Fifty-five years on from its initial release, watching Night of the Living Dead (1968) is exhilarating. The story of a group of strangers boarding themselves into an isolated farmhouse as a defence against hoards of shuffling zombies is so by-the-numbers that I could proceed without any further synopsis. If the spectator is not careful, however, they may overlook the fact that it was George A. Romero who wrote those numbers. Crucially, he did not think of his monsters as zombies, but as “dead neighbours.” This is what sets his zombie (sorry, George) films apart from the factory line of imitators which have followed. Night of the Living Dead remains essential, even in the shadow of Dawn of the Dead (1978), its towering follow-up. There are, in Romero’s debut, three primary points of interest: the film as horror, as social barometer, and as regional filmmaking.
Night of the Living Dead is most famous not only as a horror film, but as the progenitor of the modern zomie tale. Its influence can be charted in the cinema from Romero’s own follow-ups to Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 and from Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead to the abysmal World War Z (adapted from an eponymous novel). In television, there is the interminable The Walking Dead, itself adapted from an interminable comic book. The video game Dead Rising is set in a mall, and I do not need to introduce Resident Evil. Despite this foundational quality, Night of the Living Dead remains unique in how it presents its horror. The scale of the incident is kept largely off-screen, further heightening the sense of rural Pennsylvanian isolation.
We open on Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner, who also produced) arriving at a cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave, an annual trip that takes them several hours away from Pittsburgh. They are shortly beset by a ghoul (Bill Hinzman). What he may be and what he may want is not immediately clear. To all appearances, the figure is a louse. He is violent and dishevelled, but there is nothing to indicate that he has risen from the grave. He overpowers Johnny, who, falling, strikes his head against a grave marker, dies. The ghoul then turns his attention towards Barbara. The indeterminate quality of the assailant is what makes the opening sequence tense. That the ghoul may be a violent drunkard only adds to the terror. Decades of zombie stories have taught us what to expect in the opening minutes, but the predatory aspect of the attack remains shocking.
As Barbara returns to the car, she discovers that, of course, Johnny has the keys. The attacker follows her, banging on the windows. The ghoul then grabs a brick, wielding it as a tool to gain entry to its prey. This will recur throughout Night of the Living Dead. Zombies, which we have been taught are shuffling and mindless, wield tools to aid their pursuit. A notable later example is one picking up a table leg, itself previously used as a torch, discarded by one of the human characters. Romero’s remark that these are “dead neighbours” is made more apparent.
It also makes confrontations with the ghouls more personal. Early confrontations are heavy on grappling and improvised weapons, such as tire irons. The zombies cannot simply be kept at a distance, with bull’s eyes on their foreheads. When a gun is introduced, it is handled clumsily. This will be unfamiliar to anyone weaned on the mountainous hordes of World War Z or the crisp, professional marksmanship of any number of zombie tales. Romero’s zombies are not presented as absolutely Other – that is, as an incursion on our humanity by some mystical or alien force.
This is best illustrated with reference to Dawn of the Dead. Here the survivors take refuge in a shopping mall, thinking it abandoned. However, they discover that by some vestigial impulse, the zombies return to the places and the things through which they created meaning. In consumer society, the shopping mall is one such place. While this impulse is not yet operative in Night of the Living Dead, we can see here the seeds of what Dr. Logan declares in Romero’s own Day of the Dead (1985): “They are us.” That we have grown accustomed to viewing zombies only as obstacles – either narrative or objective (as in a video game) – diminishes the horror, replacing it with an invitation to violence. Romero’s zombies are not fodder.
Barbara seeks refuge in an apparently abandoned farmhouse. Whatever minor safety she has secured is undermined by the presence, at the top of the stairs, of a brutalised corpse. In a film that would go on to influence a generation of gore films (Wes Craven counts Romero as an influence on The Last House on the Left ), this first corpse stands out for the matter-of-factness of its appearance. The grainy black and white photography of Night of the Living Dead separates the picture from both the lurid mania of Herschell Gordan Lewis and the lush ‘scope of a Hammer or AIP production. Perhaps counterintuitively the black and white serves to contemporise the action of the film with the audience to which it was presented.
Fleeing from the mangled corpse, Barbara bolts from the house and is overwhelmed by car headlights. Emerging from the glare is Ben (Duane Jones), who hustles Barbara back into the farmhouse. It is with Ben that Night of the Living Dead exits the grindhouse and enters the gallery. Jones was cast, according to Romero, because he was the best actor who auditioned. That he would be the first Black man to receive top billing in a horror film was not intentional. It is, however, epochal. With Ben, a political reading of the film becomes inescapable. Ben is the closest thing Night has to a hero. He is a commanding presence and, what we might call in zombie film jargon, a survivor. Barbara functionally exits the picture. It is as though the narrative only needed her to get from the opening to the primary location. She spends most of the remaining runtime catatonic.
As Ben sets about clearing the upstairs rooms, two men emerge from the cellar. Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman, also one of the producers), in rolled-up shirtsleeves, barricaded himself and his family in the cellar. He and his wife, Helen (Marilyn Eastman), are concerned about their daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon), who fell ill after being bit on the arm. With Harry is Tom (Keith Wayne). Tom is the all-American boy with the all-American girl (Judith Ridley). Immediately, the group is thrown into two camps. Ben wants to remain above ground, where they can defend themselves and, if possible, escape. Cooper wants to return to the cellar, where he has so far kept his family safe.
Beyond the matter of mere survival, this is a dispute across generational and racial lines. Cooper is unmistakably from the middle class of that generation which came of age in the 1950s. He is patriarchal, not used to hearing “no.” His position is also understandable. The cellar has kept his family safe. Romero and his team are careful to not paint broadly. The Coopers are unsympathetic, especially if we view them as from that “silent majority” which would, not long after Night’s premiere, elect Nixon to the presidency. They are, however, interested in the same thing as Ben – that is, survival.
The conflict between these camps is one of passivity against activity. Ben is restless, understanding that they need to get far away from the farmhouse. He takes whatever safety the cellar might offer as palliative, as delaying the action he believes must be taken. If we take Cooper as the old guard, Ben falls into the counterculture. Midnight audiences saw in Ben a hero expressing a generational disdain for the complacency of the American public. 1968 saw further escalation of the war in Vietnam, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Whatever spring young people hoped would flower from the Summer of Love was trampled. As with the Coopers, Romero and his team are careful not to canonise Ben. He is intransigent despite the evidence that, had Barbara and Ben not wandered into the farmhouse, the Coopers could have remained safely undetected in the cellar. Romero is too careful a filmmaker to simply make a youth picture out of Night of the Living Dead. Watching Ben and Harry fight throughout the film is frustrating because you may just find yourself choosing a side, knowing full well that all are doomed.
Television brings these warring camps together. They gather in the living room to watch the emergency broadcast, which drips information regarding the crisis. As with any zombie story, the less said the better. Some of the language used by the anchor is noteworthy, playing as it does on sensational fears regarding mass murder. We learn that the recently deceased are reanimating and consuming the flesh of the living. Our crew bicker over the broadcast, generating the impression that they and the spectator are missing some key piece of information. For the appropriate response to this, see the channel surfing sequence in Shaun of the Dead. The official story will come to be that a Venus probe returned to Earth with increased radiation. Ben Hervey, in his BFI Classics monograph on Night, draws a line backwards to 1950s science fiction films and EC comics. The probe is less a narrative marker and more an insider gag, though it does gesture towards familiar Cold War anxieties. Most compelling about the television broadcasts is the degree to which it reveals Night of the Living Dead as an exemplary piece of regional filmmaking.
George A. Romero was born in the Bronx but would eventually move with his family to Pittsburgh. Night was shot in Butler County, about 30 miles north of the city. My first note on rewatching the film for review is that there is “something distinctly Pennsylvanian about the cemetery.” This is hard to describe to those who have not seen the northern stretches of Appalachia. The trees are imposing, though bare in the depths of autumn. There are cemeteries in these hills forgotten by all but the children. When we later see the emergency broadcasts, the names of towns and cities scroll along the bottom. Connelsville, Clariton, McKeesport, and Latrobe (among others) are not famous, they are local.
The broadcast mentions major cities along the East Coast, and go as far west as Texas, but there is not the usual fixation with, say, a narrowly conceived New York. Tying the region to the history of the genre is the appearance of “Chilly Billy” Cardille. “Chilly Billy” hosted Chiller Theater on WIIC, channel 11 in Pittsburgh. This was a late-night show which broadcast science fiction and horror films. For a time, it kept Saturday Night Live off the air in the city (WIIC being the local NBC affiliate). While not an icon like the Mistress of the Dark, the show was akin to Elvira’s Midnight Macabre. Both horror hosts owe a debt to Vampira and, again, with characters appearing in EC Comics. For all that Romero and his team revolutionised in the horror film, there is a clear genealogy. Casting “Chilly Bill” as a field reporter is one way of tipping the hat to both the history of the genre and the regional specificity of the production.
Ben’s best laid escape plan ends with the death of the all-American couple, alongside the destruction of their only remaining vehicle. Survival is now a matter of waiting for the arrival of the militia. We first find out about the sheriff and his recently recruited colleagues in a broadcast designed, according to Hervey, to play like contemporary news coverage of combat missions in Vietnam. As such it is sanitised, orchestrated in such a way as to diminish the reality of the work being done. When Romero takes us amongst their ranks, we discover rednecks with guns. Ben and Harry still cannot agree on a plan, even as hell descends all around them. Ben punches Harry, in an image often used on lobby cards, before shooting him.
Night resolves through a series of ironies. Wounded, Harry stumbles into the cellar to die next to his daughter. The ghouls overwhelm the barricade. Barbara snaps out of her stupor, only to be confronted with the reanimated corpse of her brother. Mrs. Cooper flees the melee by returning to the cellar. She is greeted by one of the most iconic images in American horror cinema. Karen kneels over her father, devouring his flesh. Mother can only watch as daughter approaches, wielding a hand trowel. There is a sinister brutality to the sequence. Death here is slower, more deliberate than elsewhere in the film. Romero knew art history. Saturn no longer devours his children. Youth rises to devour the passive, dead weight of its forebears.
If the survivors had listened to Harry, they would have suffered the same fate as the Coopers. Ben, in this moment, is vindicated in a way he could never have predicted. Overrun, he finally descends into the cellar. Taking care of the reanimating family, he hunkers down for the night. He is roused in the morning by the sound of the militia. He returns to the ground floor and approaches a window. We cut outside to a duo of riflemen. One takes aim with studied proficiency and puts a bullet in Ben’s brain. Rednecks and police with dogs descend on the house.
The images that play under the credits have lost none of their potency. Moving pictures are replaced with grainy stills, as the working party sets about pulling out corpses for the bonfire. Ben lies on the floor, meat hooks encroaching on the frame. That Ben looks nothing like one of ghouls is not commented on in these documentary images. All involved must certainly know that a mistake has been made. But these, our living neighbours, know that unwanted truths can be stacked up and burned. Night of the Living Dead ends with Ben, alongside his “dead neighbours,” consumed by roaring flames. An angry image, befitting angry times.