Released in 1968, George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is the grandfather of all modern zombie films. It might not be the first zombie film to grace the silver screen, that’s an honour reserved for Victor Halperin’s 1932 “White Zombie” which starred Bela Lugosi, but Romero’s classic is what shaped the zombies films that you know today. It is a classic masterpiece that was well ahead of it’s time, it left a lasting impression in film history – and importantly for me, I bloody love it.
Brief Plot: A small group of stranger’s board themselves up in a Pennsylvanian farmhouse to escape waves of cadavers that have come back to life from the dead to feast on the flesh of the living.
Detailed Plot: When siblings Barbara and Johnny visit their father’s grave in Pennsylvania they are attacked by undead corpses. Barbara manages to escape and takes refuge in what looks like an abandoned farmhouse. Another stranger turns up and does his best to secure the building from the walking dead. They are surprised to find 5 more people taking refuge in the house, who have so far remained hidden and safe in the loft. What little news they can get from TV and radio is grim and does not offer much hope. With fear of the walking dead mounting, and trapped in an confined and isolated location, tempers flare and emotions deteriorate but the rag tag group have to try their best to survive until help comes.
Film stuff: This 96 minute film was made with a budget of $114,000 and went on to gross over $30 million worldwide (over 263 times its budget). It gained rave reviews and garnering a cult following, it also created its own sub-genre of horror film too. Romero not only directed this film, but he had a hand in pretty much all the production roles; writing it with his friend John Russo, doing the cinematography, the editing and occasionally helping out on the camera in order to get the shots he had a vision of in his mind. Romero started working in film while at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He was making TV commercials and industrial films for his small company called The Latent Image, which was co-founded with Russo and Russell Streiner. They were getting bored and wanted to get into horror films rather than industrial and commercial ones. They contacted another industrial film firm called Hardman Associates, convincing their president and vice president (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) to make a horror film with them. A new production company was formed called Image Ten which included Romero, Russo, Streiner, Hardman, and Eastman.
They convinced 10 people to join the production team and invest $600 each in exchange for some of any potential profits, this give them a start-up budget of $6,000. Another 10 investors were brought in making $12,000, but it was still not quite enough. Eventually a total $114,000 was raised – which by todays standards is roughly $838,000.
While writing the film, Russo and Romero initially had it as a comedy-horror with a title of “Monster Flick”, but the plot of it was nothing like what NOTLD would become – in fact it had aliens in it. After lots of rewriting, taking inspiration from novels such as “I Am Legend” (Richard Matheson) and films like Herk Hervey’s “Carnival of Souls” (1962) – then a lot more rewriting; NOTLD was born. Casting and scouting for a location began.
Effects were done on the cheap, as you would expect with the budget this film had. Filmed in black and white on 35mm (due to the budget), nobody was ever the wiser about the use of Bosco Chocolate Syrup being used to for blood, or ham and animal entrails (donated by one of the cast who happened to be a butcher) used as human flesh. Nobody cared that the clothing was donated by or acquired from charity shops either. In years to come, these cheats would be adopted by all sorts of film makers because they worked well. Even the use of black and white 35 mm was seen as a genius stroke as it gave a newsreel/ guerrilla filming feel.
Casting: Judith O’Dea plays Barbara. O’Dea had worked with Hardman and Eastman before and was looking to make it further into the film industry. In this film she gives a genuinely good performance managing to carry fear and panic to the audience well. She represents the audience’s anxiety indicator; she is the gauge at which we judge how scary things are.
Duane Jones, a previously unknown stage actor, plays Ben – the stranger who takes charge and almost saves the day for the group. He does a good job of portraying fear too, but also putting it to good use for survival. When he is not trying to save the day, he does well in remaining calm and resourceful. If O’Dea was the fear gauge, Jones represented the reaction to any fear that was coming at the group – he was the fight and the flight response. The release of potential ideas and actions to save life.
Casting a black man in 1968 was very controversial, and to this day his appearance in the film is used to study symbolism and race politics of the time. When asked about casting Jones, Romero said it was nothing to do with skin colour, or the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X which was fresh in American consciousness in 1968 – it was simply because Jones was the best person for the job based on his audition. In my opinion though, there is a little connotation of the way race is handled with the way Ben is handled at the end of the film – surviving an onslaught from the living dead, only to be targeted by redneck hicks. Showing that any American is good soldier to go to war with – but when back on home soil if that person is not the same race, religion, or creed – then they are an enemy.
Hardman and Eastman made an appearance as Harry and Helen Cooper, while Hardman’s real-life daughter, Kyra Shon, played his onscreen daughter Karen too. In fact, a lot of the crew make appearances; John Russo plays one of the ghouls that reaches the farmhouse, and Romero is one of the reporters in the Washington D.C. sequence.
Legacy: NOTLD quickly became the most successful film ever produced outside the walls of a major Hollywood studio. Because the theatrical distributer, the Water Reade Organisation failed to copyright the print of the film though, American laws at the time meant that the film would enter public domain. This basically means its free to the public, and they certainly have taken that freedom up, by copying it, making spin-off’s, unofficial sequels, reboots, downloading it for free from the internet, and all sorts. Not just because it was free though, but also being a successful film in its own right – everyone wanted to make their own “Living Dead” sequels and reboots.
While it may be considered a financial success, these copyright issues also affected any profits returned to the crew and production team in the very early days too – needless to say, nobody got rich off of this.
Romero is responsible for at least 6 “Living Dead” films, including; “Dawn of the Dead”, “Day of the Dead”, “Land of the Dead”, “Diary of the Dead”, and “Survival of the Dead”. John Russo got in on the act too releasing “The Return of the Living Dead” and 4 sequels of similar titles. George Cameron Romero (son of Romero) has been planning to make “Rise of the Living Dead” for a long time but has not quite got the project going yet. Tom Savini (Visual effects maestro) famously remade the film with Tony Todd (“Candyman” (1992)) playing Ben in 1990. That’s before I even mention any of the other random versions, remakes, reboots, parodies, and spin-off’s, which include (for example): Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2” (1979), Kevin S. O’Briend’s parody “Night of the Living Bread” (1990), Ana Clavell & James Dudelon’s “Day of the Dead 2: Contagion” (2005), Jeff Broadstreet’s “Night of the Living Dead 3D” (2006), Gregg Bishopp’s “Dance of the Dead” (2008), Milan Konjevic & Milan Todorovic’s “Zone of the Dead” (2009), J.F. Kinyon’s “Night of the Loving Dead” (2013).
Aside from the all the random “Living Dead” inspired films, whether they are remakes, parodies or whatever; Romero’s original NOTLD has been updated plenty over the years. In 1986 it was giving colourisation by Hal Roach Studios. This gave the walking dead a pale green tinge to their decomposing skin. Anchor Bay gave it a colour update again in 1997, this resulted in the ghouls appearing greyer. In 2004 Legend Films had a go at colouring it too. Then in 2009, Legend Films, working with PassmoreLab made NOTLD the first film live action 2D film to be converted to 3D. Further enhancements came in in 2015 when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Film Foundation committed to giving the film a 4K digital restoration.
Since its birth, this film has been translated into at least 25 languages. In 1999 it was one of the first films added to the National Film Registry because it was deemed to fit the criteria of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
Another legacy that NOTLD created was the word “zombie“, the film never mentioning that “Z” word at all (kind of like how in “Casablanca” (1942) the line “Play it again, Sam” is never said either!). Referred to as “them” or “those things”, or occasionally “ghouls” or “flesh eaters”, this film updated and created a lot of the tropes we now associate with zombies. Previously they [zombies] had been a product of voodoo but in this they are born of different origins. It is never quite explained but lots of suggestions are thrown around, infection, virus, gas, nuclear power – or just “when there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth” (quote from “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). The fact that it was not explained made it all the scarier, but also opened the concept and allowed peoples own creativity to run rampant. Some things were for sure though, instead of being controlled by voodoo, these zombies are have their own motivation, they feed on human flesh, organs, and brains and they can usually only be stopped with a bullet to the head.
Can you imagine a world without this film and the legacy it created? Well Romero did not think anyone would like the film and kept the film in the boot of his car for a while. I for one cannot imagine a world without this film.
Wrap-up: This is one of my all-time favourite films, and one of the films responsible for my love of horror and zombies. It holds a place in my collection (and heart) that I can never envisage it losing. Although NOTLD isn’t a complex film by today’s standards it offers complexity in different ways; in the interpretation that you take from it, in what you believe to be going on, the dynamics of the characters and their interactions, the isolation, the fear, the confined space. Different people have studied different aspects of it and written all sorts of essays about it. Some people saw this film as a critique of Cold War politics and the potential fallout; some people saw the film as a look a domestic racism in America during the late 1960’s; it’s been suggested that the film might be a subtle nod to the destruction of humanity caused by the Vietnam War; maybe it’s the birth of the nuclear family; pollution on Earth and man’s over-use of resources…. It could be seen and read in all sorts of ways and that’s part of its strength. It is amusing though, because in truth the film was a case of people wanting to make a horror film on the cheap with a semi-original idea and lots of passion. What started off as a small concept with a small budget, grew into something massive and ground-breaking – something ahead of its time by a long way and something that changed horror and entertainment forever.
I loved NOTLD the first time I saw it, and it is something that I do not get tired of. I watch all the spin-off’s, unofficial sequels, homages, and parodies (etc), and none of them ever get close to the original. This film has a great cast bringing great performances. Even the actors who are untrained do a brilliant job, because they believe in what they are doing, and they are having fun. By today’s standards the violence and gore are mild. Undoubtedly the best example of how a low budget film can be a success with the right ingredients added to it, this iconic masterpiece is owed so much from other films that followed it too. If it wasn’t for this film we might not have film and TV shows like “28 Days Later” (2002), “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), “The Walking Dead” (2010 – ?), “Cabin in the Woods” (2011), “Evil Dead” (1981), “The Thing” (1982), “Braindead” (1992), “Re-Animator” (1985)… we might not even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982) video!! If something has modern zombies that are not controlled by voodoo or magic – we might not have had it without this. Even computer games owe this film credit – “Call of Duty” has a zombie mode, “Left 4 Dead”, “Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare”, “Dying Light”, “State of Decay”, “Dead Island”, “Resident Evil”… the list goes on.
Finally, another reason why I love this film… The ‘good guys’ lose.