‘Night of the Living Dead‘ has been credited as giving birth to the modern horror film – it dragged the horror genre kicking and screaming out of the gothic era, and replaced superstition and fantasy with modern fears and everyday settings, giving it a more tangible terror.
On October 1, 1968 the American zombie film changed forever. I’m talking, of course, about George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film which chewed up every preconceived notion that people had about zombies and spit it back out at them….right on the big screen.
To even the average film-goer, ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ wasn’t your average low-grade B-Movie schlock piece – and it wasn’t long after its release that more discerning movie fans started hailing it as a classic.
Prior to the film’s release, zombies were generally adapted from those of Haitian mythology and were mind-controlled slaves under some sort of spell. These creatures generally existed only to serve a master’s bidding. But not Romero’s zombies. Night of the Living Dead put the genre on its head by introducing a new kind of monster, one which had an insatiable hunger for one thing and one thing only — human flesh.
Night of the Living Dead took some heat early on, due to a loophole in the MPAA film rating system which allowed tickets to be purchased by people of all ages since the film had no nudity. What it did have was a boatload of gore and explicit content…more than enough to have kids wetting their beds for weeks (maybe months) to come. But despite the controversy, the film became an instant cult classic and has even been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The film is widely believed to be a critique of issues like racism, Cold War politics and 1960’s America at large. All of those are probably true to some degree, but Night of the Living Dead makes one statement that is abundantly clear: Nobody is safe and all bets are off.
Night of the Living Dead was and continues to be a defining moment in horror history – from its documentary style filming technique to its cold blunt punch of ending, Romero created a masterpiece that gets under your skin and stays there. And faster than you can say, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” the modern zombie film, as we know it, was born.
Night of the Living Dead opens with the iconic graveyard scene where a brother and sister, Johnny and Barbara, are visiting their father’s grave. The two siblings talk about coming to the graveyard as kids and Johnny does his best to frighten his sister, specifically pointing out that a man in the distance is coming their way. Barbara isn’t impressed with her brother’s jokes, but it isn’t long before they both realize there’s something seriously wrong with the ghoulish man approaching (Hint: he’s a zombie).
Johnny gets taken down pretty quickly in an attempt to protect his sister, while she makes a run towards a nearby farmhouse. And for whatever reason, it isn’t until halfway through the film that she even realizes that she’s left her brother behind…but I digress.
Once inside the farmhouse, we meet the hero of the film, Ben (played excellently by Duane Jones). Being fully aware of the terrors that lie outside, Ben decides to hole up in the house with Barbara until a rescue party can find them. And it’s a good thing he does, because Ben literally handles everything…from fighting off zombies, to removing bodies, to boarding up every last door and window. He’s definitely a good guy to have in your end-of-the-world zombie apocalypse party.
Soon, Ben and Barbara discover five other people who have been hiding in the basement. The two groups eventually combine forces (sort of), zombies keep trying to break in and things begin to escalate quickly. All the while, nobody can really seem to agree on a plan or anything at all. But the zombies keep coming and coming…and coming.
The movie was made on a budget just shy of $150K, and many of the staff and extras on the film worked for virtually nothing at all. The film was initially shown as a Saturday afternoon matinée and it probably scarred a generation of children for life, whose parents had no idea such a horror was being unleashed on their precious kids. It wasn’t until a couple of years after its initial release that ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ really found its true audience with the midnight matinée market. It would go on to be a midnight favorite for years and would eventually start raking in way more money than anyone expected, some estimates claim that the movie has grossed over $30 million at the box office.
Despite its success, there was something else lurking in the movie that would scare the makers more than the shuffling zombies. The film originally had the title ‘Night of the Flesh Eaters‘, but when the title was changed to the familiar name it has now, the distributor (Walter Reade Organization) forgot to put a copyright notice on the final print thereby putting the film immediately into the public domain. As a result of this error, Romero has stated that he made very little money from this successful film, and it is said that it was the distributor (despite being the ones who made the mistake) who cashed in from the birth of the modern zombie film.
Fun fact: Bill Hinzman, the actor who plays the zombie that first appears in the cemetery in Night of the Living Dead went on make his own zombie films called ‘Flesh Eater‘ (aka Zombie Nosh) in the late 1980s. He pretty much reprised his original role in this B-movie shocker.
There are a lot of zombie films that I could take or leave, but I can’t think of a single reason why any true horror fan wouldn’t watch Night of the Living Dead. It’s truly a stunning piece of filmmaking that not only introduced audiences to the first ever flesh-eating zombies, but showed every last intestine-ripping minute of it. And it’s brutally awesome.
Despite a very conclusive ending for the main (human, non-zombie) protagonists in the film, Night of the Living Dead pretty much left the overall conclusion open-ended and five more ‘Dead’ films were subsequently made under Romero’s direction (not to mention a few remakes by others) and it’s easy to see why. But nothing quite leaves the same taste in your mouth as the original. I can say without hesitation, this baby is still the king of all zombie movies. If anything, it’s only gotten better with age.
Night of the Living Dead has been subjected to various revisions and re-releases over the years for motives as diverse as money or love, and it was even released as a colourised version once in 1986 and again in 1997, but nothing really matches the impact of the original.
Watch ‘Night of the Living Dead’ below:
|Get Night of the Living Dead at Amazon|
|Get the Night of the Living Dead soundtrack at Amazon|
|Get the Night of the Living Dead theatrical posters at Amazon|
|Find out more about the soundtrack at Site of the Dead|
|Watch the colourised version of Night of the Living Dead|
|Watch rare behind the scenes footage from Night of the Living Dead|
Written by: Joe Tallman