Zombies with a Conscious: Night of the Living Dead

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In my day job, I’m a writing teacher.  Mostly, I teach freshman composition courses, with the occasional upper division writing class.  Every October, I take it as a privilege to show my classes Night of the Living Dead.  As freshmen in the twenty-first century, most scoff at watching a film in black and white made almost fifty years ago.  They grumble at a movie made “back in the day.”  They poke fun at it, emulating Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which few, if any, have ever watched).   They ask why we’re watching this instead of a good movie.

They stop about ten minutes into the film.

There’s a rawness to Night of the Living Dead, an intensity that goes beyond the constraints of time and technology.  Each moment is unrelenting; it builds and builds without release or remorse.  It’s unfair to point out that every zombie film owes a debt to Night of the Living Dead, that we’d never have had The Walking Dead without it, or to blame it on our weird obsession with all things zombie.  I think there’s more to the movie and to its impact than all that.  The film changed the very nature of copyright laws.  It heralded a complete tonal shift to the horror genre.  Night of the Living Dead is filled with the potential of what horror could stand for; an independent movie made in the dawn of a new era of film production, an era without confining studio walls.  Filmed on a minuscule budget with local actors, this little horror movie with a message would eventually alter the entire horror genre.  At every stage of the film, from preproduction to its ultimate fate as a product of failed business practices and massive consumer appeal, Night of the Living Dead was an unintended wunderkind that, eventually, changed the nature of the horror film while becoming entrenched into the canon of American culture.

In 1962, Romero opened Latent Image in south Pittsburgh. Not long after, it would become his home.  With a sixteen-millimeter Bolex and a couple of studio lights, he spent six years filming commercials, political spot, and industrial films.  Eventually, Romero and Latent Image found regular work shooting segments for, of all things, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  It was steady work that came with slightly bigger budgets.  But it was not feature-length films, nor did it bring them lasting success.  After penning a script loosely based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend, Romero searched out for investors.  Eventually, he would raise $114,000.

When producing a movie with an enormous budget, there is a looming reminder of accountability to those supplying the funds; in movies with small budgets, Romero shines his artistic vision with aplomb.  Romero’s lasting gift is the creation of big films with small budgets, and always on his terms.

Night of the Living Dead began filming in southern Pennsylvania in October of 1967. It was shot intermittently on weekends over a seven month period.   The film was shot on 35mm black and white film.  The decision was deliberate, according to the filmmakers.  Color film stock would have cost roughly the same amount, albeit they would have had to use cheaper, 16mm color stock and then blow the film up to 35mm film in post-production, thus losing some finer detail.  Black and white film was chosen based on its aesthetic appeal and the ease of filming it would eventually provide: simple special effects tricks could be utilized at a lower cost, such as using chocolate sauce for blood.  In black and white, no one would know the difference.

Karl Hardman, the actor who plays Harry Cooper, also served as makeup artist, electronic sound effects engineer, co-producer, and took the still photos used for the closing credits. The house used by the filmmakers was essentially given to them; the owners had decided to tear it down and gave Romero and his crew the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do with the house.  The music used in the film was public domain stock music.  Everything in the film is a consecrated effort to achieve the best movie for the least amount of money.  Romero would finish the final edit in the first week of April, 1968.

The film’s world premiere was at the Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 1st 1968. Over the next three years, the film would go in and out of release sporadically.  A year later, Night of the Living Dead would find the audience that would give it lasting success and ultimately a place in popular culture history: as a midnight movie.  As a midnight movie, Night of the Living Dead would circulate for years after its premiere.  It would stay in theaters for over a decade, and the film is still often shown in theaters on Halloween.

With success comes criticism, both positive and negative.  And for Romero and Night of the Living Dead, negative criticism flooded in during its initial release.  By 1968, it was common practice to release horror films as weekend matinees, generally a time when children flocked to the theaters for a glimpse of gore and spectacle.  Perhaps it was the black and white cinematography, or the lack of a “Hollywood” ending, or even the lack of a clear, identifiable protagonist.  The first few reactions to the film were at best dubious, and at worst, accusations of causing the downfall of society and all that is virtuous.  By today’s standards, Night of the Living Dead seems tame, despite its documentary style.  But for 1968, with an audience composed of mainly children, the film was not seen as revolutionary, but sadistic.  As Rogert Ebert described how the mood of the theater changed:

“I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them.  They’d seen horror movies before, but this was something else.  This was ghouls eating people–You could actually see what they were eating.  This was little girls killing their mothers.  This was being set on fire.  Worst of all,     nobody got out alive–even the hero got killed… Horror movies were fun, sure, but this was pretty strong stuff.  There wasn’t a lot of screaming anymore.  The place was pretty quiet.”

Ebert ends his review with the account of the silent children in the theater, terrified at the possibility of human extinction by the zombie hordes:

I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater,” he writes.  “I saw kids who had no sources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt…What are parents thinking,” demanded Ebert, “when they drop their children off to see a movie called Night of the Living Dead?

Only later would critics’ views change as they began to see the film as less a terrifying horror movie giving nightmare to children and more of a cultural allegory.

Ultimately, what sets the films of George Romero apart from typical horror films is the level of social commentary present in his work.  Night of the Living Dead is more than just a horror film, it is a commentary on the breakdown of American society during the Vietnam war.  Or the film is a parable on racism.  Or it is an analogy on the traditional, nuclear family in an evolving society.  But, at least in the beginning, there is some question as to whether Romero and his producers intended to include such a consistent level of social commentary.  “The filmmakers were not looking to deliver messages or expose hidden agendas.  [Night of the Living Dead] is a horror film.  It was a way for some commercial and advertising filmmakers to try something different.  They wanted to make a film, and set out to do it.  Horror was easy, and could sell” (Sherman 74).  However, in his interview for the documentary Midnight Movies, Romero stated that he intended to make the film as a reaction to the Vietnam war and the breakdown of society, and that he knew that hiring Duane Jones as Ben would invariably alter the meaning of the film, in particular the ending.  Romero has stated many times that the part of Ben was not written specifically for an African-American, and that simultaneously, no major changes were made to accommodate Jones.

Beyond the serendipitous nature of the casting, the surrounding culture allows for a reading of the film at a deeper level.  After all, Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war.  Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, another coincidental moment for the filmmakers.  According to George Romero in the documentary The Directors: The Films of George A. Romero, on the day the final edit was complete, he and producer John A. Russo drove to New York with the print in the trunk to see if any theater would show it. While driving on the night of April 4th, 1968, Romero and Russo heard on the radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.  Romero’s vision of what the term “horror” was an evolved idea; as the world changed, so did film.

In 1999, Night of the Living Dead was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.  Contrary to popular belief, Night of the Living Dead was not placed in the National Film Registry because of the copyright problems it faced (due to loose copyright laws and a mix up at the print lab, the film was immediately placed into the public domain).  If that was the case, it would have been registered long before the end of the century.

After more than thirty years, Night of the Living Dead now stands as part of the canon of American film and American culture.  George Romero is now considered the auteur filmmaker of zombie horror, and for good reason.  He has assured himself a pedestal as a man who elevated a genre revolving around fake blood and cheap scares to a level of social commentary and contemporary motif.  After thirty years, a small film from Pittsburg about the undead may still have more to teach us about being human.

Ebert, Roger, “Just another horror movie–or is it?” Chicago Sun Times 5 January 1969. Sherman, Tony. “Night of the Living Dead”. Monsterscene. March 1995: 73-74.

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