Night of the Living Dead (1968) isn’t the best zombie movie ever.
Just the most important.
Before the arrival of George Romero’s black-and-white cult classic a zombie was an unfortunate inhabitant of some Caribbean isle who had been cursed by a voodoo priest, died, and been resurrected as a mindless slave.
That was the image perpetuated by popular movies like I Walked with a Zombie (1943). (Modern pharmacologists say there’s a factual basis to traditional zombie lore. Using psychotropic drugs derived from local plants and animals, voodoo priests can send their victims into a death-like coma, later “resurrecting” them. Continued doping keeps these unfortunates confused and cooperative.)
But Romero’s zombies were something else entirely.
The modern zombies introduced by Night of the Living Dead were dead people brought back to life through some mysterious process (the film suggests a space probe carried a virus back to Earth) and driven to mindlessly feed on the living.
Any person who dies from any cause will be resurrected in a few hours as one of these ghouls (that’s what Romero called them...he didn’t refer to them as “zombies” until the 1979 release of a sequel, Dawn of the Dead). Once up and lurching they join in the killing frenzy.
The ghouls are slow moving and clumsy and can be easily outrun. To permanently put one down requires destroying the brain with a bullet or a hard blow to the head. Damage elsewhere — even a shotgun blast to the heart — has no effect.
The real danger comes when these monsters, attracted by living humans, form a horde.
That’s the principal situation offered by Night of the Living Dead: A handful of humans find themselves surrounded in a remote farmhouse. Outside are the milling ghouls; inside the survivors fight among themselves.
Filmed for only $114,000, Night... was an attempt by Romero to stretch his creative muscles after several years of making TV commercials in Pittsburgh PA. It began as a space alien yarn and only became the mother of all zombie movies in Romero’s third draft of the script.
That Romero had only limited resources in the end became a strength. Many critics have commented on how the hand-held b&w cinematography mimicked the look of documentaries, thus giving the fantastic premise a grounding in visual realism.
And then there was Romero’s audacious juggling of styles. Night is simultaneously terrifying and weirdly funny.
And for a simple horror film the picture has been credited with a world of subtext. Many saw in the mindless, wandering zombies a commentary on modern man (a theme advanced a decade later in Dawn of the Dead when the zombies instinctively gather outside a shopping mall because it once played such a large part in their lives).
Some saw a critique on race. The film’s leading man, the late Duane Jones, was African American...this was well before the rise of blaxploitation and having a black man (who wasn’t Sidney Poitier) as your movie’s hero was considered quite daring. Romero explained that Jones simply gave the best audition and so got the biggest role.
The film also drew brickbats for its grotesque violence (which today looks pretty tame). The review in Variety, the show business newspaper, was scathing:
"Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In mere 90 minutes this horror film casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and exhibitors who book the picture, as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism."
Night originally played around the country in matinees. It was only after it had been making the rounds for a year that it was discovered by hard-core horror audiences and turned into a midnight cult phenomenon.
It went on to make $18 million internationally.
Even bigger than its financial success was its influence on dozens of international filmmakers. In the intervening 45 years Romero’s vision (he has gone on to make five sequels) has set the template for literally hundreds of zombie movies and computer games.
Check out Bob's general introduction to Zombiemania!
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.