‘Night of the Living Dead’ is the ‘Citizen Kane’ of horror films
Though it may be difficult to fathom by modern standards, Night of the Living Dead was, in its time, the most horrific, most disgusting, and most terrifying film ever made. Its legacy persists because it continues to inform scores of imitators that it still manages to best since it established the game, despite the fact that it was made by an industrial commercial maker as a lark on a budget of $100,000.
In 1968, a zombie apocalypse had never been seen or conceived.
The closest approximations to this type of film lay in the portrayal of voodoo zombies that exist in an entirely different set of circumstances, and the concepts of vampirism and lycanthropy were merged to create the modern definition of zombies as repeated ad nauseam: the risen dead turned flesh-eating cannibals who can turn the living by a simple bite.
The idea of incorporating this concept into a procedural plot that concerns mere survival is no less revolutionary than it was when the film first came out; consider that most films of the era concerned mad scientists and experiments with nuclear power. Instead, Night of the Living Dead follows the story of a half-dozen ordinary people holed up in an abandoned farm house. There is no cutaway to a lab, nor is there any obtuse back story to explain away the action. Instead, the protagonists are trapped in a world with no explanations other than the conjecture offered through panicked television and radio broadcasts. In a world of borrowed and outright stolen ideas, the closest predecessor to Night of the Living Dead is a seldom seen cult film by another industrial filmmaker, namely Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, a film that bears little relationship but whose impact can be felt up through Jacob’s Ladder.
The cast of characters are distinctly anonymous by any standards; no actor appeared in any other noteworthy film, and as a result, the audience is freed of expectations as to who lives and with whom they should side. The fact that the film is comprised of largely non-actors rarely detracts from the plot. In fact, the female protagonist loses her mind in the first few minutes, never to recover, and the male protagonist, a black man in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, has more common sense and know-how than anyone else.
The fact that Duane Jones, who will forever be associated with this film, is the smartest, most able character is not played as a defining moment in black history. Instead, he’s just one the anonymous few who happens to be the voice of reason. In spite of this, the film is rich with the possibility of subtext in the characters who underestimate him or attempt to undermine his authority, and though the bleak ending defined the horror genre by way of its abhorrent irony within the story, a significant query could be mounted as to whether the protagonist’s fate is tied into the prejudices of the posse policing the community.
Deeper subtext exists in this film than initially meets the eye, because while the proceedings are played straight with a power struggle emerging over who has the best interests of the group at heart, it is possible to read a deeper metaphorical context into the levels of the house; is it possible that the ground level is an earthly plane while the second floor represents absolution and the basement represents damnation? The fact that a film so reliant upon its procedural elements can be interpreted with this critical depth speaks to the universal appeal of writer/director George A. Romero’s themes.
Then, of course, there’s the gore. At the time of the film’s release, the MPAA did not have a rating system, so people of all ages were admitted to the film without warning. To say that the more grisly scenes were met with a negative reaction would be the understatement of the century; Night of the Living Dead became one of the most formative films in the establishment of a universal rating system and its violence was hence decried as pornographic. The sight of people tearing into the organs and tissue of their victims is unsettling to this day. Roger Ebert chided theater owners and parents who allowed children access to the film:
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else.
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. It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember, at that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.
If the film were a stylistic void, it could not have achieved its particular niche of being one of, if not the greatest horror film ever made. Night of the Living Dead’s more artistic flourishes are likely rendered imperceptible due to the film’s dense, quick moving, and expertly paced plot. Indeed, one of the most affecting shots in all of horror cinema comes about halfway through the movie with little fanfare; when one of the members of the undead is struck in the face and recoils from a straight shot point of view, he backs away to reveal the growing horde behind him in an expose that lets both the audience and the characters know just how screwed they really are.
Romero mined the same territory with his stylistically superior sequel Dawn of the Dead and continued to shape the genre with his subsequent entries into Night of the Living Dead’s canon, and the influence of all his films is not only important to everything that followed, it is essential. From Return of the Living Dead, to the remake of Dawn of the Dead, to 28 Days Later, to Shaun of the Dead, to The Walking Dead, it’s impossible to take any shuffling step without landing on a keyword that leads back to the pinnacle achievement or see stylistic fingerprints that are not immediately informed by Romero’s classic triumph. If a film’s critical and financial success are merged with its influence, there can be no doubt that Night of the Living Dead is the greatest horror film ever made.
The only problem for those attempting to acquire this masterpiece is an unfortunate rights issue; Romero did not include his copyright in the credits for the original print, so dozens if not hundreds of cheap knockoffs pop up on DVD and Blu-ray all the time. Many times classic films like this end up with several decent releases without a single definitive one, but fortunately, for the collector, there is only one to buy: Elite Entertainment’s Millennium Edition not only has the best special features and the definitive cut of the film, it is the only, and I mean the only version of the film on format struck from the original 35mm negative. The others are made from the more standard 16mm prints and generally don’t have good mastering, so the quality is substandard at best. Fortunately Amazon’s got it for under $5 at this moment, so what are you waiting for? The return of the living dead?