Night of the Living Dead first published by EyeforFilm
The Seventies may be regarded as the Golden Age of horror, but strictly speaking the seeds were sown in 1968, when a small group of independent commercial directors from Pittsburgh released a feature called Night Of The Living Dead onto an unsuspecting public and changed the genre forever. This film, along with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby from the same year, would change horror forever.
Till then, B-grade chillers were typically set in stylised castles, mansions or villas, far from the everyday experience of the average viewer. Yet in the late Sixties, as the Vietnam war raged on and the Civil Rights movement polarised America’s North and South, George A Romero recognised that his nation was, for the first time, looking nervously in upon itself and tapped into these anxieties by bringing terror right to the neighbourhood doorstep. Romero’s decision to place his characters in an ordinary farmhouse was no doubt influenced in part by his severe budgetary constraints, but he was also establishing a principle that would reverberate throughout the following decade, and beyond: that the most familiar location can often be the most claustrophobically terrifying.
Though shot on cheap black-and-white film stock, NOTLD was the film that would turn the whole horror genre blood red, with its innovative use of graphically realistic gore effects, and its “ghouls”, shuffling undead driven by a hunger for human flesh, set the template for the modern cinematic zombie, even if the word never appears in the film. No matter whether the rise of these murderous creatures results from a space probe mission to Mars, or from the disintegration of religious faith and respect for the dead, or from some other, equally abstract cause, Romero’s vérité focus remains tightly fixed on how easily the veneer of civilisation could be torn apart in a single night. His beleaguered human characters are their own worst enemy, threatened as much by each other as by the ghoulish peril outside.
Clearly reflecting the divisions that dominated the political landscape of Sixties America, in the farmhouse Romero pits his black protagonist (Duane Jones; in the original screenplay, the character’s race was not specified) against a white patriarch (Karl Hardman) and a young daughter-turned-zombie (Kyra Schon) against her conservative parents. The posse of rednecks who shoot and burn the “ghouls” are patently modelled on the Southern lynch mobs who were so familiar from TV news at the time and their final action in the film is a bleakly potent image of the human cost of America’s war with itself.
At the same time, Romero sets himself against horror convention. At the very start he introduces a classic heroine figure, the platinum blonde Barbra (Judith O’Dea), only to reduce her early on to a state of catatonic trauma from which she never recovers. The real hero turns out to be the resourceful Ben (Jones), but not before he has been seen rushing out of the dark, slapping a hysterical Barbra and looming over her unconscious body in a series of postures that seem to reinforce racist stereotypes of the time, and yet are easily justified in context, confronting (white) viewers with their preconceptions. Even having a black protagonist was then revolutionary. This is horror at its most probing, subversive and socially aware, with a truly harrowing ending that reveals the dangers of misdirected fear and prejudice. While it may have been an allegory very much for the times in which it was made, it still fits surprisingly well into our own post-9/11 world, where Muslim civilians continue to be the primary casualties (“collateral damage”) of the so-called War On Terror.
You may have seen Tom Savini’s gorier, all-colour remake in 1990. You may have seen Romero’s sequels (Dawn Of The Dead in 1978, Day Of The Dead in 1985, Land Of The Dead in 2005). You may have seen co-writer John Russo’s truly execrable 1998 “30th Anniversary Edition”, with the insertion of newly filmed material that almost studiously dilutes the spirit of the original, and you will certainly have seen many of the countless imitations that Romero’s film spawned, but to see the original NOTLD, and in such a beautifully restored print, is enough to make you believe that there is life yet ago in intelligent independent horror.
© Anton Bitel