George A. Romero’s iconic 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’ changed horror forever

The zombies walk in 'Night of the Living Dead'
The zombies walk in ‘Night of the Living Dead’

Very few movies have the distinction of being known as seminal, genre-influencing films. If the world of horror films were an interstate, the on-ramp would be 1931’s Dracula, and the first major interchange would come with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The next major interchange would be none other than George A. Romero’s cult-classic Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

The action begins almost immediately. In the opening scene, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner), find themselves driving through a cemetery. They notice someone (or something) stumbling around, and they get out to see what the problem is. After some teasing from Johnny (including the immortal line, “…They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”), the stumbling zombie attacks them and winds up killing Johnny.

Barbara, terrified, proceeds to run to a nearby farmhouse in hopes of finding help. Instead, Barbara, along with six others, hole up inside the moderately defensible structure. From that point on, the premise is quite simple: the seven strangers remain trapped inside the isolated farmhouse, struggling with not only the horror moaning and groaning outside their doors, but also with the rising tension of those trying to survive inside.

Our seven friends soon figure out the living dead’s weakness: a head shot, preferably with a bullet. The good news is the zombie’s are very easily put out of commission… the bad news is that their human counterparts cannot stop arguing over who exactly is in charge. The tension between the strangers is palpable and tremendous, and at times you may even find yourself on the side of the living dead.

If you’re one of a handful of filmgoers who have not seen this film, I will not ruin the ending for you. However, Romero’s choice of endings was very gutsy indeed, with the “resolution” of the film offering no real hope whatsoever. Any heroism shown throughout the course of the movie ends up being all for naught. And although Romero claims there was no social-political commentary intended, there have been countless studies and papers delving into the hot-button issue the film’s ending seems to shine a light on.

Man rises from cemetery in 'Night of the Living Dead'
Man rises from cemetery in ‘Night of the Living Dead’

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the quintessential zombie flick. Not only did it serve to establish the groundwork for the modern-day mythology of the flesh-eating zombie, but also hammered the final nail in the coffin of the old-school gothic horror films (DraculaThe MummyFrankenstein, etc.). Prior to Romero’s film, zombies were depicted on-screen as the children of voodoo practices, serving as mindless slaves to their human master. Romero’s zombies are creatures of destruction, answering to no one but their internal instincts.

This low-budget (est. $114,000) cult-classic horror helped set the standards for the modern horror. The zombies are extremely simple and extremely effective. Romero shot the film in black-and-white, when color films had long since been introduced. The grainy texture and the contrast of white and black give the film an even creepier look and feel than any remastered and colorized version. Ironically enough, the film was originally slated to be shot in color, but that idea was scrapped in favor of a tighter budget.

The soundtrack works quite well even though it comes from old records on which the copyright had expired… which also helped alleviate many costs of film production. Which just goes to show you: you don’t need to hire a world-renowned composer to create a chilling atmosphere in a film.

Also quite amazingly, the word “zombie” is never used throughout the entire film! In fact, this very notion is the basis of a running joke in the 2004 English zombie-romantic-comedy Shaun of the Dead:

Any zombies out there?SHAUN:
Don’t say that!ED:


The “zed” word. Don’t say it!

Why not?

Because it’s ridiculous!

Well… are there any?

So what is the cause of all these flesh-eating zombies? Although a flimsy reason is given (radiation from a space probe returning from Venus), it really has nothing to do with the main focus of the story. The zombies, while an important piece of the plot, actually take a back seat to the real storyline: the interaction between seven total strangers while facing a mortal threat. This human interaction is what drives the other entries in Romero’s Dead collection.

Many critics have argued that despite its immensely obvious influence on the horror genre, the film itself is not all that strong. And while it is true Night of the Living Dead is not strong enough to garner an Academy Award, the fact remains that it is indeed a very powerful movie. It gets the viewer’s heart pumping, even today, and manages to point a mirror at society (intentional or not). Not many films, horror or otherwise, can rival the influence Romero’s first zombie flick has had. Without question, Night of the Living Dead has reached iconic status in the movie world, and is very deserving of a four-skull treatment and a spot on every horror fan’s movie shelf.

But make sure it’s the original black-and-white version!

Flick Figures: Eight dead bodies; hordes of undead bodies; head-bashing; body-biting; trowel-fu; immolations; arm-gnawing; hundreds of bullet wounds; human barbeque; useless women; entrail-eating.

Next Week: The Horror Guru pulls double-duty! Early in the week, we’ll look at the upcoming DVD release of the latest entry in the Child’s Play series, Seed of Chucky. Then later in the week, our in-depth look into George Romero’s zombie series continues with a gander at the 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead.

Leave a Reply