Joe Kane’s ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ Is a Must Read for Dead-heads Everywhere

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”

In these famous lines, spoken in a knock-off Boris Karloff accent, the new age of the zombie was born. In his 1968 Night of the Living Dead, horror auteur George Romero set in motion a transformation of the American horror film that haunts our dreams today. This was the origination of a new way of telling monster tales, as well as the birth of our current zombie-philia.

Fans of World War Z, Zombieland and The Walking Dead need to know their history. Joe Kane has written the definitive guide to the Night of the Living Dead, a must read for dead-heads everywhere.

First, it has to be noted that the massive authority that Kane brings to the book is enough to make it essential reading, not only for zombie fans but for genre fans more generally. Since the early ’70s, Kane, “the Phantom of the Movies”, has provided horror and science fiction criticism and information through Videoscope magazine and a reference guide that has become a bible for horror and cult film connoisseurs.

In a world of zombie books (I’ve reviewed three for PopMatters in the last two months!), Kane is really the perfect author for a critical tribute such as this one. In fact, Kane’s Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever really sells itself short with its title. Although the author certainly explores every dark nook and cranny of the zombiemeister’s masterpiece, this book is very good general guide to all things Romero. Early chapters on casting and filming the horror classic are followed by a full discussion of the film’s reception and its larger meaning in American culture.

Later chapters deal with Romero’s “Dead” franchise, and contain almost as much information on Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead as on Night of the Living Dead. If you are an aficionado, you’ve heard a few of the stories, such as the path that combat photographer Tom Savini took to become Romero’s magician of make-up SFX and one of the greatest living monster and horror effects artist.

Still, there’s plenty here that you probably haven’t heard, including the real national guardsmen who took delight in playing national guardsmen in Dawn of the Dead as a weekend assignment.

Kane also does a careful and much needed job of exploring how copyright issues to Romero’s work on Night of the Living Dead have perennially robbed the filmmaker of control of his work. Kane rightfully skewers an absurd 1998 “remake” of Night of the Living Dead by former Romero production and writing partner John Russo in which an additional 18-minutes were added to the film and released by Anchor Bay Entertainment as a “new” 30th anniversary edition.

Romero was utterly ignored as the project went ahead and the results were predictably stupid and stupefying, including anachronistic clothing and scenery imported wholesale into the 1968 version of the film.

Kane also knows the politics of zombies. Part of the appeal of Romero’s gruesome fables has always been their clear and often cutting satire. “I believe the monsters are us,” Kane quotes the master as saying, “I’ve always played with that.” Kane is aware that Romero plays with these images and his exegesis of the films shows both a keen awareness of Romero’s left-leaning, communitarian ethos and the ability to read the films very closely and lovingly.

A number of rare stills both from productions and of promotional ephemera are also on the table for the zombie fan’s gory feast. Not to be missed is a photograph of a promotional gag issued by theatres. An official looking piece of paper urged ticket holders to “sign their own death certificate” and release the theatre from any liability. It includes a blank to fill in time and cause of death. Other drive-ins went for the classier approach, issuing official Night of the Living Dead “sick bags”.

As if all this were not enough, Kane has brought to bear his literally encyclopedic knowledge of horror film to provide short descriptions of “Zombie Movie Milestones” from Reanimator to 28 Days Later. Finally, there is even a very detailed DVD list of Romero’s works and of important zombie films outside his oeuvre and a complete original screenplay for Night of the Living Dead (interesting for its many differences from the film version).

If you are a Romero fanatic, this is likely a book you’ll keep by your bed. If you love the walking undead but don’t know your zombie history, this is the book to read before you head out for your next zombie prom or zombie pub-crawl.

RATING 9 / 10