... aka: Night of the Flesh Eaters
George A. Romero
In celebration of George A. Romero's 73rd birthday, I wanted to finally get a long overdo write-up of his landmark, hugely influential film up on this blog. So much has already been written about Night over the years that I've decided to begin things a little differently: with a personal story. As horror fans, I think we all have that one movie we saw at a young, impressionable age that had such an overwhelming emotional impact on us that we now credit with it with turning us into the genre-loving adults we are today. Mine happens to be Night of the Living Dead and I'll share my story about how this film scared the ever-living hell out of an innocent, oblivious little boy back in the mid 80s. I grew up on a farm way out in the sticks and was raised by a single mother who had the burden of supporting three kids on a nursing assistant's income. Because she always had to work, and often had to pick up third shift hours to supplement things, my siblings and I spent a lot of time being shuffled between various friends and relatives homes. Sometimes schedules conflicted and we even founds ourselves home alone at certain times. I'm not sure where my brother and sister were at the time, but one evening I found my seven-year-old self in that very position...
Alone with free reign over the TV set, a rare thing in our home, and with no one to tell me when to go to bed, I found myself up late into the early morning hours, Night was one of the featured movies and the rest is history. As adults with our cynicism and our real world experiences, it's sometimes hard to remember back to a time when something as simple as a movie could truly, truly terrify us. Night did just that to me. Living one state over from where it was filmed, I was all too familiar with the film's rural settings. I knew these lonely, old, infrequently-visited country cemeteries, these long stretches of empty fields, these deep pockets of forests and these isolated white farmhouses with paint chipping off of the sides. Where I lived, no other houses were visible from anywhere on our property. Our nearest neighbor lived a half-mile away and all one could see from anywhere on the property was trees. And beyond that, darkness.
As the movie unfolded, I was completely horrified by what I was watching yet unable to look away from the TV screen until it was all over. I remember breathing a sigh of relief at the end when I thought one of the characters was safe and daylight came, then being knocked for a complete loop by this film's grim, hopeless ending. After it was all over, I peered nervously out of the windows at the night, just waiting for a zombie's face to appear. I ran to my room, locked the door, closed the curtains and just lied there in silence listening intently for any kind of noise. My mind raced with ideas. What would I do if zombies decided to pay me a visit? I eventually came to the conclusion I'd just go into the attic and wait for my mom to come get me.
Needless to say, I didn't sleep a wink that night and didn't until the rest of my family came back the next day. Afterward, I was scared I'd be left all alone and, for months, did everything in my power to ensure that wouldn't happen again. Looking back, it's almost as funny as my brother and I taking turns posting guard outside the bathroom door during shower time so we wouldn't get slashed to death after viewing Psycho, but I'm sure I'm not alone in the deep emotional impact certain films had on me in my youth. There's a reason we continue to love this stuff into adulthood and a reason I and so many others have a lifelong attachment to this genre.
Night is in a select company of films so well-known, so frequently viewed and so often discussed that the premise doesn't really even require much discussion. After her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) is suddenly and abruptly killed by a undead ghoul in a cemetery, Barbra (Judith O'Dea) flees to a secluded farmhouse, finds a half-eaten corpse and retreats inside herself from the shock of it all. A small group of surviving humans turn up and help to board up the house while zombies, driven by their hunger for human flesh, slowly start to accumulate outside. Duane Jones (often cited as the first black actor cast in a lead role in one of these things regardless of his race) is Ben, a resourceful type, whose ideas about what the group should do are constantly at odds with those of Henry Cooper (Karl Hardman); an arrogant, short-fused bully. Marilyn Eastman is Henry's wife Helen, who's sick of her husband's shit and trying to tend to their injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who was bitten by one of the zombies. Young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) round out the group. They get bits and pieces inconclusive information from a TV broadcast, try to stave off various zombie attacks and, ultimately, discover they have something more to fear than the hungry ghouls outside...
Starkly and cheaply shot in black-and-white on an extremely low-budget, this has a supremely creepy look and feel to it that we're not likely to ever see again. The events that unfold are bleak, dark, desperate, completely devoid of humor (though not irony) and scary, the classic power struggle between Ben and Harry is well-played and intelligently handled, and the amount of hopelessness and tension Romero is able to steadily build throughout keeps the suspense quotient high.
Romero's willingness to break the rules and take chances in a safer, more sanitized age is a major reason for this film's success and something I think a lot of people now take for granted. For starters, he pushed the envelope when it came to 'acceptable' depictions of on-screen violence, which quickly gave this the reputation as a true shocker; an "I Dare You To See It..." type of film in its day. Word of mouth spread and the movie became a huge hit in theaters and drive-ins, playing for years, but Romero himself didn't see much of the money and had to work with extremely limited funds over the course of most of the rest of his career. Much more than just a shocker and influential genre film, Night is also one of the most important independent film productions of all time; proving one doesn't have to be a slave to Hollywood to craft a much-loved and financially successful film on one's own terms. There's a good reason this is one of the only horror titles deemed important enough to have been inducted into the National Film Registry.
Much analysis has gone into the content and social commentary aspects of this film over the years, some of which Romero claims was not intended, so I'll take his lead and not comment upon any of that. The film is a thoroughly effective piece of horror cinema regardless. The fact people see there's more to this than meets the eye is simply a testament to how well-made it is.
Romero would return to the genre he created and that made him famous with the brilliant follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which was both critically and financially successful (one hopes Romero got to see more of the fruits of his labors with that one). That was followed by DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), which got blasted by critics and "fans" alike upon release but has since picked up a large following. Land of the Dead (2005; the largest-budgeted of all these films), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009) eventually followed and have managed to do the impossible by polarizing audience opinion even more so than the initial 'Living Dead Trilogy.'
Several other Night alumni would capitalize on their association with this classic film. Co-writer John A. Russo and actor / photographer S. William Hinzman (the cemetery zombie) have both toiled away in low-budget horror ever since. Russo added brand new footage to the original film and released it as Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition in 1999 and Hinzman made and starred in the bad (but fun) zombie cheapie REVENGE OF THE LIVING ZOMBIES (aka Flesh Eater) in 1988. Theater-trained actress O'Dea would make a belated return to acting in the early 2000s and has proven to be a damn good character actress in such films as October Moon (2004). Other have taken on small roles in other genre films. Russo's SANTA CLAWS (1996), for instance, included Hardman, Eastman, Hinzman and Russo himself in its cast.
Night of the Living Dead posters from around the globe...
A public domain title, Night has been tinkered around with on numerous occasions; a trend that continues to this day. There's a colorized version floating around for those with an aversion to black-and-white. A 1991 release (the name is too long to list here, but it starts with Night of the Day of the Dawn...) has new dubbed over comic voices, as does the recent Another Night of the Living Dead (2012). The film was also spoofed, including in the 1990 short Night of the Living Bread. In addition, numerous documentaries have been made covering this film's production. For the 25th Anniversary in 1993, the film was reissued with new cast and crew interviews. An entire Pittsburgh-based convention was also held in 1993 for just this one film; which has been documented in the Russo-assembled DVD release ZOMBIE JAMBOREE (1993).
Production stills and lobby cards...
In addition to all of the supplemental tie-ins and DVDs, Night has been the subject of numerous "official" remakes. Fx man Tom Savini directed the first, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990), which was produced by Russo and executive produced and scripted by Romero. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D (2006) followed and there are no less than three (!) others slated for released in the next few years, including an animated version. The reputation and importance of Night seems to only grow stronger as the years go by.
In closing, I'd simply like to thank Mr. Romero for not only instilling in me the love of horror films but for film in general. For introducing one little farm boy to the true power of cinema over twenty years ago; a love he's maintained to this very day and one that's truly enriched his life.