Director/Co-screenwriter: George A. Romero
By Roderick Heath
It began when a short filmmaker and production aide working for host Fred ‘Mr’ Rogers’ Pittsburgh-based children’s TV show decided to make a horror movie. 27-year-old George A. Romero and his friends, bored with making anodyne entertainment and looking to make a splash, pooled resources financial and technical and formed a production company called Image Ten. The company set out to film a script Romero had written with pal John A. Russo, drawing on a short story Romero had penned, strongly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1958 novella I Am Legend. With a budget trickling in from several sources that eventually added up to just over $100,000 dollars, the film shoot was largely restricted to weekends over a seven month period when cast and crew were free, out in the Pennsylvania hinterland. The best audition for the lead role the filmmakers saw was that of former academic turned performer Duane Jones, making the film one of the few of its kind to that date with an African-American leading man. Members of the crew and production staff doubled as cast. Rogers supported Romero’s efforts but wouldn’t let him use an actor from his show star in the project, which seemed destined to exemplify the phrase “cheap and nasty.” Romero and his team, shooting on cheap black and white stock, fashioned their artisanal epic until they had a real film in the can, but then had a hard time selling it to a distributor because of the visceral gore and bleak ending. Even the estimable schlock palace AIP wouldn’t touch it. Their work, first entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters, was finally taken on by a low-rent New York company, the Walter Reade Organization, and premiered in 1968. Reviewers like Roger Ebert and moviegoers promptly freaked out, as the film was being shown without a censor classification, so children were being admitted to a film that features cannibalism and murder. The distributor had also retitled it Night of the Living Dead whilst forgetting to update the copyright, meaning that the movie slipped into the public domain almost immediately.
Why are people still talking about this forlorn labour a half-century later?
To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life. The low budget of Night of the Living Dead gave it a quality that money would have spoilt, a sense of closeness to genuine experience and a brusque countercultural authority. That latter quality was given a steroidal boost by the cruelly sarcastic finale, so similar to the one that would follow a year later in another legendary low-budget film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Romero’s thumb was feeling for the pulse of the zeitgeist, trying to say something about the psychic life of America in the late 1960s. Riots and protests were everywhere, institutions were rocked, the fabric of modern Western life tested in all quarters. Somehow, Night of the Living Dead records that landscape for us now more effectively than just about any other product of the age, even though it never tries to be overtly political, for it hit upon a near-endlessly malleable metaphorical framework to explore what’s happened to the modern body politic.
Surely that’s part of the reason why today Night of the Living Dead has conquered the world. A vast swathe of the entertainment industry today owes Romero and his ragged band royalties and suitable celebration. The explosion of zombie-themed entertainment that’s cropped up in the past decade or so, from the comic book and TV series The Walking Dead to films like World War Z (2013), only offer slight variations on Romero and Russo’s basic concept and Romero’s subsequent variations on it, in his follow-ups Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Then again, what Romero owed Matheson and Alfred Hitchcock and the sci-fi monster flicks of the 1950s is not so negligible either. Romero had worked on the set of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) but it’s The Birds (1963) that Night of the Living Dead picks apart and stitches back together, a tale of besiegement by savage beasts featuring a blonde heroine who goes largely catatonic after peering grim fate in the eye. But where Hitchcock leaves off is where Romero starts, a point made obvious in the fate of initial, apparent protagonist, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), whose blindsiding experience of world-cracking terror and loss comes scant minutes into the film and leaves her ruined and near-mute for most of the next hour and a quarter. Hitchcock’s film used his inexplicable outbreak of hostility for a lesson that he not busy being born is busy dying, whereas Romero sees a point where everyone might just be dying. Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as the next way station on a trail blazed by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in creating the modern horror film, both in their approach to intimate violence as the new barometer of horrific effect and also in the way they look at the landscape, literal and figurative, we have lived in since the post-World War 2 settlement.
The film’s opening scene also incorporates a commentary on horror film history, as Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive in a cemetery out in rural spaces, on their ritual yearly visit performed on behalf of their incapacitated mother to their father’s grave. Johnny employs an impression of a Boris Karloff-like creep to scare Barbra. Like the same year’s Targets, which actually employed Karloff for the same end, Romero here zeroes in on the way the argot of classical horror represented by the venerable English star had become campy and passé, but still possessed an unsettling quality needing a new context to find effect: Johnny’s jokey evocation of horror immediately sets the scene for the real thing. But it’s daytime, in the quiet expanses of the Pennsylvania countryside – surely nothing bad can happen here. The mood is one of tolerance and tested nerves and banal frustration. The string tethering the siblings to this show of familial loyalty is perilously thin, and Johnny keeps testing it, claiming to barely remember his father. He cynically notes that they might as well have bought the same memorial wreath for the grave a few dozen times – mourning is another tacky industry. The toey, distracted tone of this opening suggests disquiet and discomfort already roiling under the surface – Johnny’s irritable distaste for the business he’s been forced to perform is all but tangible as he clearly wants to leave behind his past, with his affectations of hipster playboy, whilst the nervy, already suggestively fragile Barbra can’t escape it and perhaps doesn’t want to. They’re chicks who have clawed their way out of the shell of the classic nuclear family variably well. Johnny can still send Barbra spiralling back into childhood with his sardonic mockery. But the shambling figure Johnny takes for a roaming wino and nominates as one of the looming monsters (“They’re coming to get you, Bar-bra!”) proves to actually be a brute, attacking Barbra and stirring a show of actual brotherly feeling from Johnny, who immediately pays the price as he gets his head bashed in against a gravestone. Barbra flees back to the car but doesn’t have any keys, so tries to escape the ravening stranger by freewheeling down a slope. This gives her enough space to flee on foot towards a nearby house.
The qualities of Night of the Living Dead that distinguished it from the pack are made instantly apparent in this opening movement. The deceptively calm and tepid atmosphere, loaned a sombre unease by the black and white photography, gives way to a sudden ferocity that’s still remarkable, conveyed by the actors and Romero’s intense camerawork and editing. Most low-budget and independent horror films before this were laborious in their use of the camera; now suddenly the limitations of the form became an asset, in the free and kinetic deployment of the camera matched to the urgency of the action in a manner that’s never exactly documentary-like – Romero’s framings and use of canted angles are far too careful for that – but has something like the same immediacy. The mean jolts of irony that underpin the narrative as a whole first are first felt here. It’s in the switchback from sardonic calm to survival scramble, in the actualisation of Barbra’s unease in the graveyard, in Johnny’s swift demise springing to defend the sister he was teasing seconds before, joining the father he can’t remember as a corpse in a cemetery in Nowheresville. Barbra’s flight from the pursuing zombie takes her to a refuge that proves a trap, the contradiction that defines the rest of the narrative. She finds the farmhouse apparently empty, with only a gruesomely mutilated corpse lying on the stairs for company. The phone is out. The solitude is terrible. She runs for the door only to be pinioned by the glare of headlights: a pick-up truck pulls up and its driver, Ben (Jones), leaps out to urge her back into the house. Ben has just barely survived his own encounter with more of the mysteriously animated corpses lurching around the countryside, and with the fuel in the truck he appropriated nearly exhausted, sees no choice but to make a stand in the farmhouse.
Ben’s appearance, suddenly thrusting his face into frame, at first an apparent threat swooping out of the dark to grab Barbra, is a brief but notable rupture in the otherwise crisp visual textures: the nominal hero arrives in a blur, a shock to Barbra’s already fried sensory organs. Like one of the film’s spiritual descendants, Alien (1979), the apparently random choice of lead performer loaned potent subtext that isn’t acknowledged in the script or surface drama, but still inflects what we see. Barbra’s shrinking, quaking behaviour as Ben enlists her in his survival efforts could be the fear of someone out of her depth and thrust into an intense situation with a total stranger, and also that of a prim suburban white girl who’s never been so close to a black man in her life. Ben’s got-his-shit-together coolness under pressure seems to contrast Barbra’s rapidly fraying nerves – her rapid spiral into almost disembodied hysteria as she makes account of what happened to her contrasts Ben’s curious, bewildered but cooler narrative, and his implorations “I think you should just stay calm,” voiced as he goes about his business. But this is in part a miscue, as Ben’s experience replays Barbra’s at greater length. Soon, after Ben battles and kills several of the ghouls and begins makeshift barricades, they’re joined by more survivors, revealed to have been hiding in the basement: middle-aged, balding Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the younger couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). A fault-line quickly splits these would-be survivors as they’re faced with weathering this storm, as Harry advocates holing up in the basement where they only have a single door to worry about, whilst Ben wants to continue barricading the house, to have open ground to fight in or flee to. Tom mediates between the two men’s heated exchanges, whilst Ben declares himself in charge of anyone who wants to remain upstairs with him.
It goes almost without saying that most of the nascent power and specific inspiration of Night of the Living Dead lies in the way it constantly looks past the zombie horde, whose appetites are basic and instinctual and whose threat is close to abstract, to consider the living instead. But the zombies deserve appreciation. Romero didn’t think of them as zombies, a name with roots lie in specific religious traditions, black magic, and spell-casting, as beings under the will of manipulators or influenced by curses. Romero’s zombies are described here as mutations, animated by a mysterious radiation cloud released when an experimental deep-space probe rocket was destroyed before it could land on Earth, an idea that connects Night of the Living Dead less with precursors in zombie cinema like Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (1932) or John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) than with sci-fi like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and atomic monster flicks in the Godzilla (1954) tradition, as well as strong similarities to Terence Fisher’s cheap but creepy The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). The idea of making the living dead cannibalistic killers was drawn from the source myth behind the word ghoul. But zombie is such a cool word. Romero would drop this explanation in later instalments, in part because it was unnecessary. The zombies are the ultimate Other, a tabula rasa of terror, possessing no motive, no will, no identity, beyond what natural drive dictates, gruesome shells of being that both defy and embody death. This helps explain their easy popularity today. Moreover, the basic narrative of Night of the Living Dead has many echoes not just from earlier sci-fi and horror films but also Westerns and colonialist adventure stories with the zombies subbing for Indians or tribal Africans laying siege to a microcosmic collective, but allowing those narratives to be sustained without socio-political and racial specifics, which can then be suggested at will. Romero’s undead lurch around dazedly, seeking out any form of sustenance with the appetite of the damned, advancing not with great speed or force but relentless intent, and turning on like ravening animals when they have what they want in their sights.
By contrast, the humans want above all to survive their ordeal. The will to survival, a trait usually granted respect in the types of narrative Night of the Living Dead takes inspiration from and depicted as informing noble efforts to band together and act selflessly, here is probed at with a ruthless sense of the way character and outlook affect the way we approach situations, finding the opposite tendency. When alone, Ben’s activity seems entirely sensible, as he boards up the house’s doors and windows, seeks out weaponry, and prepares for siege, but the emergence of others in the house instead of relieving tension only provokes a concurrent conflict. The clash between Ben and Harry doesn’t just polarise the movie but still feels like the basic archetype of modern communal quandary, interpretable on several levels – black fight versus white flight, communal action versus self-interest, internationalism versus isolationism, on and on. The microcosmic conceit sees Ben and Harry taking on their separate kingdoms, barking orders and warnings at each-other, with Tom trying to mediate for an outcome. The women are by and large relegated to staying out of the way (in his interesting if comparatively saggy remake in 1990, Tom Savini revised this element smartly so that Barbra, instead of going catatonic, turns into a killing machine, detaching from humanity in a different way) or settling for commentary, as Marilyn acerbically cuts her husband down to size (“That’s important isn’t it – to be right.”) in miniature Albee scenes, paving the way for Romero’s more overt and pointed engagement with feminist themes on Season of the Witch (1971) and the later Dead movies.
Ben has the gun, retrieved from a cupboard in the house; Harry’s overwhelming need becomes to gain possession of this symbol of male power over his antagonist, who is in turn determined not to be reduced to passively waiting to see if the monsters break in on him or not. But none of these people are absolutely right or wrong, or entirely competent. Harry’s clammy, truculent yet actually timorous demeanour is based in part in concern for his family, particularly his daughter, who’s wasting away from an injury, whilst Ben has no-one he must be personally responsible for. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, but his instinct to get away from the house and make for a rescue station pushes him to advocate a risky and eventually catastrophic venture. This sense of human frailty is another aspect of Night of the Living Dead’s adroitness, perhaps indeed its greatest aspect. Romero refuses to stroke our egos and present the usual avatars of our best imagined selves, but provides instead figures desperately improvising, spiralling into panic or thrusting themselves into risks for the sake of action in the belief it must be preferable to inaction. Barbra’s instincts work beautifully in fighting for her life but then collapse once necessity wanes and she’s left to ponder just what happened, and in a similar way Ben’s own attempt to rationally solve his problem proves self-destructive. Ben’s attempt to lead an escape from the house, with Tom’s help and Judy’s fearful imposition, by obtaining petrol for the truck from a locked pump near the house devolves into a comedy of errors and then hideous tragedy. Nothing quite goes right, and the end result is the truck exploding in flames, killing Tom and Judy, and Ben, running back to the house, finds himself locked out by Harry. Harry does eventually let him in, only to get a beating from Ben. Another jagged irony is thrown up, that the ultimate as Harry’s belief the basement is the safest place is proven correct.
Part of the mystique of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s early films in general lies in their pungent sense of time and place, their genuineness in evoking the lives of suburbanites and the citizens of out-of-the-way places – the lives of quiet desperation in There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch, the decimated small town of The Crazies (1973), and the blasted urban drear of Martin (1977), films that locate a zone somewhere between genre film and neorealism. Romero’s unknown, sometimes amateur casts and location shooting informed this authenticity that often also shades into awkwardness in acting. But his characters are deftly sketched, arriving as people who seem to have walked right into the films from life. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is particularly special – that’s why their fate is compelling, the sense this is happening to anyone and everyone. The film’s novelty as horror lay not just in the graphic depictions of cannibalism that comes as the zombies feast on the nicely cooked remains of Tom and Judy, but in its extension of a note sounded in Psycho. Horror is now based in the utterly humdrum modern world, welling out of septic psyches, the effluence of scientific-industrial progress, and decaying bodies, clinging like a faint, indefinable, yet certainly noxious aroma to things formerly thought of as clean and upstanding and mundane, from noble old houses to quaint churchyards and open country spaces, as well infesting the good old family unit.
Night of the Living Dead is preoccupied with both the bonds that tie people together and also the forces that hold them at odds and foil best intentions. In its way, then, it’s a profoundly neighbourly film – perhaps Romero hadn’t come so far from Mr Rogers perhaps after all. You can imagine the dull potpourri-scented parlours at home and the bus rides Barbra takes back in the city, something Jonny has declared independence from with his flashy sports car. And what’s he doing on the weekend? Ferrying his sister out to place a plastic memorial wreath on his father’s grave on the behest of a senescent elder. Ben tries to create a safe zone and invites everyone to share it even as he and Harry take “my way or the highway” attitudes. The film’s survivalist theme plugs into a system of anxiety that had begun buzzing in the early nuclear age and was starting to go into overdrive in the context of the late ‘60s: Harry is the archetypal white suburban father anxiously shepherding his family into a bunker and hoping to get hold of a weapon in case he needs to hold off social collapse. In this regard Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as an extension of Ray Milland’s little-known but intriguing attempt to portray post-atomic war straits engulfing a normal family, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and looking forward to a generation of films like Damnation Alley (1977) and Mad Max (1979), obsessed with the post-apocalyptic landscape. Romero also drew on the lone film work of another director from well beyond the pale, Herk Harvey, who like Romero had roots in making pedagogic shorts and helmed the shoestring classic Carnival of Souls (1962). Quite apart from Harvey’s example as a low-budget filmmaker for Romero, his ashen-faced, black-eyed ghouls stalked locations that evoked corners of the American landscape left vacant and decaying in changing times grasped the same mood of blasted alienation and parochial anxiety.
Romero’s background in regional television and his interest in the way communal infrastructure is both erected to handle calamity and is disturbingly vulnerable to it is constantly evinced throughout the film. The characters in the house urgently try to tune into radio and TV to glean understanding of the situation and find what they should do: Romero understands the modern world as a zone of networks people rely on scarcely without thinking. Night of the Living Dead evokes the eerie, paranoid sensation of tuning into some emergency broadcast station in the middle of the night, beaming out test pattern in boding readiness for the moment when it might be needed. It’s chiefly access to communication devices that entices Harry and his fellows out of the basement for any length of time. The news anchors trying to fill people in on apparently incoherent and unbelievable events contextualise the impossible in familiar terms: the zombie revolution will be televised. Ben and the others make their ill-fated venture out of the house partly in hope of heading to one of the rescue stations advertised on the TV. Tellingly, at the outset of Dawn of the Dead, Romero depicts behind the scenes at a TV station with an argument about beaming out details about rescue stations that might have been overwhelmed by ghouls already. Romero’s follow-ups became increasingly apocalyptic in tenor, each one less a sequel in the usual sense than a revision that ups the scale of the problem each time, reflecting the metastasizing nature of Romero’s concerns. As it’s made clear here, the best method of handling the zombies is quickly established and the roaming National Guard and militias out in the countryside are having no particular problem cleaning up the fiends. This suggestion of possible containment of the problem makes this sharper as a drama of personal endurance on one level and perhaps more sardonic too as it throws more emphasis onto the failings of the heroes rather than the inevitability of their predicament, even if it robs the tale of the biblical scale touched on in Romero’s later takes.
The word “taboo” is often employed when discussing Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason, as it’s a work dedicated to demolishing them on both the dramatic and thematic levels. In a film driven by its contemplation of the tenuousness of human relations, Romero resolves this motif by locating dark, nihilistic revelry in the worst possible permutation of those relations with the cold, unremitting aim of an Enlightenment satirist like Swift, De Sade, or Voltaire, sharing with their ilk an unfettered readiness to unravel just about any presumption of Western civilisation from Homer on. With the bonus of gleefully trashing just about every nicety of genre storytelling and the presumptions of commercial storytelling. So, the handsome, innocent young couple are roasted alive and then eaten. The two alpha males, far from learning to work together and respect each-other, devolve into primal battle for control of a weapon, resulting in Ben shooting Harry like a commander in the field executing a mutinous officer. Marilyn and Barbra all die at the hands of loved-ones, as Barbra is snatched by the revived and zombified Johnny and fed to the horde of ghouls he’s joined, whilst dying Harry becomes dinner for his daughter who has succumbed to the malady too, before she stabs her horrified mother to death with a trowel. One of Romero’s finer gifts as a filmmaker was his ability to shoot physical action in a manner that invests it with a voluble sense of physical immediacy (at least in his early films – his more recent work is ordinary in this regard), and this is particularly vital in the film’s climactic scenes as the defence of the house swiftly and brutally collapses when the ghoul horde becomes large enough to bash through the barricades – death comes at the protagonists from every direction. Barbra finally snaps out of her daze right at the moment of crisis and leaps into action with surprising energy, to no avail.
Most pungently and infamously, Ben, suddenly alone and faced with a seemingly unstoppable tide of the marauders, is forced to take refuge in the basement with two half-eaten bodies that revive, forcing him to shoot them, and await the dawn. At long last daylight creeps in, the militia arrive gunning down ghouls all about, and Ben ventures out of his hiding place to cautiously investigate his rescuers – only to get a bullet in the forehead in the presumption he’s just another zombie. Ben’s body is dragged out with hooks to join the ghouls on the bonfire under the opening credits. Jones would go on to star in Bill Gunn’s black cultural riposte, Ganja & Hess (1973). This chilling, utterly deadpan final act exacerbates the film’s political dimensions of course, but also plays in part as a MAD Magazine-like lampoon extending Romero’s attack on narrative clichés. The cavalry has arrived to rescue our hero from siege by the savages, but just a little too late, and he’s just another moving target for a mob of trigger-happy hicks. In a year that had seen Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down by reactionaries, in which racial and countercultural action constantly nudged the edges of overt insurrection and in which the potential looming spectre of a whole race of angry Harrys emerging from their basements now armed and eager to blast anything dissenting and threatening, Ben’s death didn’t just feel ironic, or tragic, but inevitable. I particularly like the leader of the militia’s jaunty cockaded hat, a touch that gives him a spiritual link to the burgomasters leading mobs in Universal horror films, and with the suspicious undercurrent of lynch mob justice in those films suddenly brought out into the open. But what seems most chilling about watching Night of the Living Dead today is the revelation just how deep Romero’s insight into his culture went, to the point where it manages to feel more intense and relevant with each passing year.