George A. Romero was, quite simply, the man.
Now, don’t get me wrong: no one is perfect, and GAR was far from without fault, as many of us can attest to from seeing several of his movies, both zombie-centric and otherwise. Yes, he does have many non-zombie films under his belt, in case you weren’t aware – he directed 15 feature films since his first, “Night of the Living Dead,” in 1968, and only six of them have been about zombies (seven if you count “The Crazies,” as some fans do).
But what the man dubbed as the “Grandfather of Zombies” did right as a director, writer, and producer of films focused on the undead far outweighs any shortcomings his stories may have. And it all started for him in the late 1960s with his first feature film, when he teamed up with John Russo to create the movie that would eventually become the template for all modern zombie films, “Night of the Living Dead.”
Before I speak about my thoughts on the actual movie itself, I’d like to share with you, dear reader, some of the back-story surrounding this now-legend of a movie. The behind-the-scenes tales of “Night’s” road through production and post-release tribulations feels somewhat akin to a soap opera. Tired of simply making commercials and segments for TV shows, Romero teamed up with Russo and eight other friends to form Image Ten Productions, with the intent of making the “next great horror film.” Each member of the fledgling production company thought that, if they each pitched in $600, the $6,000 total would be enough for them to make the movie they wanted. They quickly discovered that they would need more money and resources, so working together they raised $114,000, which was considered a small budget even by the standards of the time.
So the team cut corners where they could. There were no “professional” costumes; actors wore their own clothes or whatever they could buy at a local Goodwill store. The blood on the actors and the zombies (called “ghouls” at the time, more on this below) was simply chocolate syrup. The makeup applied to the monsters was basic, at best, and largely consisted of simply giving many of the extras “raccoon eyes.” The flesh being eaten was simply roasted meat and entrails that were donated by one of the actors, who also happened to own a chain of butcher shops. Romero and company shot the movie using low-grade, 35mm black-and-white film, although this ended up being a blessing in disguise, as most critics and viewers hailed the gritty look as adding realism to the tale.
Once the movie was complete, the team had trouble securing a film studio to distribute the film, as it was termed too “dark” and “gruesome.” Two different studios, Columbia and American International Pictures, asked that Image Ten re-edit the movie, including shooting a “happier” ending, requests to which the team stoutly refused. Finally, the Walter Reade Organization agreed to show the film, uncensored, but they had one small request regarding the title of the film. You see, “Night of the Living Dead” was originally titled “Night of the Flesh-Eaters” by Romero and his Image Ten crew. As the film was preparing for release, the distribution company went to copyright the name of the film, when they found out that there was (somehow!) already a copyrighted film by that name. So, a “bigwig” at the distribution company encouraged Romero and Russo to change the name to “Night of the Living Dead” to avoid copyright issues, and also because the bigwig thought it sounded scarier. So, change the name they did…except Walter-Reade forgot to copyright the title, making it a “public domain” movie upon its release. And that, boys and girls, is why seemingly anyone and everyone can remake “Night,” and any old video company can put out a version on DVD, whether it’s remastered, colorized, 2-D, 3-D, “collector’s edition,” and the like. At last count, there were 22 different versions of the original movie on DVD, according to IMDb.com. Heck, I’m thinking of putting my own version of the movie out, starring hand puppets! (Warning: the previous sentence is mostly fictitious and entirely ridiculous.)
And so, on October 1, 1968, “Night of the Living Dead” was released to theaters. It was shown as a Saturday-afternoon matinee, as was the custom for horror films at the time. Since the MPAA had not yet put any kind of movie ratings system in place, any person of any age could go and see the movie. On his website, Roger Ebert recalls seeing the movie on its opening weekend with people of all ages in the theater with him: “The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying… It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.”
I know this is a lot of detailed background information, probably more than you’ll get for any other movie in this book, but “Night of the Living Dead” holds a special place in my heart, as it does for many zombie fans. This is the first zombie movie I ever “seriously” watched: as a young man in my late teens, I obviously wasn’t watching it as a new release, but I certainly was able to appreciate what the movie was trying to say to its audience on more than one level. I think that’s why it resonated with so many other fans as well, and truly has inspired a whole genre of movies, books, games, and stories, all revolving around the reanimated corpses of dead humans who have risen from the grave and are “coming to get you, Barbara!”
The movie sports a great opening sequence, with Johnny and Barbara’s car ride really showing the isolation of the surrounding area and the remote nature of the cemetery they were headed to visit. Rusell Streiner and Judith O’Dea, the actors playing the brother and sister duo, have a fun (and believable) back-and-forth banter that makes the viewer feel like they are really hearing two adult siblings trading verbal spars. In Jason Paul Collum’s book “Assault of the Killer B’s,” O’Dea recalls how much of the dialogue in the movie was actually improvised by the actors themselves: “I don’t know if there was an actual working script! We would go over what basically had to be done, then just did it the way we each felt it should be done.”
The viewer can quickly and easily see that Johnny is made out to be cold, uncaring, and agnostic. Is that why he was the first to be killed? I love the irony of the “they’re coming to get you” scene, and I have to believe that the iconic phrase that Johnny speaks immediately before the first undead attack, “they’re coming to get you, Barbara,” is one of the most well-quoted lines in horror movie history.
As I mentioned before, no movie is perfect, and some of the inconsistencies of “Night of the Living Dead” begin to be seen in these opening scenes. Why doesn’t the first zombie eat Johnny after he falls and hits his head? Instead of eating the flesh of the living as the zombies later in the movie do so ravenously, this reanimated corpse instead immediately goes after Barbara. Also, he does a fair amount of running while chasing after our girl and even uses a stone to break the window of Johnny’s car in an attempt to reach Barbara. My only thought here is that, clearly, the definition of these creatures and the way they move and think (or lack of skills thereof) was still being established. Indeed, not only do other zombies use tools (rocks, wooden beams, etc.) to smash car headlights, the creatures also seem very afraid of fire, and later in the movie , he undead are shown eating the bark off of a tree! Clearly, Romero and company wanted to show the “ravenous” nature of the creatures, but were still working on exactly what kind of parameters their creations were going to operate under.
Throughout the entire film, we can see that there is a very “deliberate” style of camera work: watching minute details carefully, following where characters look, and just generally allowing the viewer to really pay attention to the “small things.” I think what a lot of people took away from this movie after seeing it is that Romero is, at his core, simply a great film-maker. There are a lot of these little details in the movie that, upon re-watching the film, the average viewer (myself included) finds himself or herself catching more and more. A prime example of this can be found when Romero uses the television and radio newscasts to relay information to the characters that may seem, at the time, fairly inconsequential. There are talks of the Explorer probe carrying radiation from Venus but the probe being destroyed before it returned to Earth, and the scientific community being torn on whether the reanimation of the dead bodies is related to the events of the probe; even the radio announcer dropping subtle lines talking about how the “mayors of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Miami” are concerned about the problem that has “seized the eastern portion of the nation” really help to give the viewer a sense of what might be happening in areas apart from the small farmhouse we are stuck in with the main characters. Even as the characters start to talk over the broadcast, viewers with keen hearing will pick up snippets relating to “scientists from NASA” in “Houston and Galveston,” and “conspiracy theories, along similar lines of ‘creatures from outer space.’” If, as it is said, the Devil is in the details, then Romero made sure that he had one hell of a movie on his hands.
I could go on and on about the nuances of the movie, but the important piece of information for most zombie lovers is that, as the movie progresses, the carnage and mayhem increases exponentially. Starting with Ben retelling his first zombie encounter (a fairly large affair that Romero did well to save on budget by having Ben simply re-tell the story instead of trying to show it via flashback), things really start to get fast-paced. Barbara begins to lose it mentally, and when Ben tries to literally shake her out of it, she slaps him; what neither she nor the viewer expects to happen next, however, is that he retaliates by punching her! Obviously, this was done less in self-defense and more to knock her out as a means of protecting her from herself, since she said she wanted to go outside, but it’s still a pretty shocking moment in the movie.
We get some amazing images of zombies shambling toward the farmhouse; these are very iconic images that have been often imitated in films and graphic novels since, but none of them will ever compare to the originality of the source material. “Night of the Living Dead” is actually so original that Romero and the makers of the movie didn’t even realize they were creating a new type of movie monster! Never once are the creatures referred to as zombies, instead they are termed as “flesh-eating ghouls” by the news anchor, and the other characters call the creatures “ghouls” multiple times throughout the movie. This, in my opinion, is why Romero deserves all the credit he receives – he wasn’t trying to come up with something new and flashy for a marketing scheme or anything like that, he simply wanted to tell a scary story that had never been told before.
The movie is incredibly character-driven, both with what you could term “good” and “bad” characters, although some fans may debate which side certain characters should fall on. Harry Cooper, the over-protective father and emotionally-aloof husband, is not necessarily a bad guy, Romero simply made him a character that is a little more self-centered than the rest. Ultimately this is his downfall, and it’s pretty clear that’s the point Romero was trying to convey with this character, and it’s a common theme throughout the rest of his “Dead” series: people do better when they work together.
Throughout the movie, we get great social commentary to go hand-in-hand with the character development, and this is especially poignant in the scenes that involve fighting amongst the characters that ultimately leads to the survivors’ downfall. By the time the zombies finally do break into the house, you just get the feeling that it’s all over for most of the characters. We get to see some really frenetic activity by the zombies at this point, the first time the viewers really see them all go crazy towards a single cause. The zombified daughter killing her mother with the spade is an incredibly creepy scene, even after all these years. Finally, we end up with Ben all alone in the basement; he was so adamant about not going down to the basement and ultimately that’s the only place he can find that keeps him safe…how’s that for irony?
I love that Romero and his team went out on a limb with their “anti-happy” ending of having none of the characters survive, and I’m even further impressed that they refused to change it even when multiple studios told the team that they would show the film if the ending was altered to be more “positive.” It’s that kind of creative integrity that should give hope and encouragement to any aspiring creators who have a specific idea to truly “stick to your guns.”
Romero ended “Night of the Living Dead” with pictures during the credits of men with meat hooks tossing around bodies like slabs of meat. This may just be the perfect piece of symbolism for the movie that launched an entire sub-genre of entertainment whose sole focus is eating human beings. Bon appétit!