50 Years of the Living Dead
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” – poor, doomed Johnny at the opening of Night of the Living Dead
On October 1, 1968, a modest, low-budget movie produced in Pittsburgh opened and revolutionized horror cinema. The makers of Night of the Living Dead, however, never had big revolutionary ambitions. They just wanted to make a horror movie. A group of talented craftsmen who had formed a production company called The Latent Image, they had accumulated a great deal of valuable experience producing commercials for advertising agencies in Pittsburgh. John Russo (screenwriter), Karl Hardman and Russell W. Streiner (producers) and George A. Romero (director) had honed their craft having to work quickly and efficiently to produce all kinds of television commercials for a wide variety of clients, from political candidates to laundry soap.
Having grown disenchanted with the repetitive nature of the work, they decided to take on the challenge of producing their own low-budget horror movie. Shot on 35mm in black and white, what was originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters was the Latent Image’s reaction to the tumultuous political environment of the era, reflecting the filmmakers’ vision of a civilization in decline. It is a deceptively simple tale: A small group of people are holed up in a farmhouse trying to survive the onslaught of the Living Dead, flesh-eating ghouls recently resurrected thanks to the radiation released by a space probe NASA was forced to destroy. They weren’t even called zombies then. The term “zombies” generally referred to creatures returned from the dead in Haitian folklore.
What was revolutionary about the film was threefold. First, most horror films had some kind of connection to the gothic or remote. “Horror” usually meant Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man or the Mummy, all of which take place in exotic locales, often times in the past, and all in all were pretty harmless, diverting entertainment free of gore or sociopolitical point of view. With Night of the Living Dead, the undead attack indiscriminately in the kind of suburban community with which the audience is familiar clearly set in the present day. While there is the supernatural element of the flesh eaters, the protagonists of the film are everyday suburban people, flawed human beings simply trying to keep the danger out of this house. It placed horror right next door, no longer safely nestled around the world in Transylvania.
Second, the casting of Duane Jones, an African-American actor, as the lead character of Ben was revolutionary. Romero always dismissed the significance of his casting because he said the script, which featured Ben as a white character, was unchanged upon Jones’ casting and Duane Jones was simply the best actor they knew who was available for the role. Still, Romero is modest. The very fact that the script was unchanged was remarkable. In the late ‘60s, pretty much the only black actor getting a lead role in a film was Sidney Poitier, and to cast Jones in such a politically charged time was a big deal. Some movie theaters in the South even refused to book the movie with a black lead, so the Latent Image wound up losing some revenue with the casting of Jones.
Finally, Night of the Living Dead returned the horror movie to the realm of adults. Horror movies at the time were primarily relegated to the arena of kiddie matinees on Saturday afternoons because they were seen as such harmless juvenile fun. Legendary critic Roger Ebert saw the film in 1969 when it was rather foolishly booked at such a kiddie matinee:
“There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up -- and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire.”
Night of the Living Dead was released the same year that the Motion Picture Association of America instituted the ratings system and ended the 35-year reign of the Production Code that banned scenes of gore and violence. In the film, we see the flesh eaters eating raw flesh. By reflecting Romero and his colleagues’ vision of a civilization in decline, by actually showing the steaming viscera filling the ghouls’ mouths as they slurped, the movie opened up a whole new vista of gore that directors who emerged in the ‘70s like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper would embrace with glee.
The influence of the film cannot be understated. One reason it’s so famous is because of an unfortunate mistake by The Latent Image. On the original title card for Night of the Flesh Eaters, there was a copyright notice. When the title changed to Night of the Living Dead, the new card produced for it did not include the copyright notice, and so the film was automatically in the public domain not under copyright. Anyone could release it on VHS or strike a print to screen in theaters without having to pay any royalties, so it quickly became ubiquitous, one of the most-seen horror movies of all time. It also meant that the characteristics and appearances of the zombies were never under copyright, so other filmmakers were free to pluck whatever they wanted from the original film.
George A. Romero was reluctant to follow up his hit movie himself, but ten years later in 1978 he was inspired by the building of a new indoor shopping mall in Pittsburgh to create Dawn of the Dead, a wicked and brilliant satire of consumerism. By then, most people had appropriated the term “zombie” to apply to Romero’s brand of undead, and for the past 40 years, variations of the modern zombie have populated literature, television and movies almost constantly.
Romero himself would helm four “Dead” movies after Dawn of the Dead and produce and write a 1990 remake of the original in an attempt to make a fully copy-written version (It was not received well), and dozens of other writers and filmmakers would take on the living dead in one form or another, whether it was a big-budget movie like World War Z or a TV series like The Walking Dead. In the 21st Century especially, the zombie tale has become ubiquitous, as the fear about the decline of civilization that informed Romero and his crew in the late ‘60s has come to the forefront of popular culture. Zombies are a big business.
Few, if any, however, have come anywhere close to what Romero and his colleagues in The Latent Image accomplished with a paltry $117,000 and the will to make their movie in their hometown. Night of the Living Dead has not only influenced horror filmmakers, but in its own way has influenced thousands of independent filmmakers who can see a great movie can be made on a tiny budget and you don’t have to go all the way to Hollywood to make it.
This article was originally written for publication on Crixeo, an arts and culture website that disappeared without warning on October 1.