“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” And with that line of dialogue, Night of the Living Dead entered popular cultural lexicon. To date, George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece has produced five sequels and its own thriving horror subgenre. Horror fans know the story behind the movie. Romero made his masterpiece with a small budget, on-location sites in rural Pennsylvania, and local actors and friends. Few horror films have earned the same level of attention in popular and academic writing. Even after 50 years, Romero’s low-budget, black-and-white zombie film is one of the most influential horror films in the genre.
Late in the day, Barbara and brother, Johnny, arrive at a rural cemetery to pay respects to their late father. After some teasing, a strange, shambling man attacks and kills Johnny. Barbara manages to escape to an isolated farmhouse where she stumbles across several survivors. But as more mindless ‘ghouls’ surround the house tensions escalate. Will anyone survive the ‘Night of the Living Dead’?
Night of the Living Dead Re-Invented a Monster and Kicked Off a Entire Subgenre
Zombies shambled through horror movies decades before Romero made Night of the Living Dead. And Romero was certainly not the first director to infuse the walking dead with social commentary. Two of the earliest zombie movies – Victor Halperin’s White Zombie and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie – boasted similarly big ideas. 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.
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 & Romerso, 2011).
Both movies 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 in these movies are servants evoking themes of colonialism, slavery, and anti-capitalism. Links between zombies and voodoo were a fixture in zombie movies 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.
To date, zombie movies have touched on societal anxieties ranging from environmental contagions to viral outbreaks.
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 movies have touched on societal anxieties ranging from environmental contagions to viral outbreaks. Canadian zombie movie, 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.
Night of the Living Dead a Triumph of 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 movies. According to Jon Towlson (2014), Living Dead was one of several independently produced films that marked a shift in horror film-making. Romero’s low-budget, guerrilla film-making style loosened big studios’ grip on the genre. That is, Romero’s efforts made room for unique visions in the genre. Yes, other filmmakers were certainly breaking similar ground. Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, for instance, 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.
Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, for instance, was at the very least a spiritual predecessor to Night of the Living Dead.
In addition, Night of the Living Dead pushed the boundaries of onscreen violence and taboo subject matter. A decade earlier, Hammer Films tested the public appetite for violence with full technicolor blood in Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. At the same time, Alfred 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. By the late 1960s, the restrictive Hays Code had lost its grip. As such, timing uniquely placed Night of the Living Dead as a driving transgressive force for what could be shown on screen.
Night of the Living Dead Remains 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.
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.