Scarier.
Night of the Living Dead was put together on a shoestring budget, and Romero made the most of it. Romero used friends and unknowns for his cast and crew, and shot the movie guerilla style on limited locations near his Pittsburgh home. Footage was captured on less expensive black and white film stock, allowing for simpler ghoul makeup and gore effects (the zombies are never called “zombies,” they are referred to as “ghouls” throughout). The decision to shoot in black and white became a stylistic advantage, as the low budget aesthetic provided the film with a grindhouse look that added to its mystique – like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a few years later, the gritty photography gave Night of the Living Dead an almost documentary or newsreel quality.
Although tame by today’s standards, Night of the Living Dead was shocking to 1968 audiences. Scenes of the groaning, swaying zombies gnawing on their human prey were controversial to say the least, because the film was released about a month before the MPAA rating system was firmly in place – young children were buying tickets to see Night of the Living Dead (and, presumably, going home to sleep with their parents when they couldn’t get the horrific imagery out of their impressionable minds). Cries for social responsibility on the part of filmmakers were made, but the film did find an audience, and became the most profitable independent horror movie ever made up to that point. And it continues to garner a huge cult following today.
Not that Romero saw any of that sweet Night of the Living Dead money. Due to a clerical slip up in which no copyright information was included within the film’s credits, Night of the Living Dead ended up in the public domain, which is why seemingly anyone can (and does) do a shoddily put together home video release of the classic, and the movie is readily available to stream online from just about any website that hosts video.
The influence of Night of the Living Dead is obvious to anyone who pays attention to pop culture. Romero’s passion project b-movie launched a fad that would span continents, platforms, and genres. Italians and Brits followed suit with their own zombie movies (some of which were billed as sequels to Night of the Living Dead). Zombies became staples of video games (Zombies Ate My Neighbors) and television shows (“The Walking Dead”). They’ve been the subjects of lighthearted rom-coms (Warm Bodies) and pants-poopingly terrifying fright flicks (28 Days Later). Zombies are seemingly everywhere in the modern world. And these aren’t the old Haitian voodoo zombies, either; these are the slow shuffling, brain-consuming Romero “ghouls.”
The zombies are not the only aspect of Night of the Living Dead that was revolutionary. The hero is an African-American, and this was more than twenty years before The People Under the Stairs and almost fifty years before Get Out. (For their part, Romero and Russo didn’t actually write the character of Ben as black, but Duane Jones was the best fit for the role, so they cast him). Night of the Living Dead also features a nihilistic and bleak ending, something that was very uncommon for a movie in the sixties (and is still fairly rare, although not unheard of, in today’s cinematic climate). Night of the Living Dead was groundbreaking for more reasons than just Romero’s zombies.
In the decades since its release, Night of the Living Dead has been colorized, remade, and even “re-animated” as a film experiment by a group of animators. As for Romero, he would go on to make five more zombie movies, including Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead (six if you count The Crazies). At the time of his death, he was working on another “dead” movie called Road of the Dead. Quite a dynasty, and it all stemmed from his little indie that could, Night of the Living Dead.