NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968/1990)
Back in the day when the only opportunity to see a movie was in a cinema, horror film distributors would sometimes use publicity stunts to entice the paying public through the door. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was no exception. The Walter Reade Organization stated their reputation on the scare mongering potential of George A Romero’s debut feature film by offering a $50,000.00 insurance policy against any audience member who happened to die of a heart attack whilst watching the movie. Given how terrifying the film is you wonder how sound a financial investment that was.
Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD) wasn’t just one of the most terrifying movies ever made, it also broke new ground in both the horror genre and cinema. Picking up where Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho (1960) left off, NOTLD carried forth the new attitude towards making scary cinema and upped the graphic horror bar. Writer and director Romero wrote a script that was not only classic horror, but also ruthlessly topical and frighteningly original.
A group of unrelated individuals find themselves seeking shelter and protection in an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. The bodies of the recently deceased are coming back to life to feast on human flesh and to escape the cannibalistic hordes the group shut themselves inside the homestead. Slow in movement but relentless in the pursuit of their next meal, these ‘zombies’ (though the film never refers to them as such, simply calling them ‘ghouls’) congregate around the farmhouse in increasing number. Will any of the survivors make it out of the farmhouse uneaten, and if so, what is the state of the wider world amongst the undead?
An independent movie, to make his film Romero had to first cobble together a budget of $114,000.00 from local investors and friends. The actors were, for the most part, untrained, and to save even more money Romero filmed on black and white stock film, something almost unheard of by 1968. When filming was completed distributors Columbia and AIP rejected the movie on the grounds that it was shot in this way, and that it conveyed too sombre message. Filmed at a time when the US were under heavy scrutiny for their involvement in the Vietnam war, the parallels between what the US public were seeing on their daily news reels and the slaughter on screen were not lost on studio executives.
Romero was undeterred though believing his debut feature was a future classic. Despite all the apparent impediments the film picked up a distributor and arrived in theatres on 1st October 1968, somehow placed in the Saturday matinee afternoon slot. With the MPAA rating system not coming in to force until November of that year, Romero’s movie found itself in the unique position of being able to scare adolescents and children out of their wits. Out of this NOTLD’s reputation quickly grew and the film went on to make giant inroads at the US box office. For those children who unwittingly sat themselves in front of the first in a new wave of horror films, it was an unforgettable experience.
Over fifty years later the film still has the power to shock. That one infamous scene alone, of the gathering zombie horde fighting over and munching on the body parts of the recently deceased, is more than most cinema audience members of today could stand, let alone the less desensitized children on the time. Being one of the first mainstream horror movies to feature a truly pessimistic ending, it was also shocking to many that the Hollywood, cheery ending never arrived. Viewers in the sixties were still use to having their hero win at the end of their adventure, no matter how tough the journey; they were not use to seeing them shot to death by their own side.
The bold decisions didn’t stop at the script writing phase. Romero chose an African-American actor, Duane Jones, for the lead role at a time when the country was not exactly sympathetic to the African-American cause. But Jones played the role of Ben superbly, doing just enough to push himself forward as the hero whilst at the same time acting with an understandable degree of self-preservation. The supporting cast also accounted well for themselves, given that very few had any real acting experience. A number of them performed tasks on both sides of the camera. S. William Hinzman was an assistant cameraman as well as playing the first zombie seen in the movie, while Marilyn Eastman divided her time between applying make-up to many of the players and filling the role of Helen Cooper.
The required climb in tension is acted out superbly by the cast, the actors portraying well the agonizing realisation that they may not live to get out of their rural prison. In-fighting amongst the small band of survivors also adds taut credibility. As much as we want the bickering to stop we know that if we were trapped in our local farmhouse, the story would play out in just such a way. Most viewers will be able to see themselves reflected by one of the characters on screen, whether it’s the naïve Tom, the near comatose Barbara, or the stubborn Harry Cooper, and will doubtless make a connection to one of them. This personal association ensures that when the quarrelling amongst the group reaches a crescendo, the viewer is unsettled to a degree bordering on discomfort.
Having been filmed in black and white the original NOTLD often appears to be much older than it really is, something that makes the violence on screen all the more shocking. Not having to worry about the presence of colour, Romero was able to up the horror for minimal cost. The director used chocolate sauce in place of blood and resorted to using real offal (supplied by a local butcher who was also one of the film’s investors) when two of the farmhouse residents meet a fiery end. As well as saving money such tactics helped to render the films faux documentary feel. Coupled with the films grainy transfer, the movie is inspired in making an unreal scenario appear chillingly realistic. Rather refreshingly Romero steers clear of the traditional, but trite, explanatory scene that many similar films feel the need to tack on. All we get is a throwaway shot of a newsreader offering a couple of possible explanations for the catastrophe.
Although this was not the first outing for ‘zombies’ in cinema (White Zombie (1932), I Walked With A Zombie (1941), and Plague Of The Zombies (1966)) NOTLD was the undead’s breakout picture, Romero single-handedly creating the zombie-subgenre. The classic Romero zombie, slow moving, grey skinned, dull eyed, remains a fixture in horror cinema even today. The influence of the film as a whole on the progression of horror films from 1968 onwards is also not hard to observe. It was clear that from here on in audiences would still leave the theatre happy despite not receiving a sugar-coated ending.
The final shot leaves the audience with no doubt as to Ben’s fate, and it fails to give the audience the payoff they have been waiting for. There is no triumph of good over evil. This deliberate change of tact was Romeo’s master stroke, an effort to change the direction in which horror movies progressed. It worked, the viewing public appreciating that a director finally credited them with more emotional dexterity, and many filmmakers discarded the traditional rule book in favour of a much more sceptical conclusion from 1968 onwards.
Romero’s film also proved that audiences were hungry for more shocks in their films, and more than just the cheap William Castle scare tactics of a plastic skeleton slung across the theatre ceiling. Audiences wanted it gritty, real, and up on the screen to see. Romero gave this to them. There were also no zips up the backs of Romero’s monsters and they pulled no punches when it came to taking down their quarry; it was clawing hands, gnashing teeth, and flesh torn asunder. The director found that the beauty of creating onscreen zombies was that they can look horrifyingly convincing with very little left to tip off the viewers that they were merely actors in light make-up. Likewise, the carnage they caused was fairly easy to replicate. The audience liked what they saw, and, like these new cinematic fiends, were hungry for more.
Due to the unusual way in which the film was funded, to wrangle back copyright control over his masterpiece Romero had to go to the unusual lengths of remaking his film. He did so in 1990, writing and assisting in the production of the movie. Directorial duties were handed over to horror effects maestro Tom Savini; the film could not have been in safer hands.
Despite having made a small number of movie appearances Savini’s true talent is his astonishing work with make-up and special effects. Being world renowned for his horror effects work in particular, he collaborated with Romero on Dawn Of The Dead (1978), the stunning sequel to NOTLD. The budget for the remake of NOTLD $4.2 million, considerably more than Romero had to work with. There were also numerous professional actors involved this time around, most notably the role of Ben going went to Tony Todd, the actor famous for his role as Candyman in the 1992 film of the same name. He attacks the role with aplomb, placing the performance on a par with Jones’ from the original (a part he would reprise in Zebediah De Soto’s animated sequel Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D (2010)).
The remake scored highly with both fans and critics. If it was not in the presence of such an astounding original piece the Savini’s remake would be a masterpiece in its own right. Savini added a number of excellent chair-jumpers, something that was not in the original’s steady stream of anxiety. He also gave the Barbara character a complete maker over, Patricia Tillman turning the character in to a Ripley-esque final girl who moves from frightened screamer to accomplished zombie killer.
Savini’s outstanding zombie effects were the real star though. Having studied carefully the various stages of decomposition on a dead body, mostly during his time as a war photographer on the battlefields of Vietnam, Savini presented a vast array of undead. They ranged from the recently deceased and not yet buried, to old corpses who have pulled themselves out of the grave right through the soil. Romero in writing the story for the remake also added additional scenes to the end of the film. Unfortunately these scenes add up to some fairly unsubtle commentary on the nature of man’s treatment of the undead, Romero inviting the audience to draw the obvious congruence with our treatment of animals and other people in general. The originals approach to this subject was much more restrained but no less striking.
Whilst a remake was welcomed by fans, tampering with the near perfection of the original was not quite such a good idea. A colourised version of the 1968 film was made available in 1986, the grey skinned undead given a sickly green hue. Much of the documentary feel of the black and white version was lost as a result. A new colourised version was released for home viewing in 2004 and though it was more impressively done, it still couldn’t compete with Romero’s original release, even if his choice of black and white film stock was merely a one of budgetary need.
For the thirtieth anniversary of the movie release co-writer John Russo decided to film new footage to be placed directly into the original film. The resulting fifteen minutes of new scenes adds little if anything to the story. Perhaps most baffling of all was Russo’s decision to use the original actors for the parts he replicated. No amount of make-up could hide the fact that the characters had aged thirty years with no apparent explanation.
Having created such a potentially vast palette of stories from one movie plot, Romero was aware that there were many more tales to tell from his land of the undead. NOTLD focused on just the tiniest slice of America in the grip of this horrible disaster; with his sequel Romero fully expanded the scope of his story and created one of the zombie sub-genre’s greatest movies, Dawn Of The Dead (1978). The film confirmed the viewer’s imaginings that this epidemic was a countrywide crisis.
The evolution of Romero’s story followed the darkest of possibilities when the national zombie disaster was confirmed as a global catastrophe and the end of mankind loomed large, as told in Romero’s second sequel Day Of The Dead (1985). Zombies outnumbered the surviving humans by some considerable amount by this point and of those left we follow the story of a small band of soldiers, scientists, and civilians holed up in an underground military bunker. In an attempt to solve the zombie problem, the group try to domesticate one of the captured ghouls, affectionately named Bub. The power crazed soldier in charge of the small group has other ideas, and his ensuing madness leads to the inevitable flooding of the bunker complex, and yet another escape via helicopter for our heroes. Whilst an intriguing premise, the scares of Romero’s first two films had subsided, replaced almost fully with quick bouts of action between more ponderous interludes as the nature of the zombie threat and its implications was considered by a cast of clichéd characters.
Twenty years later Romero delivered his much anticipated part four in the Dead series. With such mooted titles as ‘Dead Reckoning’ and ‘Twilight Of The Dead’, Land Of The Dead (2005) placed the human race on slightly better footing. To avoid the zombie threat survivors now lived in fortified cities, with Romero’s tale focusing on one such metropolis. The directors patented social commentary returned with some unsubtle observations on the class divide. As before, none of the characters introduced in the first three Dead movies returned and the plot followed a band of mercenaries who run errands for the rich, moving outside the safety of the city walls to retrieve all many of goodies, from rare alcohol to fine cigars. Perhaps taking some hints form Zack Snyder’s excellent 2004 remake of his own Dawn Of The Dead Romero peppered frantic action set pieces throughout Land Of The Dead, and upped the scare quotient considerably from 1985’s Day. Despite this, the climatic zombie chaos had a huge feeling of inevitable the fourth time around. What seemed fresh and exciting in Night and Dawn had now taken on an air of cliché, the death knell of all on-screen scares.
Seeking a fresh approach, Romero decided to shoot his next Dead movie from a new perspective in terms of both narrative and production. The director chose to rewind his own story back to the initial zombie outbreak and follow a group of budding film students as they find themselves caught up in the epidemic. Borrowing from The Blair Witch Project (1999) Romero shot the film solely from the characters point of view, utilising footage captured by the film students themselves interspersed with the security camera recordings and CCTV interludes. Though not exactly a ground breaking cinematic technique, Diary of the Dead (2008) had more than enough uniqueness to its style to blow a gust of reinvigoration into a series that was in danger of becoming stale.
Romero handled well the tricky task of making the continued filming by the students believable, and also crafted some solid scares utilising the camera’s obvious limitations. The story told by Diary meandered somewhat though, in line with the characters almost random traipse across the American countryside. Romero also had to contend with two other films released almost at the same time as Diary of the Dead that utilised the exact same story telling conceit. Rec (2007) and The Zombie Diaries (2008) both presented their zombie stories in the found-footage style, using only footage captured on handheld, character wielded cameras.
In 2010 Romero had one more crack of the zombie whip with the release of Survival of the Dead (2010). The story presented yet another intriguing premise, an island off of the coast of Delaware that has become a safe haven for those looking to escape the zombie hordes. The island is under the control of two families who have differing beliefs when it comes to the undead contagion. One family believe all zombies should be killed no matter what, whilst the other clan believe that undead loved ones should be held captive until a cure can be found.
While Romero crafted his usual solid zombie frights the thrust of the story on the sixth Dead outing was the on-going dispute between the two families. Rather predictably the eventual full scale skirmish between the two clans causes another climax packed with munching mayhem. Sadly, the chomping and chewing had by now become stale.
Despite showing true talent as a director, Romero never fully broke away from his Dead franchise. The films he made outside of his zombie pictures failed to make a dent at the box office, and it took years before the qualities of The Crazies (1973), Martin (1978), and Knightriders (1981) were fully appreciated. The writer and director passed away in 2017 aged 77.
Even before his passing though, Romero’s legacy was fully secured. Perhaps the biggest tribute arrived in 2010 when the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comicbook series arrived on television screens. So much of what made the show a global hit had its roots in Romero’s debut film, so much so, The Walking Dead could easily be a companion piece to NOTLD, the same undead disaster, just following different characters in a different part of the country.
Like the stand out pieces of art that preceded NOTLD and introduced horror fans to a new fictional fiends to run from, from Bram Stroker’s Dracula to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Romero’s film is a landmark work and masterpiece also. The original outing for the zombie hordes in mainstream cinema may still be their best outing yet. It may also have coolest title for a film held by most film critics as a must-see classic; what more can one say than that.
See also Dawn Of The Dead (1978, 2004), Day Of The Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2010), Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D (2010)