When the recently deceased begin to rise from the dead to feast upon the flesh of the living, a small group of embattled survivors attempt to stave off destruction by taking refuge in an abandoned western Pennsylvania farmhouse. They face the ghoulish threat of the living dead from without, but also increasing tension from within as they argue over who is in charge and what course of action they should follow. Infighting, botched plans, and the relentless assault of the living dead eventually claim everyone with the exception of Ben (Jones). But when a posse of militiamen come to his rescue, they mistake him for a walking corpse and kill him as well.
Here’s how the important American film industry periodical Variety greeted Night of the Living Dead upon its original release in 1968: ‘Until the Supreme Court establishes clearcut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example … [the film] casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distrib Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic, as well as raising doubts about … the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism’ (quoted in Lowenstein 2005: 154). And yet by 1970, Night of the Living Dead’s director, George A. Romero, was traveling from Pittsburgh to New York to host a screening of his film at one of America’s most prestigious temples of high culture, the Museum of Modern Art. This extraordinary transformation from ‘orgy of sadism’ to modern art only begins to hint at the power of Night of the Living Dead: it is not just one of the most successful and influential horror films ever made, but one of the most significant independent American films of any kind.
From today’s vantage point, it is easy to see the evidence of Night’s success and influence. How many films, let alone films produced on a shoestring budget (reportedly $114,000) far from Hollywood without any recognizable names in its cast or crew, can claim the kind of legacy that belongs to Night in the international realm of popular culture? This legacy includes Romero’s own increasingly ambitious and sophisticated series of sequels (Dawn of the Dead (1979), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009) thus far), the remakes of Night of the Living Dead (Tom Savini, 1990), Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), and Day of the Dead (Steve Miner, 2008), the campy variation The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985) and its own sequels, numerous homages and offshoots that range from the suspenseful 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) to the hilarious Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) to Sam Raimi’s wonderfully berserk series begun with The Evil Dead (1981), an entire subgenre of gruesome Italian cannibal/zombie films like Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) and City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980), the smash hit television series The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont, 2010 to present), books such as John Skipp and Craig Spector’s horror anthology Book of the Dead (1989), video games like Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) that have become the basis for comic books and films in their own right, and even the longform music video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (John Landis, 1983).
The matter of Night’s status as a landmark in independent American cinema is a more complicated subject, but finally just as undeniable. Hollywood’s success has always been rooted in the skilful manipulation of familiar genres and stars to deliver what has been broadly construed as ‘entertainment’ to as wide a public as possible. Films that depart from this mission of entertainment, opting instead for art or politics or education, have usually been relegated to the ranks of foreign, documentary, exploitation, avant-garde, or independent cinema. What Night accomplished so successfully that it can be considered a precedent for many films that followed was its melding of a popular genre (a marker of entertainment) onto a set of independent, anti-establishment aesthetics and politics (a marker of art). Of course, this is not to say that Night was the first or the only American independent film to accomplish this feat, but in the post-classical era of American film dating roughly from 1960, its model has been a particularly forceful one.
A number of social, historical, and industrial factors contributed to Night’s phenomenal success. Part of the aforementioned transformation in the film’s reception as sadistic in 1968 and artistic in 1970 has to do with the fact that these years were some of the most turbulent in American history. The space between 1968 and 1970 exposed the American public to such traumatic events as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the killings of antiwar student demonstrators at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. Shattering events like these crystallised the national turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War and drove home a sense of America in deep crisis, perhaps even on the verge of self-destruction. In this chaotic social climate, what once looked like pornographic violence in Night now seemed closer to political commentary. For example, the American critic Elliott Stein, in his 1970 review of Night published in the British film journal Sight and Sound, suggested the film’s possibilities for political allegory when he compared the film’s walking corpses who crave the flesh of the living to President Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ (quoted in Lowenstein 2005: 154). If America was eating itself alive metaphorically during the Vietnam era, then Night made that metaphor literal. In one of the nation’s darkest moments, Night showed America to itself in ways few other films dared.
Among the daring aspects of Night is its casting of Duane Jones, an African American actor, in the lead role of Ben. Ben is the film’s central protagonist, the leader inside a country farmhouse where a group of seven people struggle to survive an onslaught by ‘ghouls’ that have risen from the dead to eat the living (‘zombie’ is not a term used within the film, but it has become attached to Night subsequently). The strength, courage, intelligence, and resolve displayed by Ben is something rare to find in lead film roles for blacks even today, never mind in 1968. Indeed, the fact that Night’s critical redemption followed the film’s pairing on a double bill with a slavery drama (Slaves (Herbert J. Biberman, 1969)) suggests that Night’s racial subtexts were crucial for its reception as ‘art’. Romero completed the film prior to King’s assassination, but Night did not reach audiences until afterwards. So Ben’s demise at the end of the film, when he is shot by a posse of white militiamen who ‘mistake’ him for a zombie, inevitably evokes for viewers the often violent resistance faced by the civil rights movement, including lynchings and of course, assassination.
Ben’s murder concludes Night on a truly devastating note. For Ben, a character that we have rooted for throughout, to survive the awful ordeal of the zombies only to be shot by his ‘saviours’, is the final blow in the film’s steady assault on our desires for reassurance that things are going to be OK. This grim sense of a world so damaged and dangerous that the only destiny imaginable for its ‘heroes’ ends with an early, violent death is a sentiment shared by a number of American films during the Vietnam era that proved particularly resonant with younger audiences identifying with the counterculture. In this light, Night’s kindred spirits are films such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), and Joe (John G. Avildsen, 1970). All of these films capture the counterculture’s belief that the establishment is not just something to rebel against, but something bent on destroying them – a belief substantiated all too vividly in Vietnam and at Kent State. So it is not surprising that Night became a sensation as a ‘midnight movie’, a film watched by younger audiences at times and places bound to foster a sense of countercultural community, even ‘cult’ adoration. In New York, for instance, Night played at midnight continuously (with the exception of several weeks) ‘for over two years, from May 1971 through mid-July 1973’ (Hoberman and Rosenbaum 1983: 126).
Surely part of Night’s cult appeal had to do with its notorious presentation of graphic gore. But the film’s most graphic scenes, when the zombies feast hungrily on human intestines and assorted body parts, are relatively brief and few. There are other disturbing images (including a rotting corpse and a mother stabbed to death by her zombie daughter), but given the disturbing, sometimes bloody news footage from Vietnam reaching American living rooms through television as well as the garish colour spectacles of graphic violence pioneered in earlier exploitation films such as Blood Feast (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1963) and taken to operatic heights in contemporary mainstream hits like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), Night’s shock value can hardly be attributed to the sight of gore alone. What distinguishes Night’s graphic violence and sets it apart as particularly upsetting is that it is embedded so matter-of-factly within a low-key, low-budget, black-and-white, nondescript, western Pennsylvanian reality that refuses to surrender to flights of fancy. Certainly the film’s premise about a mysterious plague that reanimates the recently deceased, possibly instigated by radiation from a space probe returned from Venus, participates in the typically fantastic hallmarks of the horror and science fiction genres (Romero was especially inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic SF novel I Am Legend (1954)), but Night’s dogged preference for the ordinary over the extraordinary is not very typical at all.
In fact, one of the most striking aspects of Night’s ordinariness is its investment in the unspoken and the unacknowledged. Barbara (Judith O’Dea), the first character we meet during the film’s opening in a graveyard, is so traumatised by an encounter with a zombie who attacks both her and her brother that she spends the rest of the film nearly comatose, speaking only in rare outbursts. Ben’s race is never referred to by anyone, even though the steadily escalating disputes between Ben and the shifty white father/husband Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) are shot through with unspoken racial tensions. But even Harry, easily the film’s most irritating and exasperating character, clearly suffers from his own unarticulated fears: that his daughter will die from wounds inflicted by a zombie, that he will fail as a father and a husband in the eyes of his wife. Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), the film’s young lovers, are barely granted a brief, exceedingly awkward moment of romantic confession before they burn alive together in a botched escape attempt. The ways that Judy and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) tend to the incapacitated Barbara and Karen Cooper (Kyra Schon) suggest the tentative outlines of a female community, perhaps even the stirrings of limited feminist identifications, but again, these connections remain almost entirely implicit.
Finally, the film’s concluding scenes transpire as a series of bitter, unspoken ironies. Ben, the last survivor, must finally seek refuge from the zombies by barricading himself in a basement, the very act he condemned repeatedly as suicidal when Harry advocated it during their earlier arguments over plans of action. And of course, Ben’s death at the hands of his would-be rescuers, his fate as a corpse indistinguishable from the zombies he battled against so strenuously, leaves the audience shellshocked over the greatest silence of all: none of the characters whose struggles we have just witnessed has lived to tell the tale. In this way, as in so many others, Night of the Living Dead refuses to allow the daylight comforts of normality to return. This may well be a nightmare from which we cannot awaken, or perhaps no nightmare at all – the film’s ‘living dead’ might be understood ultimately as ‘living history’.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Image Ten. Director: George A. Romero. Producers: Russell W. Streiner and Karl Hardman. Screenwriters: George A. Romero and John Russo. Cinematographer: George A. Romero. Editor: George A. Romero. Music: Stock music from the Capitol Hi-Q music library. Make-Up: Hardman Associates, Inc. Special Effects: Regis Survinski and Tony Pantanello. Cast: Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O’Dea (Barbara), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Russell Streiner (Johnny), Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy), Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper).]
Paul R. Gagne, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero, New York, Dodd Mead, 1987.
Ben Hervey, Night of the Living Dead, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies, New York, Harper and Row, 1983. Adam Lowenstein, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film, New York, Columbia University Press, 2005.
Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, London, Wallflower Press, 2003.
Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.