Night of the Living Dead
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It's hard to convey just how appalled some people were when Night of the Living Dead started popping up on movie screens back in 1968 - even Reader's Digest complained about it! Drive-ins and second-tier theaters were used to showing tacky movies, of course, many of which contained horrific creatures. But despite its obvious low budget, there's something very convincing about George Romero's nightmare vision of a small hamlet that's been overrun by flesh-eating zombies.
The minimalist plot of Night of the Living Dead makes it all the more horrifying. Simply put, a group of strangers end up trapped in a farmhouse as slow-moving zombies, who were created by radiation from a Venus space probe (don't ask), try to break in and eat them. Among the house's occupants is a woman (Judith O'Dea) who saw her brother attacked by one of the "living dead" while they visited their father's graveside, a black man (Duane Jones) who attempts to take charge of the situation, a middle class husband and wife (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) who are nursing a young daughter who was bitten by one of the ghouls, and the requisite terrified teenage couple (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley).
Night of the Living Dead is one of the first horror films that refused to turn away from its own gruesomeness, and the terror it reveals can't be arrived at logically. The characters seem fated to simply live in a hell that they can't comprehend, until it breaks into their makeshift fortress and eats them alive. It's rather hard to believe, then, that this ultra-bleak vision was created by a gang of Pittsburgh-based filmmakers who normally churned out industrial films, sports coverage and local TV commercials! None of the performers had any big-screen experience (which is painfully obvious at certain points), and Romero himself had never shot a straight narrative.
I interviewed Romero several years ago, and mentioned that I thought Night of the Living Dead looked like the Zapruder film, and, laughing gleefully, he agreed with me. Night of the Living Dead remains unnerving because its black-and-white verite images look like they were recorded by accident. Romero has repeatedly stated that he couldn't have imagined the impact his little movie would have on the evolution of horror films. "When we were making Night of the Living Dead", he once said, "we thought it was going to be playing in a few drive-in theaters and maybe return our investment. And maybe if it did that, we'd be able to make something else. That's really as far as it went."
The overstated allegorical content of Romero's post-Night of the Living Dead pictures suggests that the first film's subtle, much-discussed "social commentary" was cooked up by critics. Romero, for one, has long insisted that Night of the Living Dead was designed as a horror-driven metaphor for America's collapsing social order. And he's never really shied away from the position that a black man was cast as the nominal hero, mainly so he could take a bullet from white authority figures who size him up as just another expendable zombie.
But key participants in Night of the Living Dead's production saw things quite differently, as they made clear in a revealing early 1970s interview with a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker named Gary Anthony Surmacz. "I think the film is an attempt to make money," screenwriter John Russo told Surmacz. "And it's an attempt to tell a good, honest, emotionally involving story. A lot of the critics have jumped off the deep end likening the ghouls to [Nixon's] silent majority and finding all sorts of implications that none of us ever intended. I think George wants to encourage that kind of thing on the part of some critics. But I'd rather tell them they're full of s**t."
In the same interview, co-producer Russell Streiner also picked up the argument: "I think that, in setting out to make a general entertainment film, if some critics were entertained to the point that they began reading all these fantastic social implications into it, fine, if that's how they're entertained. But I can't say that there were any overriding social ramifications in the original design of the film. I mean, that is just not true."
Regardless of the filmmakers' deeper intent, or lack thereof, much of Night of the Living Dead is hilarious. Let's face it, these zombies can be scared away by a burning La-Z-Boy recliner. But it can still give you a serious case of the creeps if you let it. Against all odds, a bunch of guys out in Pittsburgh, who apparently didn't know what they were doing, filmed your worst nightmare. And, as new generations of horror fans discover Night of the Living Dead, it's the nightmare that keeps on giving.
Producer: Russell Streiner, Karl Hardman
Director: George Romero
Screenplay: John A. Russo (based on a story by George Romero)
Cinematography: George Romero
Editing: George Romero
Production Design: Vincent Survinski
Special Effects: Regis Survinski, Tony Pantanello
Makeup: Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman
Cast: Judith O'Dea (Barbara), Russell Streiner (Johnny), Duane Jones (Ben), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy), Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper), Kyra Schon (Karen).
by Paul Tatara