Filmed in stark black and white and featuring mostly unknown actors, Night of the Living Dead is one of the most inspired, celebrated, and influential horror films to haunt the screen. Made on a low budget, George A. Romero’s first zombie flick combines frightening situations, gruesome carnage, mordant humor, and incisive social criticism and has earned a dedicated cult following. It may also be the only film that has been colorized, sequelized, remade, and reedited with new footage within the lifetime of its director.
While the film’s violence is uncompromising, its narrative is not exactly original. In this apocalyptic scenario, the bodies of the recently dead are reanimated as mindless zombies eager to feed on the flesh of the living. Romero and co-writer John Russo have acknowledged that I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s influential 1954 novella, inspired their script. In I Am Legend, hordes of vampires assail the last human survivor who has barricaded himself inside his house. Highly acclaimed by writers like Stephen King, Matheson’s novella brings the gothic vampire into our technological world. The vampires of I Am Legend are the product of a biological agent. Similarly, Night deconstructs zombie mythology in flesh-eating monsters far removed from their voodoo origins.
Night begins with the arrival of Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner), at a cemetery, to visit their father’s grave. Johnny grumbles about having to drive for miles, bitterly confessing that he barely remembers their father as Barbara attempts to placate him. When a strange man in a suit shuffles towards them, Johnny scares his sister rather than continue their argument: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
The strange man, of course, is undead. He kills Johnny and chases Barbara to a nearby farmhouse. Here she discovers the rotten remains of the owners, as well as a couple of zombies. As she tries to flee, Ben (Duane Jones) arrives and begins to barricade the doors and windows. While Romero claims he hired Jones because he was the “best” actor available, the casting of this lone black actor also provides the film with a racial subtext, overtly linked to the social and political turmoil of late 1960s U.S.
Night was released the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Images of Ben destroying furniture to barricade the house, and putting fire to a sofa to keep the zombies away bring to mind images of urban violence and rioting. This implication is complicated in scenes where Ben tends to the nearly catatonic Barbara, as these suggest what was then still a forbidden interracial relationship. This reading is reinforced when one takes into account that the attacking zombies — not to mention the cops who come to murder Ben in the end — are all white, resembling lynch mobs.
Such race anxieties are redoubled in the other survivors who have been hiding in the farmhouse basement. These include the dysfunctional Cooper family, Harry (Karl Hardman), his frustrated wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and bitten daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), as well as the young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). According to Harry, the basement is the best place to hide, while Ben believes they should stay upstairs, as the closed underground appears a deadly trap. Their conflict comes to a head over their only gun. At this point, the fight for survival turns into a battle for phallic control between two alpha males.
Even though Ben and Harry’s quarrels have an unquestionable racial backdrop, Romero is also interested in highlighting the irrational aspects of unrestrained destructive masculinity. The catastrophic fate that awaits this group of survivors is as much due to real or metaphoric bigotry, as it is the result of male selfishness and stubbornness. At the same time, second wave feminism (at the time of the film’s release, visible in street demonstrations and elsewhere) is conspicuously absent. Barbara barely speaks, Helen barely dares defy her husband, and Judy follows Tom wherever he goes, even to their fiery deaths. Tellingly, as the human characters are increasingly divided, the zombies present a united, voracious front.
Sadly, following the film’s unexpected success at the time of its original release, Romero and his collaborators lost control of their intellectual property, having signed hasty distribution deals. This explains why the movie is available on several DVD editions of varying quality. Elite Entertainment’s Millennium Edition is by far the best, offering a pristine new transfer and extra features lifted from the 1996 Special Edition laserdisc.
The first audio commentary features George Romero and co-writer John Russo, as well as actors Hardman and Eastman, offering amusing anecdotes about the production, including their use of chocolate syrup and leftovers from the local butcher shop to create gory images. A second audio commentary, by actors Bill Hinzman (the cemetery zombie), Wayne, Streiner, O’Dea, Schon and Vince Survinski (a member of the sheriff’s posse), provides further trivia. The principal actors unavailable for the new audio commentaries, Jones and Ridley, appear in two past interviews.
Of these, Jones’ is most surprising. Recorded for the 20th anniversary of the film (his last interview before his death in 1988), it reveals that he is, in fact, disinterested in Night of the Living Dead and the horror genre in general. Jones confesses to not having seen any other Romero film, and openly expresses his displeasure at being repeatedly asked the same questions by horror film fans. In contrast to Jones’ efforts to distance himself from the film, an extensive poster and stills gallery seems almost a shrine. The images include domestic and foreign posters, production stills, newspaper advertisements, and official “documents” from the production. Equally fan-pleasing are the original treatment and shooting screenplay. In a brief introduction to this extra, John Russo reveals that Night was initially intended to be a horror-comedy aimed at “teens.” As it turns out, the movie is much more, integral to the histories of low-budget, independent cinema, as well as horror and cult films.