Romero’s Opus: Night of the Living Dead

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

And with that line of dialogue, Night of the Living Dead (NotLD) (1968) entered the cultural lexicon, producing five sequels and an entire subgenre within horror that’s still thriving. Today, horror collectors can rejoice with the Criterion Collection release of the 4K digital restoration of NotLD on Blu-Ray. Even after nearly 50 years, George A. Romero’s low-budget, black-and-white zombie film is arguably one of the most influential horror films in the genre.

Horror fans and film buffs alike are familiar with the story behind the film – the small budget, the on-location sites in rural Pennsylvania, and the local actors and director’s friends who rounded out the cast. Few horror films have received the same level of attention in academic writing. Romero’s feature film debut has been analyzed and interpreted as a commentary on race relations, a window into civil breakdown, and an apocalyptic narrative on Cold War anxieties, among others (Dillard, 1987; Poole, 2011; Towlson, 2014).

Synopsis

For all the analyses and cultural readings it has inspired, the premise of NotLD is surprisingly simple. At the film’s opening, Barbara and her brother, Johnny, drive into a rural cemetery in Pennsylvania to pay respects to their deceased father. After some teasing, Johnny is attacked and killed by a zombie. Barbara manages to escape to an isolated farmhouse where she finds several other survivors including Ben, a young couple, Tom and Judy, and Harry and Helen Cooper, a older married couple with a young daughter who has been bitten a zombie. Tensions escalate between Ben and Harry as more zombies begin to surround the farmhouse. At the film’s bleak conclusion, Ben, the sole survivor of the nighttime siege, is shot and killed by a vigilante mob that mistakes him for the ‘living dead’.

A Horror Subgenre with a Long History

Romero’s NotLD was not the first zombie film nor was it the first film to infuse the walking dead with a social commentary. Two of the earliest films to feature a zombie narrative were Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943). While it has a mixed-to-negative critical legacy, the Bela Lugosi-vehicle, White Zombie, is credited as the first true feature-length zombie film (Vuckovic & Romero, 2011). A decade late director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton released I Walked with a Zombie for RKO Pictures, a film that has garnered a much more positive critical legacy.

Both films established much of the early zombie mythology in the horror genre, borrowing and misrepresenting religious traditions from Haitian culture and the practice of voodoo or ‘Vodou’ (Davis, 1988). White Zombieand I Walked With a Zombie also both set their stories on sugar cane plantations where the undead are used as servants evoking themes of colonialism, slavery, and anti-capitalism. Links between zombies and voodoo were a fixture in zombie films right up until Hammer Films released Plague of the Zombies in 1967.

Romero Steers Zombie Mythology in New Directions

One of Romero’s major, and most noted contributions, to the horror genre were the changes to the zombie narrative he introduced in NotLD. Dropping the Voodoo origins established decades earlier, Romero’s zombies (the word zombie is never actually mentioned in NotLD) are cannibals whose bite transforms others into the “living dead”. While a random news broadcast in the the film speculates that the ‘outbreak’ may be the result of radiation from a space probe returning from Venus, Romero never offers any explicit explanation.

In this respect, Romero has created a movie monster that acts as a blank template, more so than other cinematic monsters, for future filmmakers to project any range of causes and social commentary. Subsequent films have used the zombie narrative to explore societal anxieties ranging from environmental contagions to viral outbreaks. Canadian zombie film, Pontypool (2009) even cleverly suggests that patterns of speech ‘infect’ listeners, using zombies as a metaphor for the increasing social decay and/or laziness in our language.

While minor variations to the visual and narrative elements of the zombie have cropped up occasionally – Dan O’Bannon introduced the brain-eating zombie in Return of the Living Dead(1985) and Danny Boyle gave us “fast” zombies in 28 Days Later (2002) – Romero’s cinematic vision of the zombie has remained largely unchanged for 50 years.

Indie, DIY Horror Film-Making

In addition to changing the zombie narrative, Romero’s NotLD (1968) played a role in ushering in a new way of making horror films. Jon Towlson (2014) notes that NotLD was one of several independently produced films that marked a shift way from the studio horror universe of Universal Pictures and Hammer Studios that had previously dominated the horror genre.

Romero’s NoTLD was pure low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking at its finest, allowing more room in the genre for unique visions. Other filmmakers were certainly breaking similar ground; Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) was at the very least a spiritual predecessor to NotLD. Yet while NotLD was a low-budget effort it was a box office success and, to some extent, one can make the case for Romero paving the way for future filmmakers like Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter to make film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, respectively.

Boundary-Pushing Horror

Romero’s NotLD is also a benchmark horror film for pushing boundaries at the time for onscreen violence and taboo subject matter. Other filmmakers were pushing boundaries in the 1960s with both their subject matter and visual representations of violence. Hammer Films were shocking audiences a decade earlier with full technicolor blood in their versions of Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, while Alfred Hitchcock shocked audiences with the lurid sexual content and shocking murders in Psycho (1960). Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963), with its low-budget blood and gore, laid the foundations for the splatter films that would later find homes in grindhouse cinemas in the 1970s.

As the restrictive regulations of the Hays Code slowly collapsed over the 1960s, even Hollywood prestige films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) were introducing audiences to more explicit violence than what previous filmgoers had experienced. Poole (2011) has attributed some of American filmgoers increased comfort with explicit gore to the graphic real photographic imagery from the Vietnam War that journalists were channeling into American living rooms on the nightly news.

Timing and audience reactions uniquely placed NotLD, along with these other films, as a driving transgressive force in what could be shown on film screens. From its characterization of the living dead as cannibals to casting a Black protagonist (shot and killed at the film’s conclusion by a rural White mob), Romero pushed boundaries with NotLD in ways not attempted by studio horror films of the past.

Essential Viewing for Horror Fans

After nearly 50 years, Night of the Living Dead (1968) remains one of the best horror films committed to the screen. Look no further than the wave of zombie films, television shows, and collectibles that have surfaced in the last decade or so as evidence of Romero’s legacy. The film still remains an essential watch for horror fans, having lost none of its ability to shock, and the Criterion Collection release will give old fans and new fans alike the best viewing experience.

References

Davis, W. (1988). Passage of darkness: The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie. Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina Press.

Dillard, R.H.W. (1987). Night of the Living Dead: It’s not just like a wind that’s passing through. In G. Waller (Ed.), American Horrors: Essay on the Modern American Horror Film (pp. 14-29). University of Chicago Press.

Poole, W.S. (2011). Monsters in America: Our historical obsession with the hideous and the haunting. Baylor University Press.

Towlson, J. (2014). Subversive horror cinema: Countercultural messages of films from Frankenstein to the present. McFarland Publishing.

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Author: Andrew Welsh

I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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