by Thomas Conlan
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
Walter Reade Organization
The father of the modern day zombie genre is without a doubt, George A. Romero. Any major depiction of the undead flesh eaters, can be linked back to the narrative monsters in his feature debut, Night of the Living Dead. This infection on cinematic horror went on for decades through Romero’s Dead films, and although the iconic director has passed in 2017, his series continues to be built upon with Day of the Dead: Bloodline being released earlier this year. Reflecting back on the Night of the Living Dead, what truly made this 1968 black and white classic such a prominent piece of horror history?
Night of the Living Dead takes place in West Virginia, as we open with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visiting their father’s grave after a long journey. The siblings are attacked by a man stumbling through the graves and Johnny is killed as a result. In a panic, Barbara is chased to a nearby farmhouse, where she soon encounters Ben (Duane Jones), the story’s protagonist. Finding a radio, the duo are told that the current epidemic is believed to be caused by the radiation of an exploding space probe. The monsters are discovered to be the recently deceased who have risen to feast upon the flesh of the living. The two survivors are met by a small group of people and an injured child who were taking shelter in the cellar and as the night darkens, the living find themselves at odds with each other while the undead ghouls begin to gather in number. Fear cripples the patriarchal head of the group from the cellar, who insists that they should barricade themselves. The strongest opinion comes from Ben, who devises a plan to refuel his truck and take everyone to the nearest rescue station, as advised by the radio newscaster. With the living dead rising from their graves, will humanity take their place, or survive to see the coming dawn?
Shot over a period of 30 days with a budget of $114,000, Night of the Living Dead would eventually make back an estimated $30 million; making it one of the most successful independent films made. As it was one of the last movies to be released in the United States before the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system rating, it benefitted from a number of ticket sales to come from kids and teenagers seeing the undead fest in theatres. Interestingly enough, it found its success despite an error by the distributor to place any indication of copyright on the final film’s prints, it would enter into public domain. Allowing anyone to present Romero’s work, free of charge through copyright law.
Watching the film through a historic lense, there are interesting social themes to take note of. Primarily is the controversial casting of the late Duane Jones. In 1968, due to high racial tensions in the United States, it was considered a risk for Romero to cast an African American actor as the lead in his film. He would intentionally avoid altering the character of Ben, as it was originally written with a Caucasian character in mind. Deemed a complete accident in an interview, Romero explained his casting through an unbiased lense of Jones’ talented acting. Revolutionary for it’s time, Jones’ character would possess the strength of an intelligent, capable survivor; who not only sought to fight for himself, but fight for the powerless and weak within their group. Ben exhibited traits of humanity which can be appreciated as much now as it was then; having the film release just after the assassination of the great Martin Luther King.
Why is Night of the Living Dead such an important film to add to your own list of favourites? We have just recently passed the era of zombie culture, found in all forms of media. Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil, The Walking Dead, even Zombie Walks held in cities all over North America, the rise of this cultural apocalypse has been thanks to the phenomena which was George A. Romero’s, The Night of the Living Dead. The father of a genre which continues to live on.