Night of the Living Dead: Romero’s Masterpiece Celebrates 50 Years

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

And with that line of dialogue, Night of the Living Dead  entered popular cultural lexicon. To date, Romero’s zombie masterpiece has produced five sequels and its own thriving horror subgenre. Earlier in 2018, horror collectors rejoiced with the Criterion Collection release of Night of the Living Dead on Blu-Ray. Even after 50 years, George A. Romero’s low-budget, black-and-white zombie film is one of the most influential horror films in the genre.

Horror fans know the story behind the film. Romero made his masterpiece with a small budget, on-location sites in rural Pennsylvania, and local actors and friends. Few horror films have received the same level of attention in academic writing. Romero’s landmark film debut has been interpreted as a commentary on a range of social issues. For example, several essays have examined the film as a commentary race relations. Other academic works see the movie as a window into civil breakdown. Conversely, other critics describe Night of the Living Dead asan apocalyptic narrative on the Cold War (Dillard, 1987; Poole, 2011; Towlson, 2014).

Synopsis

For all the analyses it has inspired, the premise of Night of the Living Dead is surprisingly simple. At the film’s opening, Barbara and brother, Johnny, visit a rural cemetery to visit their father’s. After some teasing, Johnny is killed by a zombie. Barbara manages to escape to an isolated farmhouse. She stumbles across several survivors including Ben, a young couple, Tom and Judy, and an older married couple with a young daughter who has been bitten. Tensions escalate between Ben and Harry as more zombies surround the farmhouse. At the film’s conclusion, sole survivor Ben,is killed by a vigilante mob that mistakes him for the ‘living dead’.

A Horror Subgenre with a Long History

Of course, Romero’s Living Dead was not the first  film to infuse the walking dead with 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 considered 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.

Both films established much of the early zombie mythology in the horror genre. In doing so, they borrowed and misrepresented religious traditions from Haitian culture and the practice of voodoo or ‘Vodou’ (Davis, 1988). In addition, White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie also both set their stories on sugar cane plantations. Specifically, the undead are 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.

Night of the Living Dead Steers Zombie Mythology in New Directions

Arguably, Romero’s major contribution to horror was how he adapted the zombie narrative in Night of the Living Dead. First, Romero dropped the Voodoo origins established decades earlier. Interestingly, Romero never uses the word zombie in Living Dead. In contrast, Romero’s ‘ghouls’ are cannibals whose bite transforms others into the “living dead”. Random news broadcasts speculate that the ‘outbreak’ may be the result of radiation from a space probe returning from Venus. Yet Romero never offers any explicit explanation.

In this respect, Romero created a movie monster that acts as a blank template. As compared to other cinematic monsters, filmmakers have since used the zombie narrative to explore a range of social issues. To date, zombie films films have touched on societal anxieties ranging from environmental contagions to viral outbreaks. Canadian zombie film, Pontypool even 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 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, Night of the Living Dead ushered in a new way of making horror films. Jon Towlson (2014) notes that Living Dead was one of several independently produced films that marked a shift in horror film-making. To some extent, Romero loosened the grip on the genre previously held by big studios like Universal Pictures and Hammer Film Productions.

That is, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was low-budget, guerrilla film-making at its finest. Simply put, his movie made more room in the genre for unique visions. Other filmmakers were certainly breaking similar ground. Certainly, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) was at the very least a spiritual predecessor to Night of the Living Dead. Yet while Living Dead was a low-budget effort it was also box office success. To some extent, Romero paved the way for 1970’s horror classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween.

Night of the Living Dead Was Boundary-Pushing Horror

In addition, Night of the Living Dead pushed the boundaries of onscreen violence and taboo subject matter. Other filmmakers were also experimenting in the 1960’s with subject matter and representations of violence. For instance, Hammer Films tested the public appetite for violence a decade earlier with full technicolor blood in Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. At the same timeAlfred Hitchcock shocked audiences with the lurid sexual content and shocking murders in Psycho. Similarly, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast laid the foundations for the splatter films that circulated grindhouse cinemas in the 1970’s.

As the restrictive Hays Code collapsed over the 1960’s, even Hollywood prestige films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were introducing audiences to previously unseen explicit violence. According to Poole (2011), American film-goers were becoming increasingly comfortable with explicit gore in part due graphic photographic imagery from the Vietnam War.

Timing uniquely placed Night of the Living Dead 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, Romero pushed boundaries with Living Dead in ways not previously attempted by studio horror films.

Essential Viewing for Horror Fans

After 50 years, Night of the Living Dead remains one of the best films in the genre. Romero’s legacy is reflected by the wave of zombie films, shows, and collectibles that have surfaced in the last decade. The film remains an essential watch for horror fans, having lost none of its ability to shock. Fortunately, 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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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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