Like one of its ghoulish “things,” Night of the Living Dead gnawed its way into popular culture beginning in the late 1960s, transmitting an unstoppable urge toward mindless, flesh-chewing destruction. Each imitator’s poisonous nip seemed to incite yet another tale of the famished dead, as if in a morbid game of tag, until encircling legions of zombie entertainments today shamble across the world’s screens. As of this writing, a keyword search for zombie online returns 2,955 titles. The walking dead enjoy their own long-running (or long-staggering) television series, and an army of the dead, blue eyes glowing like LED lights, menaces the otherwise peaceful realms of Game of Thrones.
Director George A. Romero expressed no pride in this metastasis of the genre he had inadvertently created. Understandably, and rightfully, he wanted his films to be judged for what they were, and not what others had made and remade of them. In interviews, he also declined repeated invitations to speculate about the significance within the broader culture of the enthusiasm for zombies. As he pointed out to critic Peter Keough in 2010, he hadn’t even used the word: “I never thought of them as zombies . . . People started to write about Night of the Living Dead and called them zombies. I said, ‘Wow, maybe they are.’ To me, they were dead neighbors.”
Let’s agree that Romero’s work deserves better than to be used as a diagnostic tool for generalized disorders of the body politic. That said, it’s worth asking why Night of the Living Dead seemed to many of us, back in the day, to be such a terrifying and bracing eruption within movie culture. It’s also valid to try to recapture what the film suggested, or threatened, within the America in which it first appeared. As Romero also said to Keough, “All of my zombie films are just sort of snapshots of the time they were made.”
I think of that moment as stretching from the film’s inception, during the long, hot summer of 1967, through its elevation to cult status in mid-1970. When Night of the Living Dead was being conceived, its authors were soaking up the influence of the Detroit and Newark riots. The movie’s initial release came shortly after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Chicago police rampaged in the nighttime streets under the glare of TV lights. Upon its full emergence, at the time of its decisive rerelease in the summer of 1970, the film impressed its baleful vision of America on audiences who had just seen National Guardsmen shoot antiwar protesters to death at Kent State University. Some time frame. Some snapshot.
The practicalities that made this moment so long are less compelling to consider than the uncanny effect that resulted. Still, there’s a story to tell about Romero and his struggles. A child of the Bronx, born in 1940, Romero learned early on that you could earn money by drawing—his father was a commercial artist—and that the tools of filmmaking did not reside exclusively in Hollywood. By 1954, he had his hands on an 8 mm camera. In 1958, he left New York City for Pittsburgh, to study art, design, and drama at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), and it was there that he began his career.
After making a few shorts, Romero joined with friends in 1962 to form the Latent Image, a production house for industrial films and commercials. The company shot ads for the likes of Westinghouse and H. J. Heinz and made spots for political campaigns (experiences that Romero would draw on sardonically for his 1971 second feature, There’s Always Vanilla). They also spent about three years trying to raise funds for a feature film, “thinking all along that we were going to do a serious piece,” as Romero later recalled. Frustrated, they finally resolved to make something marketable—a horror movie—using their own money. They recruited other investors, especially ones who would put in sweat equity (such as Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, of the commercial film house Hardman Associates, who would play key roles in Night of the Living Dead, along with Hardman’s daughter, Kyra). With John A. Russo, a Latent partner, Romero wrote part of a screenplay, and with these meager resources in hand, the group started production.
It did so at the dawn of a new era for independent American narrative film, as pictures such as Medium Cool, Easy Rider, and Putney Swope were also taking shape. But the people who made those films were based in New York or Los Angeles and had serious credentials. Romero and his friends were unknown outsiders even by the standards of this raffish set—and they had to keep the Latent Image busy while working on their horror movie.
So they made the film a few days at a time, with long breaks in between. The shoot dragged on for approximately nine months (which in other circumstances would have been long enough to make Gone with the Wind). Postproduction ended in April 1968, and after an invitation-only premiere in Pittsburgh at the start of October, Night of the Living Dead went into release, ingloriously, at drive-ins and neighborhood theaters. A New York release in December brought the film good grindhouse business but little respect. A brief review by Vincent Canby in the New York Times dismissed Night of the Living Dead as having been “made by some people in Pittsburgh” and observed, accurately but without enthusiasm, that “the wobbly camera seems to have a fetishist’s interest in hands, clutched, wrung, scratched, severed, and finally—in the ultimate assumption—eaten like pizza.”
That, apparently, was the end. By around April 1969, according to Romero’s account, the film had vanished. Then, zombielike, it came back. First, a U.S. rerelease in July 1969 helped the film develop a cult audience. (People in Andy Warhol’s circle were fans.) Then the French discovered the film early in 1970, leading to another U.S. rerelease in June of that year—and that one finally and permanently established Night of the Living Dead as a movie to be reckoned with.
It had seemed to gather strength from release to release—as if Night of the Living Dead had the strange capacity to incorporate the horrors that had mounted cumulatively in the world after the production wrapped. Consider, for example, the notorious unhappy ending (spoilers start here), in which the sole heroic survivor of the farmhouse siege, Ben (Duane Jones), is shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy. This matter-of-fact execution of an African American man would have been chilling enough when conceived, in the wake of the military occupation of Detroit. The shooting became more terribly soaked in meaning even before moviegoers had a chance to witness it. On the very day that Romero set out to peddle the film to distributors—April 4, 1968—Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. By the time French audiences got around to seeing Night of the Living Dead, the associations hovering around the ending had grown all but unbearable. A squad of Chicago policemen had just murdered the Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed.
A similar intensification of meaning took hold with the film’s American flags—almost the first things you see in it, in establishing shots of a cemetery. Such markers of the Vietnam War dead multiplied relentlessly all the way through the first series of releases. The process began, again with the film still in the can—the Tet Offensive was fought in early 1968, when Night of the Living Dead was in postproduction—and then continued when the movie was in full public view, as the My Lai massacre was uncovered in late 1969 and Richard Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia in mid-1970.
As for the first news reports heard in the film—accounts of an epidemic of “mass murder by unidentified assassins”—who could have watched Night of the Living Dead after August 1969 without imagining that the broadcaster was somehow talking about the Manson family?
This uncommon ability of Night of the Living Dead to condense the terrifying realities outside the movie theater was one reason the film was uniquely disturbing to so many people at the time. It was also widely perceived as going “a step beyond,” meaning that its blood-and-guts images involved actual guts. But where Night of the Living Dead really went beyond was in refusing to explain itself. The film’s unimaginably hellish catastrophe is senseless.
Granted, a news broadcast about two-thirds of the way through the film shows Washington officials proposing that the dead are returning to eat the living because a NASA space probe somehow released high levels of radiation into the atmosphere. But who can be bothered with this feeble theory? It’s flagrantly sketchy, suggests no way to take action, and soon leads to the authorities bickering openly before the TV cameras. About all it accomplishes is to remind you that Night of the Living Dead emerged in the era that popularized the term credibility gap.
And that was a large part of what Romero captured in his snapshot of the era: the bafflement that accompanies violent disorder. It was a time when secret histories, conspiracy theories, and occult revelations flourished: the years when doubts about the Warren Report solidified into national myths (the grassy knoll, the magic bullet), faith in an unknowable plan to end the Vietnam War became a foundation of Nixon’s presidency, the Apollo moon landing was reputed to be faked, and the Beatles were widely believed to have concealed Paul McCartney’s death. Events had become incomprehensible; official pronouncements, unbelievable; and so, for reassurance, many people turned to explanations that were as all-encompassing as they were unverifiable.
But Night of the Living Dead refused to reassure, even on the level of supernaturalism. While playing to the audience’s perception that hideous calamity was erupting everywhere (as in fact it was), the film gave no pretense of providing a reason. I suspect this hardness, this willingness to let people remain dumbfounded in the face of monstrousness, was what Romero meant in his interviews when he said that the movie’s great virtue was its “attitude.” You see that attitude expressed, incident by incident, in the way the film contradicts both rationality and genre expectations.
When the first “thing” appears, striding knock-kneed out of the background of the cemetery to menace Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (producer and Latent Image partner Russell W. Streiner), it looks a little pale and dirty but not necessarily dead. You wouldn’t guess without prompting that this man in his dark business suit intends to eat Barbra’s flesh. The more conventional reading of his pursuit would be that he wants to rape her.
For the next few minutes, the ostensible narrative model remains the lone-woman-in-peril picture, as Barbra takes refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. Shock cuts of taxidermied animal heads set off screams; the discovery of a corpse on the upstairs landing makes Barbra recoil in panic. When Ben seems to burst in from nowhere, it’s understandable that Barbra would recoil from him too. Wailing a question that may also be on the audience’s mind at this point, she cries out, “What’s happening?”
She never gets to find out. Soon, Barbra slips into shock, and out of the central role she seemed to occupy. At this point, as if to make up for the void she has left, new characters emerge from their own nowhere—the cellar—and move Night of the Living Dead into a different genre. Two of them, actually: kitchen-sink melodrama (about an embittered marriage) and social-problem film (about a hip young Black man contesting the authority of an older white one). For a long stretch, the characters spend at least as much time fighting one another—and abetting the struggle between their competing narrative modes—as they do battling the ever-increasing horde outside.
The genre changes again momentarily, to science fiction, when the television finally pipes in a tentative answer to Barbra’s question about what’s happening. But the explanation settles nothing. Instead, in the film’s nightmare logic, it signals the onset of chaos. Hardly has the radiation-from-Venus theory been proposed before the little group’s only plan goes up in flames, the lights go out, the zombies begin their assault, and the ultimate horror manifests itself simultaneously in the cellar and on the lawn—which is to say, inside and outside the cinematic space. Everywhere. Reason comes to the end of its tether; narrative conventions snap.
Of course, you could say that the shifts in genre until this point were just temporary modulations. When the lights go out, Night of the Living Dead at last resolves into what its title promised from the first: a horror movie. But that’s not what you feel at this moment, especially when confronted with the film’s most indelible image: little Karen (Kyra Schon) eating the flesh of her father (Karl Hardman). Where else can you find anything comparably terrible?
Not in the scary movies that people had been watching at the time. Whatever themes may have been worked into those, and whatever meanings could be read into them, their essential pitch to the audience came down to sex. There were exceptions, of course, such as Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960). But U.S. horror movies of the era existed mostly to give young people an excuse to clutch one another in the dark. For specialized tastes, Anglo-European pictures offered the more lurid pleasure of boobs and blood, and Vincent Price campfests let a silenced love almost dare speak its name. Even the gruesome exploitation pictures cranked out by Herschell Gordon Lewis offered sex appeal, before subjecting their female characters to dismemberment.
No one, though, however twisted or innocent, could find sexual stimulation in Night of the Living Dead—which is yet another reason why the film, in its time, was so uncontainably frightening.
The paradox, of course, was that while ripping itself free from genre conventions, Night of the Living Dead inadvertently established a new genre of its own. While refusing explanations and rationales in the face of real-world horrors, it helped open the way (with the contemporaneous Rosemary’s Baby) for the curious convergence of conspiracy theories and demonism in seventies cinema. But while it marked a breakthrough for independent movies—critics would no longer be so quick to write off filmmakers who worked in the provinces, or to snub pictures that seemed destined for the drive-in—Night of the Living Dead did not immediately elevate the career of the man who was its director, cocinematographer, editor, and cowriter.
As the long debut moment of Night of the Living Dead came to a close, Romero was back in Pittsburgh, making There’s Always Vanilla, followed by Season of the Witch (1972) and The Crazies (1973). The first two, dramas, sank, almost without a trace. The third—a prescient tale of environmental poisoning and governmental malfeasance—attracted some supporters but remains underrecognized. With Martin (1978), the story of a repressed young man who imagines he’s a vampire, Romero at last seemed to hit his stride, making a film that he would come to consider one of his favorites. At most, though, it was an art-house success. Only when Romero brought back the zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), and was funny about them, did he win acceptance as a beloved, genre-twisting social satirist—the image he retained for the rest of his life.
And yet I can’t forget that the chucklesome old master Romero began his career with tawdry, inexplicable “things.” Today we have a very capacious bucket into which to drop all movies that involve zombies. In 1968–70, though, audiences had no category for Night of the Living Dead and felt helpless before it.
I can think of only one image from another artist that is as dreadful as the shot of Karen tearing into her father. It’s not in earlier horror movies, or in the Tales from the Crypt comic books that Romero loved, but in the tradition of Spanish painting that had been a focus of his study.
Romero once mentioned the influence of the Spanish school on the framing and chiaroscuro in Night of the Living Dead. So far as I can tell, though, he never called attention to one of the most awful pictures in the history of art: the painting by Francisco Goya commonly called Saturn Devouring His Son. Yet I suspect it affected him; it may even have contributed to the idea of making the film’s creatures flesh-eaters. And in the literal and figurative abyss of Night of the Living Dead, Romero went Goya one better. Instead of showing the father devouring the child, he brought the child back from the dead and had her eat the father. Even today, the sight is ghastly. In the late sixties and early seventies, it was diabolical: an image of what the peace-and-love generation may really have wanted to do to its elders.
Not that too many people took peace and love seriously at that point. Flower people were already in their commercialized heyday when Romero set to work on Night of the Living Dead. By the time he’d finished the film, America was heading toward the Weathermen’s Days of Rage. But hope was still stirring during those early months of 1968, especially among the young.
Robert F. Kennedy seemed to speak to them from the heart during his antiwar presidential campaign. Very often, to contrast the latent power of their goodness with the corruption they saw all around, he would spur them toward action by reciting a few words from William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Then he, too, was murdered, in June 1968. And George A. Romero signed a distribution deal for Night of the Living Dead, the movie that embodied lines that Kennedy didn’t quote: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
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