Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 film directed by George A. Romero.
A pair of siblings, John and Barbara, visit the grave of their dead father. They encounter a man walking alone through the cemetery, who suddenly attacks and kills John. Barbara flees, and along the way is accosted by other mysterious assailants before finding refuge in a farmhouse. The building quickly becomes surrounded by the attackers and she heads upstairs, only to come across a near-skeletal corpse. She then runs out of the house in shock.
She finds that a truck has pulled up outside; its driver, Ben, takes her back into the house and locks the door behind them. He proceeds to barricade the house, and realises that Barbara is too traumatised to communicate. The pair listen to a radio report which reveals that the inexplicable attacks are going on across the Eastern United States.
Two men, middle-aged Harry Cooper and a younger man named Tom, emerge from the cellar of the farmhouse where they had been hiding all the time. Ben and Harry immediately get into a heated argument, as Ben resents the fact that the two men did not come up to help even though they must have heard Barbara screaming. They then disagree about the safest place in the house: Harry says that the cellar is the best place to hide, but Ben refuses to go down as the ground floor allows opportunities for escape. Tom acts as peacemaker, telling Ben that Harry has a wife and injured child in the cellar.
Harry heads back down to the cellar; Tom’s girlfriend Judy, who had been in the cellar, emerges as he goes down. Downstairs, Harry speaks to his wife Helen; when she learns that the ground floor has a radio and television, she insists on going upstairs. Harry begrudgingly heads back up to the ground floor with her.
Once Ben manages to get the television working, the house's inhabitants watch an emergency broadcast. They learn that the dead are coming back to life and eating the flesh of the living, possibly as a result of radiation from a crashed satellite. The broadcast also states that rescue stations have been set up around the country, including one near the farmhouse.
Ben hatches a plan: using burning torches to fend off the living dead, he will help Tom to reach his truck so that they can escape to the rescue centre and get help; Judy insists on going as well. While trying to refuel the truck, however, Tom spills petrol on the vehicle. Ben's torch sets fire to the trail of petrol. Tom gets into the burning vehicle in an attempt to drive away from the petrol pump before any more damage, only for the truck to explode and kill both the occupants. Ben runs back to the house closely pursued by ghouls, but finds that Harry has locked the door. Reluctantly, Harry decides to let Ben back into the house. Ben then repeatedly punches Harry in the face, before looking out of the window to see the living dead eating the remains of Tom and Judy.
The survivors later watch another TV broadcast. The announcer says that the “ghouls” can be killed by brain injury, and that the local sheriff is leading a posse in the nearby area picking them off.
The ghouls succeed in breaking down the house’s door. Ben and Helen try desperately to prop it back up against the living dead outside, while Harry grabs Ben’s shotgun off the ground. Holding Ben a gunpoint, Harry insists that Helen head back down to the cellar with him. Ben hits Harry with a plank of wood and, after regaining the gun, shoots him. Dying, Harry stumbles down the basement steps towards his bedridden daughter Karen. The ghouls break in, and Helen runs downstairs to find Karen - now one of the living dead - feeding on the body of Harry. Karen then stabs her to death with a trowel.
Barbara and Ben try to fend off the ghouls, but Barbara freezes up when she sees that her brother Johnny is amongst the living dead and he drags her out of the house. The ghoul Karen emerges from the cellar and briefly accosts Ben; he throws her out of the way and retreats the basement, where he shoots Harry and Helen’s ghouls.
Ben spends the rest of the night in the locked cellar. In the morning, he is awoken by the sounds of gunfire: the posse has arrived and is killing the ghouls. He climbs up to the ground floor and looks through a window, whereupon he is mistaken for a ghoul himself and shot dead by one of the gunmen.
- Duane Jones as Ben
- Judith O'Dea as Barbra
- Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper
- Marilyn Eastman as Helen Cooper
- Keith Wayne as Tom
- Judith Ridley as Judy
- Kyra Schon as Karen Cooper
- Charles Craig as Newscaster
- Bill Hinzman as Cemetery Ghoul
- George Kosana as Sheriff McClelland
- Russell Streiner as Johnny
In 1967 George A. Romero, John Russo and Rudy Ricci were in charge of The Latent Image, a Pittsburg-based production company specialising in commercials and industrial films. The three of them decided to make a feature film, although with an initial budget of just $6,000 their options were limited. Russo suggested making a monster movie; the group initially agreed upon a storyline for a horror comedy involving alien teenagers, but they finally rejected this idea for budget reasons. Russo proceeded to develop a story about a boy running away from home, and eventually going up against "Ghoulish people or aliens" who were eating human corpses; this story was set to open with a scene in a cemetery.
Romero had previously written a short story which, he later admitted, "basically ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend". After receiving Russo's scenario, Romero combined it with his short story to create a forty-page script about the dead coming back to life to feed off the living, which was to serve as the first half of the final screenplay. The three men teamed up with other Latent Image employees - including Russell Streiner, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman - to form a new production company called Image Ten, which was set up specifically to release the one film which they were working on.
The project's initial working title was Monster Flick; this was later changed to Night of Anubis and Flesh Eaters. Multiple members of Image Ten put forth ideas for the script, which was eventually completed primarily by Russo. Certain ideas that did not make it into the final film include Barbara being shown to have survived, and the film closing on a shot of the child ghoul who had escaped destruction. Once the script had been fleshed out, the group picked George A. Romero a director.
The death of protagonist Ben had been established in the early days of the scriptwriting process. Romero later explained the thinking behind this storytelling decision:
My biggest complaint about horror, about fantasy cinema, usually is that you do it to upset the ways of the world. And then, traditionally, in the end you sort of restore it all. And you say, 'Well, why the hell did we go through it in the first place?' and so I thought, 'I have to leave the world a mess, first of all.' It's when daylight comes, and here comes the posse and here come all these rednecks. And, to me, those are the real zombies, you know? We were '60s guys. We really thought that we had an honest chance at having changed the world in that time. And then you turn around and not only has it not changed for the better but probably, to some extent, for the worse.
The group initially planned for Rudy Ricci to play the role of Ben, but when Image Ten were introduced to Duane Jones, they agreed that Jones should take the part. Jones ended up revising much of his dialogue during production, with the general effect of making his character less stereotypically low-class. For example, one of the lines written for Ricci was "Ah get us some grub"; Jones changed this to "I'll see if I can find some food." The overall change was so heavy that Russo would later refer to the scripted Ben as "The truck driver, the other character". Although Jones was black, the film made no reference to his character's race; this was unusual at the time, when very few films had cast black leads unless their race was part of the narrative.
The crew behind the film considered shooting an alternate ending in which Ben survived, but Jones rejected this idea. "I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way", he later explained. "The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy."
Initially, the crew planned for the creation of the ghouls to be left unexplained. During the course of production, however, they reconsidered this and filmed sequences in which characters discuss possible causes for the living dead, with a total of three explanations being suggested. However, most of this footage was cut (in Romero's words, "the scenes were boring") leaving only one explanation: that the ghouls were resurrected by radiation from a crashed Venus probe. However, this point was left ambiguous and was not included in the film's sequels.
Image Ten succeeded in attracting enough investors to raise the budget to $12,000, but initially lacked a set for the farmhouse. With the help of intern at The Latent Image, the group came across a condemned farmhouse in Evans City, Pennsylvania, which was scheduled to be demolished; the owner allowed the crew to rent it for their film. As the farmhouse did not have a suitable basement, all cellar scenes in the finished film were actually shot in the basement of the building in which The Latent Image was housed. The crew decided to shoot the film in black and white, even though colour films were established as the norm by then.
The filmmakers were initially concerned that they would not be able to find enough extras due to a lack of funds for payment, but they ended up receiving a large number of volunteers to play ghouls and posse members. Cast member Marilyn Eastman, whose theatre background involved doing her own make-up, was tasked with providing make-up for the ghouls, a practice which she improved over the course of the film: "you'll see in the beginning everyone looks like a raccoon", she later said. "Gradually, they got a little more sophisticated." The crew decided that the ghouls would have died recently, so instead of making them appear decayed, Eastman used derma wax to give them death wounds. Some of the ghouls seen in crowd scenes were actually dummies.
For the scene in which Tom and Judy's remains are eaten by zombies, the crew approached a local owner of a meat-market chain. He obtained lamb organs from a slaughterhouse; these were filled with water for added effect. In the scene when Kyra Shon portrayed Karen eating her father's body, she actually consumed meat sandwiches left over from earlier in the day, smeared with chocolate sauce. Exploding bullet squibs, an unusual technique at the time, were used for gunshot effects.
Due to the low budget, the filmmakers had trouble obtaining a usable musical score. Working at The Latent Image's recording studio, the crew made their own amateur attempts at creepy music, parts of which were used in the finished film. In the end, most of the film's score consists of tracks from the Capitol Hi-Q library, edited to the action by Karl Hardman.
The film was rejected by potential distributor Columbia Pictures, largely because it was black and white. American International Pictures, meanwhile, requested that the downbeat ending be changed, a compromise that the filmmakers refused. The film eventually found a willing distributor in the Walter Reade Organization subdivision Continental Releasing. Continental removed some of the more character-based material and requested that the crew insert additional scenes of gore.
Release and reception
Night of the Living Dead premiered at the Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh on October 1, 1968. The film was released shortly before the MPAA code went into effect, and so was viewable to children. Cinemas booked Night of the Living Dead to be shown in double bills with more family-friendly fantasy films such as Dr. Who and the Daleks.
In 1969, Roger Ebert wrote an article about his experience viewing the film as part of an audience which included a large number of children. He reported that the children screamed playfully at the early scene in the graveyard, but lost interest when the characters began arguing about the best part of the house to hide in. However, they had a very different reaction to later scenes:
At this point, the mood of the audience seemed to change. Horror movies were fun, sure, but this was pretty strong stuff. There wasn't a lot of screaming anymore; the place was pretty quiet. When the fire died down, the ghouls approached the truck and ripped apart the bodies and ate them. One ghoul ate a shoulder joint with great delight, occasionally stopping to wipe his face. Another ghoul dug into a nice mess of intestines.
The terrified reaction form the children reached its peak at the end of the film:
The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. 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. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.
"I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt", concluded Ebert, who went on to criticise the "incompetence and stupidity" of the Chicago Police Censor Board for allowing children to see the film. Writing for Variety, reviewer Jerry Pickman was similarly concerned about the graphic nature of the movie. He argued that Night of the Living Dead "casts serious aspersions on the integrity of its makers", and followed this observation up by questioning "the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for unrelieved sadism."
Night of the Living Dead has since achieved classic status. Multiple sources have identified it as one of the best films of 1968. In 2008 Empire magazine named the film as one of the 500 greatest movies of all time, also hailing it as the greatest zombie film ever made. The New York Times picked Night of the Living Dead for a "Best 1000 Movies Ever" list. In Rolling Stone magazine, Night of the Living Dead made a list of "The 100 Maverick Movies in the Last 100 Years"'. In 2001, the film reached #93 on the AFI's "100 Years... 100 Thrills" list.
In 1999, the Library of Concress added Night of the Living Dead to the National Film Registry on the grounds that it was "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".
The film was completed under the title Night of the Flesh Eaters, with the only copyright notice being on the title card. The distributor altered the title to Night of the Living Dead after a legal threat relating to the 1964 film The Flesh Eaters, and in doing so, removed the copyright notice. As a result, the film passed into the public domain immediately upon its release.
Hal Roach Studios released a colourised version of the film in 1986. Romero dismissed this endeavour as "silly": "I don't like to watch it in colour", he said; "It looks awful". He objected in particular to how the ghoul in the opening scene, who is meant to look like an ordinary person, was given green skin in the colour version. Anchor Bay made another colourised version in 1997, while Legend Films made its own in 2004. Legend followed this up with a 2009 version which was both colourised and in 3D.
In 1998, John Russo and three other members of the film's crew – Karl Hardman, Bill Hinzman and Russ Streiner – made a deal with Anchor Bay to put together an extended version of Night of the Living Dead. The idea was originally conceived by Russo and Marilyn Eastman, who were inspired by the Star Wars special edition. Released as Night of the Living Dead: The 30th Anniversary Edition, this film includes a new prologue and epilogue, an additional subplot involving a family of ghouls, and a specially-made synth score. Romero himself, while stressing his friendship with Russo, acknowledged that he found the project "dumb" and "ridiculous".
Sequels and remakes
See Living Dead series.
- Kane, Joe. (2010) Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever. London: Aurum.