Night of the Living Dead
Director: George A Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
A group of people hide from bloodthirsty zombies in a farmhouse.
There is nothing new I could say about George A. Romero’s 1968 genre-defining classic Night of the Living Dead. All modern horror is indebted to this movie and it shows – not just in how prolific the undead are in the genre but the story, style and controversy is clear in any horror made since 1968. So instead of just reviewing it, I’m gonna go with the assumption that everyone’s already seen it and discuss why exactly NotLD is the cornerstone of modern horror.
The Gem of the Public Domain
I can’t even begin to count the number of copies I have of Night of the Living Dead. I collect a lot of box sets of DVDs which are usually made up of direct-to-DVD genre films with a few public domain titles thrown in. These include public domain horror standards like Carnival of Souls or Coppola’s first feature Dementia 13, but they ALL have Night of the Living Dead. Not just tacked on to take up space either – it’s often featured prominently with some sort of new zombie artwork thrown together in photoshop. Name recognition is why – people know that title whether they’ve seen the movie or not and recognize its importance in the genre.
Being in the Public Domain its hard to never have seen Night of the Living Dead. Between countless television airings, home video releases and just about every video streaming service on the internet, the movie is EVERYWHEREi. The Internet Archive, the largest database of all things public domain online, reports that NotLD is the most downloaded movie from their archive every year. As such, it is often the first inspiration for budding filmmakers since they’re constantly exposed to it. It’s als the first thing they use to experiment with their own capabilities since it IS in the public domain for all to use.
The movie has been the subject of countless remakes. Some have been great (Tom Savini’s 1990 version is probably the best) but the vast majority have been first time directors trying their hand and experimenting with the genre. NotLD being a part of the public domain has made it a vital educational tool for those hoping to learn about horror.
The First Zombie
George Romero never actually used the word “zombie” to describe the undead in his film – his chosen nomenclature was “ghoul.” A working title for the movie was “Night of the Ghouls.” But the tern zombie is what stuck and will continue to be the term society continues to use – no changing that. Before NotLD the term “zombie” referred primarily to the sort of victim of voodoo mind control while reanimated corpses were pretty much a taboo topic in the Hayes Code era. Romero did not create zombies but he is responsible for adding the shuffling, brainless undead cannibal to the public consciousness
Interestingly, the very first zombie we see in Night of the Living Dead does not act like a typical zombie. When Barbara locks herself in the car to hide from hin, the zombie tries BOTH car doors, gets frustrated and finds a rock to smash the window with. As she coasts away the zombie jogs to catch up to her. He kills Johnny but doesn’t eat him as zombies do – he knowingly murders Johnny and moves on. When Ben arrives at the farmhouse this same atypical zombie smashes in the headlights with a rock and disables Ben’s car. These are not the actions of a zombie in any of Romero’s universe or in any later concepts of zombies or even the other zombies in this same movie. Which would lead me to assume that this isn’t a zombie at all but rather an aware psychopath taking advantage of the situation. It’s also curious to point out that one of the final still images of the film is Ben’s corpse being put on to the burn pile right next to The First Zombie.