Night of the Living Dead – 1968 Version
With week five of the Month of the Living Dead, we come to the climax of not only our celebration of the undead, but of the month itself on that most appropriate of days: October 31st.
Call it Halloween, call it Day of the Innocents or Samhain if you’re of the Wiccan/Neodruid/various Pagan movements; today is the day when the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead are the thinnest, and the spirits of those long gone can walk amongst their living relatives. It’s also a time to sit and watch movies about monsters, serial killers, psychos with machetes and masks, the old Peanuts and Treehouse of Horror specials you had recorded on VHS when that was the up-and-coming format and all of the other old horror classics. And what better classic to end Month of the Living Dead with than the one that may not be the first zombie movie, but the one that brought the concept we’re familiar with into the mainstream: the 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead.
On a trip up to their father’s grave, Johnny and Barbara are attacked by a deranged, mute man with a cold, dead stare in his eyes. Separated from her brother and their car being a wreck, Barbara sought refuge in what appeared to be a farmhouse that is empty save for a horribly mangled corpse. As survivors come to make the farm house their sanctum, a growing host of people who look to be in a trance converge on the place, turning what was once a place of safety into a veritable slaughterhouse. All the while as the night wears on, news of what is unfolding trickles in until the truth behind the attackers is revealed, and hope begins to fade when the group turns on their own. Can the survivors make it through to see the dawn, or will they become victims to this night…of the living dead?!
Written and directed by then-unknown filmmaker George A. Romero and his small film company based in Pittsburg – which up until this point only had experience in filming commercials – Night of the Living Dead took over a year to make and what once had a budget of $6000 had eventually cost $114,000. What had originally started off as an attempt to cash in on a wave of bizarre horror films and cheap thrillers became an unintentional icon of social commentary and the start of one of the most popular horror film genres. Duane Jones, an educated African America, starred as the hero Ben, which in 1968 was considered ground-breaking as the rest of the cast was Caucasian. Every interaction between the characters has been scrutinized and dissected by film aficionados and zombie fanatics alike, arguing the finer points of social commentary about racism, feminism, the American family, the threat of conformity, and the breakdown of society in the threat of an unexplainable disaster. Audiences who saw the film were stunned by the violence and grim nature of the story, as well as the dark ending.
Night of the Living Dead, much like its sequel Dawn of the Dead ten years later, had a profound effect on the genre that it would create. The majority of zombie movies, novels, games, comics and shows follow many of the same rules laid out in the movie: the dead return to life by some strange means, subsist on the flesh of the living, their bites and scratches infect their victims and turn them into zombies, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain. In an effort to emulate the original, or perhaps to cash in on the formula’s success, many zombie movies that came after featured a small group of survivors holed up in a secure location, only to be overwhelmed as their cohesive collective falls apart from stress and contesting Alpha personalities.
Shot in black-and-white and featuring a cast of actors, who do a reasonable job considering the time and budget of the film, Night of the Living Dead still holds up as a tense film that would enthrall fans of classic films and horror alike. What has also helped this film maintain cult status is its availability, which was ironically unintentional. When the film was released, Romero’s company (Latent Image) and the company they had distribute it failed to properly copyright the film, which resulting in Night of the Living Dead falling into public domain. This has allowed film houses to show the film without worries of copyrights, and many home movie distributors have released their own copies, some with varying degrees of quality or special features. The original copy that I had, for example, was a $1 DVD with awful sound and blurry images. The version that I watched for the purposes of this review came in the Vintage Horror Classics two-pack entitled Zombies, which featured five other zombie movies that ranged from the spectacular classic White Zombie and the MST3K-worthy Teenage Zombies. Night of the Living Dead is also available for download, though I would recommend picking up a hard copy of the movie.
Independent comic companies have also released their own zombie titles under the label of Night of the Living Dead. Some of these feature stories based off events in the movie, while others are original stories set within the same timeframe. These stories, as one could expect, are graphic splatterfests that are not for a younger audience.
Night of the Living Dead also bears the honor of being the movie that spawned two different series: the Living Dead series of George A. Romero films, which includes Night, Dawn, Day, and Land of the Dead. This series has been rebooted in recent years (after the dismal film that was Land of the Dead, which for its bigger budget feels even cheaper than Day of the Dead) with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. I have my own thoughts on those movies, which are explained in detail in a more appropriate location.
The other series would also spawn the Return of the Living Dead series by Romero’s old friend John A. Russo. This series, which spans four movies, was more comedic and designed as a parody of the zombie genre. This was also the series that solidified the concept of zombies not being destroyed by a blow to the brains, but rather attacking humans in order to feast on brains. Russo’s series, much like Romero’s, has quite a cult following of its own.
Night of the Living Dead has also seen its share of remakes over the years. The two that have been released are the 1990 remake directed by George A. Romero alumni Tom Savini (the mastermind behind the makeup for the Living Dead movies and Friday the 13th, among others) that featured Barbara as a stronger protagonist, to the special effects gorefest and utter abomination that was the 2006 Night of the Living Dead: 3D. There are plans to release an animated prequel to Night of the Living Dead called Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D that features Joe Pilato (recognized as Rhodes in Day of the Dead and Greymon in Digimon) as Harry Cooper. There are also plans to produce yet another remake just in time for Halloween of next year, though I could find no other notes on this.
Night of the Living Dead is not only a zombie movie that gets it all right; it is a movie that hits all of the right marks in all the right moments. Even after all this time, there’s a sense of familiarity with this movie – no two characters react the same to the threat, and while the undead hordes may seem like something just on the TV, they’re also right outside the front door, ready to greet you with open arms and equally open jaws. If you have never experienced the original Night of the Living Dead, you’re missing out on a great film. Fortunately, there are many ways to see it now, and any Halloween party host who doesn’t feature this gem as part of their roster for the all-night horror marathon is not someone you want picking your movies. Whether you’re into social commentary, enjoy delving into the history of film as a hobby or profession, or if you just want a good zombie flick, there are few choices better than the original Night of the Living Dead.
And this, my friends, closes out not only the month of October, and our Month of the Living Dead special. I hope you’ve enjoyed this shuffle through the graveyard, and let me know if you enjoyed this look at the walking dead.