Editor’s Note: Night Of The Living Dead first premiered October 1st, 1968 at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh. Three days later, the film would reach the masses as a Saturday afternoon matinée, shocking outraged parents nationwide. Many films today have early premieres at festivals, but it isn’t until the viewing public has a chance to take ownership of a movie for themselves that it becomes a cultural phenomenon. Today, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of George A. Romero’s classic Night of The Living Dead and it’s impact the world over.
One of my favorite things to do is to make people feel really, really old by reminding them how much time has passed since a cultural artifact. So here goes: when Night Of The Living Dead first graced underground cinema the Beatles were still together, the Germanys were still apart, and the internet was still a guarded military secret deep in some American research bunker. Nixon was elected in the U.S. for the first time, people across the world were more or less convinced they would eventually die in a nuclear holocaust. Fear and uncertainty was thrumming through the global collective unconsciousness like low-grade earthquake.
Fifty years later, it’s still plausible that everyone will die screaming in nuclear hellfire, and it’s time to take a look back on the legacy of the monochrome horror George A. Romero unleashed on us all, five decades ago. It’s a film marked specifically by it’s contradictions, best examined as a series of opposing binaries that reveal a landmark expression of American cinema.
“The Library of Congress has designated [Night of The Living Dead] as “Culturally Significant”, and rightfully so.”
Night Of The Living Dead was a labor of love, and the brainchild of a trio of Pittsburgh filmmakers. George Romero, John Russo, and Russell Streiner were friends whose day jobs involved making local commercials. This was, understandably, mind-numbingly boring. But they also shared an interest in underground cinema, especially horror, and eventually pitched a wild and crazy concept to local film company, Hardman Associates. From some reason, they bought it! The new production company, Image Ten, raised enough money for a $6000 budget which proved to be woefully inadequate, when the final budget was tallied at roughly $114,000. Surely this pleased no one, but the film would go on to gross Thirty Million Dollars.
It can be a little difficult to discern how influential it’s been, given the sheer amount of zombie horror content available today. There are films galore, including several more by Romero himself. There are even annual live events dedicated to the zombie horde. I once watched a group of LARPing zombies in Toronto try to shake a streetcar full of normal, unsuspecting people. None of this would have happened had Night Of The Living Dead never existed. The Library of Congress has designated it as “culturally significant”, and rightfully so. The designation recognizes that the zombie apocalypse fascination embedded into human culture would never have taken hold without the film.
In 1968, when Night Of The Living Dead was made, the American copyright regime required that a film display an official copyright notice in the actual print of the film. When the Image Ten team made the film, it was originally called Night Of The Flesh Eaters (also a badass title, it must be noted). The copyright notice was placed on the title frame of the print.
Initially there was some trouble finding a distributor, par for the course when it came to cinematic gore in the 1960s. Image Ten managed to broker a deal with the Walter Reade Organization, who agreed to distribute the film without censoring it. However, they requested that the name Night Of The Flesh Eaters be changed to Night Of The Living Dead, since the “Flesh Eaters” name had already been used in 1964’s The Flesh Eaters. When the Walter Reade Organization changed the name, however, they neglected to replace the copyright notice on the title frame.
As such, the film no longer carried a copyright and became part of the public domain. You can freely find it just about anywhere on the internet, and you can download it without fear of censure. It’s been released 15 times on VHS, 5 times on Blu-Ray, and a stunning 121 times on DVD. You can get it on the Internet Archive, and it’s actually that site’s most-downloaded film – three million downloads strong. Hell, you can watch it here:
Don’t get me wrong, I love old horror flicks, especially if they have Bela Lugosi or Vincent Price in them. Before 1968 though, there was something fundamentally goofy at the heart of horror cinema. It was, in essence, a form of escapism. The monsters coming for you in the early days of horror were all rubber. Whether it was a mask or a suit, the creatures from the deep or the awful monsters from beyond the stars were limited in what they could portray by the materials on hand. Even when “zombies” were used as the main monster in a movie, their essential horror took a backseat to their surroundings.
Horror was something that took place Somewhere Else. This is especially true of any zombie film that came before Night Of The Living Dead. Zombies were creatures of voodoo, the inhabitants of tropical islands. White Zombie took place on Haiti; Revolt Of The Zombies took place in Cambodia. The violence and death took place away from the American heartland and as such, they took on more forms of adventure than straight horror.
Night Of The Living Dead changed that. The zombies here weren’t horrors summoned by an evil voodoo priest; there was, in fact, no explanation for why the dead were refusing to lie down and stay decently dead. They weren’t haunting a far-off remote island, either. The dead were infesting mainland America, and they were bringing the violence right into the cinemas of American viewers.
“Horror was something that took place “Somewhere Else” [but] Night Of The Living Dead changed that […] The dead were infesting mainland America”
A lot has been made about this, of course. 1968 was a year of turmoil and upheaval in America. The Vietnam War was grinding on, becoming more unpopular with Americans by the day. One aspect of it’s unpopularity that has been mentioned continually is the way that television drove a message home to it’s viewers. Previous wars had relied on radio and the newspaper to report casualties and setbacks. The American citizen was insulated from war-violence and casualties by the delay and structure of how it was reported. Television, however, brought the violence home, into the cafes, bars, and living rooms of regular citizens. It became impossible to ignore the death toll brought by the nightly news, and the images of flag-draped coffins that accompanied every single report.
Night Of The Living Dead reflected how many people felt about the war and it’s impact on their own lives. Before, horror was something that happened someone else. Now, it was stalking American streets, creeping up to American farmhouses. These zombies were shambling through the ordinary and the horrifying idea behind that fact sharply divided how people felt about the film.
Some, like Roger Ebert, thoroughly enjoyed it. Although, he questioned it’s rating and the effect it had on bringing kids into the theatre to watch it. Others, like Variety, questioned the social worth of the film and the filmmakers, going so far as to state that it was an “unrelieved orgy of sadism” and that it should be used as the outer limits for the governments definitions of the “violence of pornography.” Like the Vietnam War itself, the response to Night Of The Living Dead was indicative of an uneasy nation.
As it turns out, however, it wasn’t that fresh. Romero admitted after the fact that the inspiration for Night Of The Living Dead lay in a short novel whose film adaptation has been attempted without complete success a number of times: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. The book concerns Robert Neville, a Last-Man-On-Earth type protagonist who is seemingly the sole survivor of a plague of vampires. It’s a harrowing little book with an ending that has to be read to be fully grasped. Matheson wrote a lot of horror fiction, but he never topped I Am Legend. Fittingly, no one has ever filmed a perfect adaptation of the book.
1964’s The Last Man On Earth (starring Vincent Price) came close. It got the ending mostly right, and hit a lot of the plot points that subsequent iterations failed to. Interestingly, in conjunction with the book’s influence on Night Of The Living Dead, the vampires were much more zombie-like. The book’s vampires are fast, agile, and cunning The monsters in The Last Man On Earth are much slower, almost vapid in their own way.
“Before, horror was something that happened to someone else. Now, it was stalking American streets, creeping up to American farmhouses.”
1971’s The Omega Man (starring Charlton Heston) sets everything after a biological war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The vampires are now mutants, there are other survivors, and the movie is chock full of cheesy one-liners. 2007’s I Am Legend is a Will Smith action movie, and it’s relative worth depends on two things: whether you like Will Smith action movies, and whether or not you think changing the ending of a movie because a focus group got bummed out is an act of legitimate film-making.
Night Of The Living Dead is another movie that takes it’s cues from I Am Legend. In a 2008 interview with Cinema Blend, Romero admits to pretty much nicking the idea wholesale: “I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. If you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning. Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead?”
What if, indeed?
I’m sure it goes without saying that in 1968, having a black leading actor was rather revolutionary. Only five years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. racial strife was on the front page of the American psyche. Not that anything has really changed, of course, but at the time representation wasn’t nearly as widespread as it is now. Sure, Sydney Poitier had torn up 1967 with three big movies, including the Best Picture winner In The Heat Of The Night, but Hollywood was not exactly clamoring to cast strong black men in leading roles.
Duane Jones, a stage actor and a professor of English Literature, is a calm, assured presence on screen in Night Of The Living Dead. While the other characters in the film are screaming mad or just plain mad, Jones’ Ben is the only thing holding everyone together. Romero, of course, downplayed the role of race in the film. His repeated claim was that Jones simply “gave the best audition”, and there’s certainly something to that. Still, making the calm, capable hero a black man who steps up to save a cast that was otherwise entirely white was a step beyond where most contemporary filmmakers were willing to go. Plus, the fact that Ben is shot by a bunch of rednecks at the end in an abrupt tragedy shouldn’t go unnoticed. Oh- Spoiler Alert?
“They’re coming to get you, and they always will be.”
We’ve been living with the zombie apocalypse for half a century now. In that time, zombie culture has exploded, covering all of horror with it’s quivering viscera. What it will look like in another fifty years is anyone’s guess, but never forget: They’re coming to get you, and they always will be.