If any film is ripe for a definitive edition from The Criterion Collection, it’s Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 indie horror film that launched the zombie sub-genre and reinforced what Alfred Hitchcock sought to prove with Psycho: that it’s indeed possible to make a low-budget black-and-white film that is still artful and stylish.
Over the years, Night of the Living Dead has been released in various cuts of dubious quality—even colorized—by a number of different distributors, since it was not properly copyrighted. As director George A. Romero explains on one of the bonus features in this two-disc Blu-ray release, he was so new to filmmaking that he put the copyright symbol on the title card, and when the title of the film was changed, the copyright disappeared. The film became fair game for anyone wanting to make a quick profit, and quality control became impossible. Adding to the confusion was that Romero’s partner and original co-writer, John A. Russo, spliced in extra footage and a new soundtrack for what was marketed as a 30th Anniversary Edition of the film—an edition that most fans rejected.
This new 4K restoration was supervised and approved not only by Romero, but also by Russo, original sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner. It only took 50 years to get it right, but fans will think it worth the wait. The film itself looks spectacular, with rich-looking blacks, deep contrasts, and sharp edge detail throughout. Included too is Night of Anubis, a work-print edit of the film that shows how some sequences evolved.
Sometimes bonus features can be a mixed bag, but those included here are full of small delights, starting with an exterior photo of the theater at which Night of the Living Dead premiered, with a banner proclaiming it “Pittsburgh’s Own First Feature Film”. Romero says the B movie cost $117k to shoot just outside of the city, but it made $700k its first year playing in drive-ins and neighborhood theaters. It’s fun to hear about people in rural western Pennsylvania who were recruited to play “ghouls” (the word “zombie” is never used in the film). In one extra they talk about how little direction they received. A woman said she and her husband had “no idea what the movie was about until they started putting goop on our faces and said, ‘Now you’re a ghoul’.” Then they were told to “walk kinda crazy-like and try to get into the house” and to “look dead, walk slow, keep moving.” As one of them put it, “We had seen the old Frankenstein and Wolf Man and Mummy movies,” so they simply mimicked the slow, staggering gait of Victor Frankenstein’s creature and the bandage-wrapped Egyptian.
The plot was just as minimal. First one ghoul appears in a cemetery, then others. They attack a couple in a car. A blonde named Barbra (Judith O’Dea) runs away after her boyfriend is overpowered by ghouls and she seeks refuge in a nearby farmhouse. Soon afterwards she is joined by a black man named Ben (Duane Jones) who needs gas for his car. They discover five others who had boarded themselves up in the farmhouse basement: a young couple named Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley), a husband and wife (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman), and their injured daughter (Kyra Schon). Ghouls try to get in, the humans try to survive, and a radio and television set allow Romero to expand the whole concept beyond those limited interior and exterior sets.
Romero, a self-taught filmmaker who partnered with Russell Streiner and Russo to make commercials in the Pittsburgh area, had long wanted to create a horror film, and he found inspiration in Richard Matheson’s 1954 apocalyptic sci-fi novel, I Am Legend. In it, a hero somehow survives a pandemic in which disease has created a complicated world threat involving parasites and bacteria and vampires. Romero simplified the whole thing, changed vampires to zombies, and looked to recent headlines for a quick and effective explanation: somehow, radiation from the returning Mariner 5 “Venus probe” spacecraft caused only the recently deceased to rise from the dead.
But these “zombies”, as critics took to calling them, weren’t confined to Haiti, as moviegoers saw in the 1943 B movie I Walked with a Zombie, and they weren’t just mind-controlled slaves, as people saw in Teenage Zombies (1959). Romero’s zombies had a taste for human flesh, and audiences watched them chow down on body parts. As director Guillermo del Toro notes in another bonus feature, “George made this everlasting hunger part of the myth, and that idea changed the horror genre forever.”
It certainly was a major shock for Baby Boomers who had grown up savoring the classic Universal monsters in films that were fun scary. As film critic Roger Ebert famously described a matinee of Night of the Living Dead that he attended, “The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to the movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else.”
Romero says he sees only mistakes now when he watches the film, but in another main bonus feature Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos (Every Frame a Painting) point out how the limitations of Romero’s 35mm camera and the mount needed to achieve synchronized sound actually contributed to the film’s distinctive style. Ignoring the glaring shadow of a boom mike in one scene, I would argue that the film’s unevenness also plays a big part in the overall effect, helping to keep viewers off-balance. Some scenes feature the kind of canted shots, extreme close-ups, and quick cuts that, in combination, create an artful, distinctive look that reinforce the film’s sense of menace. Some scenes are outright campy, and as Romero said later in an interview included here, with horror audiences so jaded that they sit there and say, “Scare us,” you “almost have to keep your tongue in your cheek.” Other scenes border on the melodramatic, with turn-taking monologues and a propensity in some of the actors to over-emote—if that seems remotely possible in the midst of a zombie onslaught.Then there’s one recurring case of gratuitous posterior nudity that links Night of the Living Dead to sexploitation films, and an unmistakable tribute to Psycho as the music crescendoes with every stab. Romero also subverts audience expectations by tweaking clichés, as when Barbra slaps Ben and, rather than slap her back, he punches her. The overall effect is much as Ebert described back in the day: some laughter, some delight, much tension and surprise, and some stunned-in-silence horror.
What’s fascinating about this release is that several of the vintage and newly created bonus features include TV commercials that Romero made, and you can see the same camera style at work in his Duke Beer ad, in which a man cuts his lawn with a power mower. You can also see the campy side of Romero’s feature film reflected in a Calgon commercial he and his company made as a fun takeoff on Fantastic Voyage (1966).
It was especially striking in 1968 that Jones, the lead actor in a film set in rural America, was African American—something audiences were not used to seeing, even five years after Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking performance in Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963). Romero says that the film took on another life after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and people began to read racial messages into it. What’s striking now is that race is never mentioned and never a factor, and we learn why in one of the bonus features. The entire cast was originally envisioned as white, but the lead role demanded some serious acting chops, and as Romero explains, “Duane was the best actor from among our friends.” That’s refreshing, and I don’t know that Hollywood has ever gotten to the point where race mattered as little as it did to Romero and the rest of his cast and crew in that funky little farmhouse siege movie. But anti-authoritarianism was also in the air back then, and Stuart Rosenberg‘s Cool Hand Luke had introduced the ironic anti-hero only a year earlier, so audiences were bound to see some sort of metaphor for the collapse of society and the abuse of authority. Even today, those zombie masses can represent the mindless hordes that attack each other on social media for opposing political views.
Still, metaphor and social statement are insufficient to explain the enduring power of Night of the Living Dead. In the end, it comes down to the same reaction young Ebert experienced with other children in a darkened theater. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you call them. When you see those walking dead gorging themselves on limbs and guts, it hits you right in your own gut. It’s fine if you notice that Romero and Russo cleverly have their reanimated ghouls go through the same stages as early man, first discovering (or reacting to) fire and then learning to use tools. But theories be damned, what ultimately makes these zombies unsettling—then and still—is that, on a visceral level, they somehow manage to get to you.