History of the Zombie Genre (Part 4: Night of the Living Dead)

It’s about time we hit the 1960’s and talk about when the Zombie genre took the form that most people recognize today. Funny enough, this happened by accident. The 1960s saw its fair share of Zombie films, but for the most part they followed the same formula as all others that would come before it. Then in 1968, an independent group of film-makers went ahead and created Night of the Living Dead.

I knew it was impossible to discuss the Zombie genre of films without discussing this movie. I felt that the whole point of Splatterpictures was to talk about movies that might have gotten shuffled under the rug, but I can’t honestly say this one falls under that category. That being said, a lot of people owe a lot of thanks to this film and, while I don’t think I could reveal anything about it that hasn’t already been said a million times, I will offer a few thoughts about it and maybe some fun facts that the average person doesn’t know.

The movie was directed by George A. Romero who, at the time, was directing commercials and things of that nature with his friends from school. They decided to try and film their own horror movie like the ones they had watched when they were young. With 6,000 bucks and a lot of gusto, they started Image Ten productions. Eventually the film would demand a higher and higher budget that ultimately fell just over a hundred grand.

The ironic thing that Romero will often say in interviews is that he had no intention of making them “Zombies”. In his mind, Zombies were the monsters that people were familiar with at the time. Corpses brought back to life via magic to do the bidding of some dark master. He said he wanted to do a film that was along the same lines as the book I am Legend which came out in 1954. I am Legend would go on to be made into a direct adaptation with Vincent Price’s fantastic Last Man of Earth (I will probably get to that one eventually). Anyway, in I Am Legend the ghouls in question are actually vampires. Romero thought that he would do something similar and have ghouls comes to life through some vague explanation (in this case it was space radiation from a comet). To add to the horror, he said that when the dead come back to life, they eat the living. Little did he know that he would set the groundwork for every Zombie movie to come later.

All of the rules that people associate with the undead are present in this film. They eat flesh and, to take them down permanently, you have to destroy the brain. A few things that you don’t see carried over too much in other films for some reason is that the Zombies in this film are able to use tools. A ghoul will grab a rock to assist him in breaking a car window, use a spade to kill someone or smash a car light. Oh yeah, that’s the other thing. They are afraid of fire and bright lights. Those things seem a bit out of place, but remember Romero didn’t consider them Zombies at all so it makes sense looking back. In fact it wouldn’t be until the 2005 Land of the Dead, that the word “Zombie” was ever used.

A lot of people also comment on social commentary that the film makes, and I’ve never really gotten it myself. Yes, the main character is a black man (the late Duane Jones). Yes, he orders around a bunch of white people and yes, the ending could be interpreted as discrimination. Put all that together and consider the fact that it was 1968, it’s so easy to see why people dissect it so much. In my opinion, the shortest way past speculation is to ask the creator. So what does Romero have to say about it? Well, basically he says that there wasn’t any intention for people to derive social commentary from the film. All of the actors who were cast were cast because they would work for cheap (for most of them, it was their first film), or that they just happened to be in the area. The role never specified that the character of Ben had to be black or white. It always boggles my mind that people need to constantly make something out of nothing. If anything, I find it pretty amusing how the movie portrays the female characters. Barbara (Judith O’Dea) has a very promising start, but becomes pretty useless by the end. Most of the women have subservient rolls and just sit around looking worried while waiting for the men to decide everything. Except for Marilyn Eastman who plays Helen Cooper, she’s fucking awesome. I love how she just spends the movie angrily smoking and taking shots at her husband. Don’t feel bad; her husband Harry (Karl Hardman) would serve to be the standard archetype for every Zombie movie; the dick. Every Zombie movie needs a good rotten bastard who would sell out anybody to survive. Interestingly enough, Karl Hardman had his own daughter play his daughter in the movie (Eastman was his business partner in real life too).

I can’t think of anything else to say about this film other than it’s fantastic. At the time, the graphic depictions of zombies eating the living had never been shown so graphically before, much to the outrage of critics and parents. In those days the film rating system wasn’t in place so children of all ages could go and watch it. People getting eaten and the grim ending made for a pretty traumatic experience for audiences. By today’s standards it’s pretty tame and I remember when I first watched it I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. I liked it, sure, but I didn’t find it all that gory. Plus the nihilistic ending was what I pretty much expected (every zombie movie I’d seen up till that point had the same basic ending, like maybe they all got their ending from somewhere… but where?).

I really could go on and on, but I think it’s best to say if you haven’t seen it, you really have to. It’s been parodied, copied, remade, animated and referenced in pop culture since its release. Forty years later and it’s still regarded as one of the most successful horror movies ever made and one of the most profitable independent films of all time. Too bad you lost the rights to it Romero! Don’t worry though you still have six fucking sequels and counting.

If I really felt like it, the rest of our look back at Zombie horror could just be Romero’s “Dead” series. I think I can do a little better then that. Next up we hit the 1970’s and head back off to Italy!

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