NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
The 25th anniversary reunion documentary for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD begins with this neat introduction: “In 1967 a group of dedicated industrial film-makers, broadcast professionals, stage actors and actresses, ambitious amateurs and assorted family and friends became a virtual creative army in an attempt to pull off the seemingly impossible – a regionally produced feature film.”
Director George A. Romero at that time was part of a team of creative colleagues including Richard Ricci and Russ Streiner (and later John Russo) who formed the Latent Image commercials agency, a highly successful firm who won 37 awards for their superb, cost-effective adverts for big name brands such as Heinz, U.S. Steel, Alcoa and Calgon – often costing a tenth of the budgets of their competitors. One day, amidst bitching about the usual industry problems, Russo suggested they try their hand at producing their own feature-length horror film - with the original title of MONSTER FLICK. It was funded by each of the ten members of the partnership kicking in $600 and aimed at breaking in to the commercial movie business beyond the limited world of TV ads that they had clearly mastered. Ultimately the film cost much more, roughly $117,000, (but made back around $700,000 in its first year at neighbourhood theatres and the drive-in circuit). The team could not have known that the finished film as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would grow to become one of the seminal modern horror films, and its director Romero the under-appreciated godfather of zombie cinema…
The plot is pretty straight-forward, opening with two siblings, Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) making their annual pilgrimage to their father’s grave to plant a wreath. In the cemetery Johnny teases his sister about the spooky atmosphere as a stumbling sinister man approaches. He is a zombie, part of a horrific unexplained reviving of the dead, who proceeds to attack them both, fatally killing Johnny as he falls and strikes his head on a gravestone. Barbara flees to an isolated house, where she encounters Ben (Duane Jones), a level-headed black fellow escapee from the developing terror. Ben is a capable, level-headed survivor whereas Barbra retreats into a catatonia-like PTSD. They are joined by a likeable young couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley) and an older married couple, hot-headed bully Harry Cooper and his bitter wife Helen (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) who bring their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and an inter-‘familial’ tension that soon affects the siege-mates as they struggle to barricade themselves against the gradual waves of ‘ghouls’ from the outside.
Meanwhile the emergency broadcasting networks try to explain the phenomenon as triggered by a Venus orbiting satellite, Explorer, destroyed owing to the presence of some form of radiation - but that has seemingly infected the eastern third of the U.S, causing the recently-dead to reanimate and cannibalistically devour living humans. They advise the crudest method of dispatching the walking dead, using bludgeoning, fire and bullets and foregoing civilised burial procedures to prevent the just-dead from rising as well: “The bodies must be burned immediately. They’re just dead flesh – and dangerous”.
In the final act, the plans that the impromptu housemates make fall apart: Tom and Judy are blown up in their truck as they attempt to refuel it for a planned group getaway. Harry’s streak of cowardice gets him fatally wounded during the climactic waves of zombie attack on the house when he wrestles a gun from Ben, who shoots him in the heat of the conflict. Harry stumbles down to the cellar he was so keen to hide in all along and dies of his wounds. Helen retreats there also where she witnesses the awful sight of their daughter Karen consuming her dead husband on the floor. Karen stabs her mother to death with a garden trowel. Barbra is shocked to see her brother Johnny as part of the undead horde forcing their way into the property. They envelop and kill her. Ben, the last survivor, hides in the cellar, shooting the revived Harry and Helen.
As dawn breaks, the posse of townsfolk led by Sheriff “Beat ‘em or burn ‘em. They go up pretty easy” McClelland cuts a neutralising swathe toward the house. A groggy Ben comes to the window, where he is mistaken for a zombie and clinically shot, leaving no survivors from the night’s desperate stand…
Despite its limitations, or maybe because of them, NOTLD is ground-breakingly effective in many ways: Firstly, the budgetary restrictions created a tight comradeship among the cast and crew, many of whom blurred the lines between the two by having to perform double or even triple duty in functions – Russell Streiner was not just acting in the film as Johnny, he was a co-producer, like Karl ‘Harry’ Hardman, who added a third role as one of the make-up artists on set.
The close collaboration off-screen was superbly warped on-screen to create a pressure cooker of bubbling tensions within the makeshift family unit in the house. After eroding our character identification by rendering Barbra catatonic (much like killing off Janet Leigh so early in PSYCHO), the threat level of being ripped open by the zombies outside is matched by the potential of being structurally torn apart indoors, Hot-headed Harry bull-dozes his way in, masking his cowardice with intimidation, pushing for the group to hide down in the cellar from the get-go whether they agree or not. He and Ben constantly duel for top-dog status, the latter losing his cool at the older man’s dangerous selfishness: “I oughtta drag you out there and feed you to those things!” Harry’s wife confirms that his behaviour is not situational - his combative, insecure nature is a catalyst in accelerating their demise. There is sociological commentary here about how a supposedly civilised society may descend into chaos if our instinct for self-preservation is allowed to dominate our humanity.
The elements that make up the grammar of the zombie movie originate here. As well as the fraught vying for dominance between alpha males thrown together by necessity under the claustrophobia of siege conditions , the rules - the standard methods of dispatch so familiar as horror lore now of either burning or putting a bullet in the brain - began with NOTLD.
Linked to this, the casting of Duane Jones as the leader within the group was an important step in affirmative ethnic role models on-screen, all the more impressive as he was slotted into a script where the character was written as caucasian. No changes were made following his casting, no traces of tokenism - his ethnicity is not referenced in any way, and he emerges as a well-spoken, calm, resourceful, middle-class character, like a young Bill Cosby, but one with much-needed practical skills. (Today, I fancy this type of role would be cast more narrowly with a young, streetwise ‘gang-banger’ personality). During the filming, it took Jones some time before he felt comfortable with the opportunity as it was so rare in a society still supportive in many places of residual segregation and a period where civilian rioters and the Black Panthers battled militantly for equality.
The gory feastings by the zombies on human entrails (supplied by a local butcher shop) were fiercely graphic for their time, and although not as visceral as, say the later eye gouging of Olga Karlatos in ZOMBI 2 or some of the ‘head traumas’ and disembowelments in Romero’s awesome sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, they still deliver strikingly queasy moments. Watching the undead hungrily devouring the remnants of Tom and Judy in the moonlight outside the house is memorably unsettling as is the quasi-Freudian snacking of young Karen upon her mother in the cellar.
The monochrome cinematography and raw feel adds to the almost documentary veracity of NOTLD. During the film, we are fed pieces of rolling news from the media as a state of emergency results in shelters being set up and newscasters attempting to gather expert advice from scientists and the government. Watching it now, it foreshadows the 24-hour news cycle coverage of today’s war and disasters covered by the likes of CNN. These scenes are credible in how they move from vague guesswork to concrete specifics of trying to handle the situation and public panic as more facts are known.
NIGHT’s cinéma vérité grimness of aspect is also powerfully amplified at the end. The shooting of Ben is a shockingly downbeat conclusion; just as we are led to believe a new day brings new possibilities for life, his death robs us of hope – an admirably brave choice for a movie aiming at commercial success. (The early ‘70s would usher in a similar air of cynicism in many film endings). This is reinforced by the added one-two punch of the casuality with which Sheriff McClelland deadpans “Okay, he’s dead. Let’s go get ‘im. That’s another one for the fire” and the cut to a final sequence of grainy newsprint-style photos of the clean-up operation. The all-night fight for survival of the people we have become invested in is now nothing more than routine sweeping-up.
It’s worth mentioning the effectiveness of sound-track cues as well. Whilst making understandably inexpensive use of open source music, the echoing screams chill as Karen slaughters her mother and the synthesised thudding pulse accompanying the closing still images compounds the hopelessness.
Romero and his colleagues ultimately lost a lot of revenue on the film owing to naivety. Before releasing it, they had copyrighted not the film of NOTLD, but simply the former script-stage title of NIGHT OF THE FLESH-EATERS, which meant that when the name changed to the one we all know it as, the copyright no longer applied. Subsequently, companies were able to print their own VHS releases and avoid paying any royalties to its producers. This did not prevent NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD from making George Romero’s name in the horror movie world. He would always labour outside the established studio system, forging a hard road but one with arguably more artistic control, later refining and expanding his apocalyptic vision with the more ambitious DAWN OF THE DEAD and the damagingly budget-constrained DAY OF THE DEAD, then to my mind over-extending his pioneering property a few films too far (DIARY? SURVIVAL?). He earned his place as a firm genre favourite and is hugely influential to this day as each generation re-draws his zombie territory.
Coming up next, I’ll be covering two of Romero’s follow-on films that explored other areas of horror – SEASON OF THE WITCH (1971) and THE CRAZIES (1973)…