Yesterday one of the most influential filmmakers in horror passed away. George A. Romero will forever be known as the man who introduced the modern version of the zombie to cinema. Before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, zombies were created with the use of Haitian voodoo and because these films were directed by white men in the 1940s, African Americans weren’t exactly presented in a humane way.
Some brief facts about this film, when it was released Reader’s Digest told people not to view it for fear that it would inspire cannibalism and the film was also considered Satanically inspired by Christian fundamentalists. One of the many reasons this film easily stands the test of time is because this film continues to disturb and shock in a way few horror films today can. I feel like new horror tries far too hard to achieve what came naturally to Romero.
Made for $114,000 and grossing $30 million this film is one of the most financially successful films, making a little over 263 times its budget. George A Romero saw very little of this since the deal he struck meant most of the money went to the distributors. This doesn’t seem to have bothered him much since he continued to work and every photo you see of Romero he’s smiling.
Night of the Living Dead opens with one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Within a few minutes we hear Johnny saying the immortal line “They’re coming to get you Barbara!” A zombie lurking around the graveyard grabs Barbara, Johnny wrestles around with him and is killed when his skull strikes a tombstone. When I watch this I’m in awe that a film from 1968 is so enthralling and action packed compared to some films released recently that are slow paced and seem to go nowhere only existing for pretentious hipsters to pretend to enjoy.
This film is also notable for doing something that was radical for its time and sadly radical even in 2017, casting a black man in the lead. The first thing you notice when you see Duane Jones as Ben is how unlike most portrayals of African Americans during this time (other than Sidney Poitier) he comes across like an actual human being.
Thankfully not once do we hear “Yesum Ms. Barbara.”
At a time when the country was divided over race, it was daring to put a black male in the lead. George Romero claims that one of the social commentary was intended and that Duane Jones happened to be the best actor in the audition. I have to believe this since none of the film’s social commentary appears to be ham-fisted, hitting you over the head with the idea that racism might be bad as if you’re a bumbling idiot who never once considered racism to be awful.
This film was released shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated so it had to be somewhat of a relief for black moviegoers to see a film where a black lead is portrayed like an actual human being and is constantly in control of the situation and not taking any shit from the white people he’s boarded up with. Even with the film’s bleak ending with Ben going down at the hands of a group of all white men reminiscent of a lynching group in the Deep South, it can’t be overlooked how George A Romero had a black lead portrayed in a better manner than even films as current as Hidden Figures fail to do.
Another notable reason Night of the Living Dead ages like a fine wine is because this film features all practical effects. When you look at a film like this were the effects are cheaper than CGI and more stomach churning than computer effects that age horribly within the course of a few years, it’s hard to comprehend why people still continue to use them for even the simplest of effects. Thinking of these zombie extras chomping away on chocolate syrup covered meat is sure to make you gag unlike a current horror film that even the weakest stomachs could digest a rare cooked steak to.
Night of the Living Dead features an amazing balance of brutality and amazing storytelling. The incredible storytelling that features Johnny saying “They’re coming to get you Barbara” and then reappearing at the end as a ghoul pulling his sister into a group of zombies is like an above average issue of Tales from the Crypt. Less than one percent of current horror films can pull off something as horrifying as a child resurrecting to feast upon the flesh of her father and kill her mother. George Romero perfectly demonstrates how this unknown zombie virus replaces everything you once knew with a bloodthirsty lust for human flesh.
And of course……the ending.
A bleak ending I doubt has ever been pulled out this perfect since. In fact, most horror films afterwards have tended to end on a happy note and tease a bleak ending when the killer quickly opens an eye.
Night of the Living Dead is a horror perfection. It’s dark, disturbing and bleak and unlike a lot of horror films that attempt these things, this film isn’t a chore to sit through. This movie always is something you sit in front of in awe as you see George Romero achieve something very few filmmakers of the genre have.
George A Romero is gone but his work, this film certainly will live on like the tales of Poe and Lovecraft.