In 1968, George A Romero changed the face of zombie movies forever. Previously a niche market, and not taken seriously at all, zombie movies had either had a comedic, or a bizarre romantic element. Made on a budget of $114,000, and filmed in black and white to save money, Romero’s movie was a genuinely chilling horror, with a message to deliver about human behaviour.
The corpse of a criminal is in the process of being buried, when it rises up and chases the men digging his plot. The man looks pretty much like a normal human, and can only walk at a normal pace, it cannot run. We find out later in the film that in Romero’s world, a dead body won’t rise if it has been buried beneath the soil. This is obviously partly to do with the impracticality of making a movie where billions of corpses rise from the grave, and might also be partially to further distance them from the Vampire mythology.
Barbara is visiting a cemetery with her brother, when the undead creature chases them. She is forced to abandon her brother in the act of fleeing. She seeks refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. She encounters a corpse upstairs, and by the time Ben, another man seeking refuge arrives, she is in a near catatonic state. Ben sets about barricading doors and windows. He fights several zombies, and we find out they are weaker than the average human.
Setting light to a couple of the bodies, Ben also discovers they are afraid of fire. When Ben goes to secure the upstairs, two men emerge from the cellar. They are accompanied, one by his girlfriend, the other by his wife and daughter, the latter suffering from a Zombie inflicted injury. The older man insists they should barricade themselves in the cellar, whilst Ben wisely points out there’s no secondary exit that way. What follows is much bickering as they try to decide the best course of action. Should they hide and wait for help, or make their way to a relief station?
Despite the fact the story is confined to a farmhouse, you get a real sense of the widespread panic across the country through the intermittent tv and radio reports experienced by the protagonists. The idea of groups of people huddled around the tv watching national events unfold is still relevant today, probably more so. The plot twists of the story are often surprising. When the attempt is made to escape the farmhouse in a truck, you don’t expect it to fail so miserably.
The fate of the injured girl is less surprising, but the revelation that the affliction can be spread to a person through a zombie bite is cleverly kept in reserve until the end of the film. In fact, they way the Zombie ‘rules’ are revealed bit by bit over the course of the film is almost masterful. When Ben finds a rifle, half the ammo is wasted by gunshots to the body before the tv report that reveals how they can be stopped. ‘A shot to the head or a blow to the brain’, another convention followed by most movies of this genre to date.
Night of the Living Dead is a very pessimistic film. Whilst the mass hordes of the undead stalk the humans relentlessly, it’s we who are our own worst enemies. The escape attempt fails due to good old-fashioned human ineptitude. And the bickering between the survivalists causes as much death and destruction as any Zombie attack. In fact, even the trigger of the rising of the undead is our fault. In line with the enduring fascination with the space race in the sixties, it’s a man-made probe crashed from space that introduces the corpse-transforming radiation. This is one of the few things that have changed since, but the more up-to-date ideas of the man-made virus are still an exercise in pointing the finger of blame and suspicion firmly at the government.
Night of the Living Dead is a shining example not just to makers of other zombie films, but to all film-makers in general. The way tension is built up in the claustrophobic environment is masterful, the Zombie attack only half the story. We don’t really see the re-animated corpses that much, the majority of the real drama is created by the actions and re-actions of the protagonists.
Night of the Living Dead grossed $30 million worldwide within 10 years of it’s original opening, thanks to numerous re-releases over the period. It spawned five other Dead films by Romero, and inspired dozens of imitators. It is quite rightly considered the most influential Zombie film of all time. Come back tomorrow for Part Two of A Brief History of the Hollywood Zombie, and we’ll take a look at some of the movies that took inspiration from Romero’s masterwork.
Night of the Living Dead is available now on DVD.