#479) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

#479) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

OR “Brains Supreme”

Directed by George Romero

Written by Romero & John Russo

Class of 1999

Thanks to my friend Ryan for sharing his zombie knowledge with me. Go check out his art!

The Plot: While visiting their father’s grave, siblings Barbra and Johnny (Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner) are attacked by a stranger. Barbra escapes, and takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned house. Also hiding there is Ben (Duane Jones), recently attacked by people who, like Barbra’s assailant, feast on human flesh. Ben and Barbra discover another group (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, and Kyra Schon) hiding in the cellar, and together they try to fight off these “ghouls” – revealed to be the recently deceased, returning to life to eat the living. And from this little movie from Pittsburgh stems one of the most successful horror genres of all time.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for “usher[ing] in an entire entertainment industry – the zombie film.” The write-up goes on to praise the film’s “tight editing”, its “unapologetically matter-of-fact approach” to the gore, and its “sociopolitical commentary”. There’s also an essay by horror expert/former “Miami Vice” writer Jim Trombetta.

But Does It Really?: I’m not a horror movie person, but I respect “Night of the Living Dead” for its effective presentation and its contributions to popular culture. Like many a classic low budget fare, “Night” makes up for its lack of funds with plenty of creativity, with Romero and his team using inventive cinematography and practical effects to sell their vision. With an endless cycle of zombie movies still being made today, “Night of the Living Dead” has more than proven its legacy and impact on American films.

Everybody Gets One: A lifelong film fanatic, George Romero got his start making industrial films and TV commercials with his production company The Latent Image. Yearning to do something more creative, Romero, along with his partners John Russo and Russell Streiner, came up with the idea of a low-budget horror film about “flesh-eaters”. The team pitched the idea to producer Karl Hardman, and together they raised $114,000 for the film’s budget.

Wow, That’s Dated: Radio as a primary news source, and TVs with “rabbit ears”. Also, a zombie attack would play out very differently in the age of smart phones and cable news.

Title Track: Originally produced as “Night of the Flesh Eaters”, Romero et al were having difficulty finding a distributor who wouldn’t demand a neutering of the film’s carnage. The Walter Reade Organization agreed to distribute the film as is, on the condition the title be changed to “Night of the Living Dead”. While making a new title card for the opening, the film’s copyright notice was accidentally removed. Under copyright laws of the day, “Night” inadvertently fell into the public domain.

Other notes 

  • Everyone in this movie pulls double duty. Producer Karl Hardman played Harry Cooper, and also helped with the film’s makeup and still photography. In addition to playing Helen Cooper, Marilyn Eastman was the film’s makeup supervisor, and plays the zombie who eats a bug off a tree. Producer Russell Streiner also plays Johnny, and delivers the classic line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”
  • Also aiding in the film’s budget: the film’s main setting was an abandoned house set to be demolished, giving the filmmakers carte blanche to destroy it however they needed to.
  • The first zombie attack is exciting, although Barbra does trip over her own heels, proving once and for all that heels are the worst invention ever.
  • The role of Ben was not written to be African-American, but Romero cast Duane Jones because he gave the best audition. Although Ben’s racial background is never explicitly stated or addressed in the film, Duane Jones was able to change Ben’s dialogue and overall characterization to make him a more positive, intellectual depiction of an African-American.
  • Barbra’s near catatonic shock may be realistic, but it does make her one of the less active female leads of any major movie.
  • My god, stop the incessant cricket noises! This is worse than the zombies.
  • Romero was also the film’s cinematographer, and his unconventional camera work lends itself well to the film’s unfamiliar, off-putting presentation.
  • A national emergency with no government strategy? And everyone needs to stay inside? When did this movie become so prescient?
  • The good news about all these TV reports: this is all before the removal of the FCC fairness doctrine. You can actually trust the news!
  • There’s a lot of inertia with these characters standing around the house talking about possible escape plans, but the eventual attacks made me tense, so this movie is doing something right.
  • The dead are being reanimated because of nuclear radiation? When did the zombies become Godzilla?
  • Wow, kids are the worst. The scene of Karen killing Helen with a garden trowel is one of filmdom’s watershed moments in terms of gore, despite being incredibly tame by today’s standards.
  • After completing the final cut of the film, George Romero and John Russo immediately took the finished reels and drove to New York in the hopes of a screening. During their drive, the two heard the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination, giving their film’s ending – in which Ben is mistaken for a zombie and shot by the police – a level of unintentional social commentary that continues to stay with the film.
  • Let this be a reminder: Always cremate your dead.

Legacy 

  • “Night of the Living Dead” opened in October 1968, one of the last unrated films before the MPAA rating system took effect. Despite initial controversy over its graphic violence, the film was a hit, earning more than a 100 times its budget at the box office (though it was the distributors, not the filmmakers, who took in most of that profit). The film’s accidental public domain status helped the film find a cult following on television and home video long after its theatrical release.
  • After a dispute between George Romero and John Russo over the direction of the sequels, the two agreed to make their own sequel franchises, both dealing with the aftermath of the first film’s events. Romero’s “…of the Dead” series has had five entries, with first sequel “Dawn of the Dead” achieving a cult status on par with the original film. Russo’s “Return of the Living Dead” series also consists of five films, and is overall more heightened and less grounded in reality than its Romero counterparts.
  • There have been countless remakes of the original film, most notably Tom Savini’s 1990 version, which amps up the bloodshed and makes Barbra a more active protagonist. These remakes also come with their share of unofficial sequels, prequels, spin-offs and rip-offs. If only they had remembered the copyright notice.
  • George A. Romero’s son – George C. Romero – has written a prequel to his father’s original film called “Rise of the Living Dead”. There was a successful Indiegogo campaign in 2014, but the film has yet to be made.
  • “Night of the Living Dead” has not only been a major influence on the horror genre, but also helped usher in the zombie subgenre that’s still going strong 50 years later. Zombie movies aren’t really my thing, but I did enjoy “Shaun of the Dead”.

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