Sometimes a horror movie is so much more than just a horror movie. In 1967, a group of young ad men hot to break out of filming beer commercials decided it was time to make a feature film. They chose to make a horror movie, with a small cast, a few key locations, and the simple notion that the dead would return to eat the living. What they ended up making was one of the most important, influential, and in the end, one of the greatest movies of all time. And I don’t just mean greatest horror films. George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a classic for very good reasons, a masterpiece out of the gate for him and the rest of the forces involved.
It’s crucial to look at NOTLD in the context of its angry times. The Vietnam conflict was raging, race relations were volatile, and the peace and love of Woodstock two years later would be balanced off by the rage and murder at Altamont. Romero and co-writer John Russo channeled all that violent energy into their script. Romero’s mentioned several times that the thrust of the film was a new generation eating the old, only this was literal. The film’s ghouls were a progressive group about to turn the world into a living necropolis. But with the world as it was in ’67, that may have been an improvement. Romero certainly seems to state so in the film. Government, the family unit and humanity in general will fail us, the film says, and left to our own devices, we’ll tear ourselves apart, when we could find salvation in working toward a common cause.
NOTLD’s first few minutes wouldn’t lead one to think it was the end of the world. A car driving up an old country road passes a cemetery sign full of buckshot. Johnny and his sister Barbra have come to place a foam cross with some flowers on their father’s grave. Johnny is complaining about everything, as meek Barbra tries to avoid his antagonistic comments. As he starts to tease her about her fear of the cemetery, another man approaches, and Johnny tries to draw him into the game. What happens next sets the entire film, and in turn its world, into chaos, with Barbra fleeing to an empty farmhouse that will find itself under siege from the living dead as the night progresses.
She’s not in the house alone for long. Soon enough, strong willed Ben arrives and takes charge. He barricades it, fortifying it against the zombies. Later, the two discover others, as Harry Cooper and local youth Tom emerge from the basement, where they’ve been hiding with Harry’s wife Helen and bitten daughter Karen. With the imminent threat of the zombies outside, another threat arises within the house, as Ben wants to stay on the ground floor of the house, while Cooper wants them all to head down into the basement.
Plotwise, Romero sets up his conflict much as he would in many of his later efforts: the zombies are a threat, but the real danger arises from the two men’s inability to work together. Had the two been able to subdue their own egos and scratch out a cohesive plan, everybody in the farmhouse might have lived. I still side with Ben, though. Critics have espoused for years that, given the film’s ending, Cooper was right about the basement. But I’ve never bought it, because as Ben states, it’s a death trap with only one way out. Had they realized the zombies couldn’t climb, maybe they would have pitched in and gone upstairs, cutting the staircase off. But this would have been too optimistic for Romero the nihilist, whose consistent message here is that in times of crisis, nobody handles anything well. We’re more likely to devolve into bickering than to use our collective heads to save ourselves and each other. Knowing how the film was put together, Romero’s outlook makes sense. NOTLD was a group effort in which everybody pitched in ideas, energy and sweat equity. Had Romero, Russo and company taken to the stubbornness of the film’s characters, it would have fallen apart early.
It’s nice to look at how Romero uses themes ideas he’ll touch upon in many of his later films. The collapse of the family unit is there, not only in the battling Coopers, but early on with Johnny and Barbra. An ineffective government, backed by a posse raging to shoot, cripples itself because it has no well-formed response. Trying to protect the home front just for prevention’s sake will echo throughout the original trilogy, with the mall in DAWN OF THE DEAD and the underground silo in DAY OF THE DEAD. But Romero’s most powerful theme in NIGHT is the one that, once I was old enough to understand it, has always scared the most. With the family unit, government and the sanctity of the home offering no safety, the collapse of the social structure has begun. The dead are coming to life and eating the living, and all the things we count on to provide us with a normal life have deteriorated in the course of one night, leaving us with total chaos in their place. Romero’s scope would get larger with DAWN and DAY, but it’s never been more effective than it is here.
The film also sports Romero’s incredible editing techniques. As a commercial director for many years, he understood the power of quick cuts, creating action through them rather than camera movement. Romero rarely moves his camera in any of his films (DIARY OF THE DEAD being the exception, for obvious reasons), so unlike, say, John Carpenter, his action relies so much more on how the images are assembled. He’s also got a few artistic shots here, as when the camera captures Barbra looking through the music box. As for music, the film is entirely scored from library tracks, and some of them you will find in 1950s programmers. But most horror fans associate them directly with NOTLD, which has made them its own. It’s a powerful score, evocative of the terror throughout the night.
The strength of the film rides more than anything on the performance of Duane Jones. As Ben, he’s charismatic, a man forced to take the lead, and to make quick decisions to save seven people from a world that has been thrown into violent turmoil, literally overnight. Interestingly, the original script had him as “The Truck Driver,” a working class guy who was much rougher around the edges. When they hired the refined, intelligent Jones, Russo and Romero rewrote the dialogue for him; thankfully, because had they left the character is, the film would not have been nearly as good. Jones also brings a softer, reflective side to the character, for example when he gives the speech about Beekman’s Diner. Some fans and critics come down on Ben for his decision making (many of the same who come down on Barbra for her inability to do anything), but he’s doing his best to be proactive and fight back. It’s an unenviable position, and if I were in the farmhouse with him, I would trust Ben.
And then there’s the controversial ending. It’s ironic, stunning, and absolutely powerful. It’s a big part of why the film has become a classic, and why people still talk about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD today. Romero, and all parties involved, to this day claims that Jones was the best actor they could find, and that any statement on race relations in the film’s final moments are unintentional. But when he and Russ Streiner relate that the night they drove the film to New York to meet distributors, they heard Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, it’s impossible not to look at what happens to the film’s only black character in that light. Even if it’s a mere coincidence, it makes for one powerful social commentary. A look at the original script indicates that Barbra was to avoid her family reunion and survive the night. That would have been too Hollywood, and diminished the film’s final moments. I’ve often heard Romero say that the whole point of horror is to rock the apple cart; to restore order ruins everything that has come before. With NOTLD, he wisely decided to leave the world unbalanced, so audiences could question just how safe a world is even if the living are all we have to fear.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD began George Romero’s career as one of the most well-respected directors of film. It changed the paradigm of what zombies do, as they’re no longer revived Caribbeans forced to work in salt mines, but flesh eaters who infect those around them and threaten the world’s living population. It offered a new style in editing, that MTV would embrace in how music videos were cut. It also made Pittsburgh a realistic location for filmmakers, as 40+ years later, the latest DARK KNIGHT is being filmed there on its $250 million dollar budget. Most importantly, it proved that horror could go beyond the nerve endings, and provoke thought from an audience. It is, perhaps, the most important horror film ever made, and is the definition of a classic.