Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important horror films ever made. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the zombie classic’s brilliance and aesthetic audaciousness remains undiminished.
Joe Dante once described it as “a documentary about the end of the world.” Motormouth film lover and feted auteur of postmodernist cinema, Quentin Tarantino, proffered – with typical fan-boyish enthusiasm – that the ‘A’ in George A. Romero stood for “A fucking genius”. Since its release in the autumn months of 1968, directors have queued up, like pilgrims before a holy relic, to pay homage to the movie’s impact, influence and exceptional aesthetic prowess. Dante’s point is especially perceptive, though we all will undoubtedly nod along to Tarantino’s statement.
An indie production – financed and cobbled together between a group of Pittsburgh-based artists, primarily working in commercials and industrial films – to Hollywood, it looked like a bunch of rank amateurs had stumbled accidentally on something big. It’s just not true. They were all skilled professionals working hard outside the mainstream and Night of the Living Dead showed this type of filmmaking could be done without dollars pouring in from sunny California.
Zombies had long been a fixture on the big screen, but they were the Haitian slave variety (1932’s White Zombie, 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie) or what were known as ‘ghouls’ – reanimated corpses in mad scientist flicks. Romero was certainly influenced by what came before. Novelist Richard Matheson’s 1954 classic of sci-fi horror existentialism, I Am Legend, Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and indie oddity Carnival of Souls (1962) are all touchstones. But Romero hit upon a sick and unusual idea – one that effectively created an entire sub-genre of horror: the reanimated dead would eat the living in cannibalistic feasts of apocalyptic scope.
The next ace in the hole came in casting Duane Jones as Ben. Originally written for a white actor (Ben was supposed to be a poor white trucker type), Jones began to give different line readings to the script’s dialogue. Ben was now imbued with a grace and intelligence missing from the character on the page. Furthermore, the casting lent the film dynamite social politics, remaining as impactful today as it did on release at the height of the 1960s counter-culture revolution. Jones wasn’t cast because he was African-American, he was cast because all agreed he was the best actor who read for the role. But the knock-on effect proved gigantic. The final moments gave to cinema an extraordinary image: the African-American male under siege in a world and society that has long sort to ostracise and exclude him, and is now seeking to devour him.
Shot on black-and-white 35mm film stock, in the Academy ratio, Night of the Living Dead announced its unusual qualities from the first shot we see. In the opening shot, Romero changed the standardised horror intro, a variation on the classic cliché “It was a dark and stormy night”, to “It began on a desolate country road”. Again, what people mistook for amateur cackhandedness is, in fact, compositional inventiveness making striking use of centre-framing. The image is almost abstract, certainly lopsided, with the right side of the frame (the bank and treeline) looking as if it’s about to topple over into a big pile of mess. The zigzagging down the frame as our eye is drawn to the centre distance, as if in expectation (a car then comes into view). There’s a sense of ill-ease and peculiar energy – even a symbolic power – to the film’s opening shot… a foreboding crafted entirely from its compositional strangeness, barren rural location and the length of time before the first cut. The world is presented to us literally in a skew-whiffed composition … and boy oh boy, things are about to get much worse – and suddenly. Yet the apocalypse in Night of the Living Dead begins not with a mighty bang, but with a car driving down an isolated country lane, two people – a brother and sister – bickering. We assume these are the main characters we’ll stick with throughout the drama, but Johnny dies in the opening minutes, Barbara runs for her life and spends the rest of the film’s running time in an understandable state of profound shock.
Romero cut his teeth in commercials and industrial films, and Night of the Living Dead – unlike the shuffling hordes descending upon the farmhouse – really flies. You could easily run the film without sound and the visual storytelling would lose none of its impact or potency. Containing over 1,000 cuts (unusual for the period in mainstream American filmmaking), the pacing is relentless, even when characters are taking a momentary breather between the action scenes. The use of expressive angles and the constant quick cutting allowed Romero to produce varying rhythms of constant tension. The film is, among other things, an absolute masterclass in motion picture editing. There are instances of continuity error in the movie, but several interruptions to spatial continuity appear thoughtful and used with radical intent, producing expressionist results, rather than amateur-hour mistakes.
The monochrome visuals aided the documentary feel of Night of the Living Dead immensely. Yet there was a practical reason for shooting in black-and-white in the era of colour. Firstly, Romero understood the make-up effects would look rubbish. Secondly, he figured most folk still had black-and-white tellies, so when it was sold to television, the gritty look would not be diminished on the small screen. Today, we’re well-used to the rich array of zombies roaming the land in all sorts of putrid shades and gangrenous hues, but in the foundational genre movie, they appear as pale cadavers under moonlit shadow. The shots of pallid zombies staggering mindlessly towards the farmhouse, emerging out of the void-like darkness (attracted by the noise of Ben’s hammering) are unparalleled, Goya-esque images of dreamlike nightmare. The cinematography gives them an otherworldly creepiness and aesthetic frisson colour photography robbed them of in myriad future films. The shadow-dappled, dramatic, moonlit close-ups of the undead chowing down on crispy remains and warmed up innards are stunning in ways colour could not replicate or devise.
Night of the Living Dead has lost none of its aesthetic or social impact since 1968 – a rare feat for a movie. From the moment we spy a strange shape coming slowly towards unsuspecting Johnny and Barbara in the Evans City cemetery, to its shocking finale, Romero’s debut grips like a vice and never lets us go. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” is the iconic line we all remember and love to quote, but there’s one at the end, uttered by the sheriff as he and his good ol’ boys posse clear the farmhouse, which deserves equal mention. “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up,” the sheriff tells the reporter, matter-of-factly.
It’s such a resonant line (ad-libbed by the actor) because it ties so perfectly to Romero’s down-and-dirty, expressionist imagery and grounds the sci-fi saga in the real world. And that’s what George A. Romero did with Night of the Living Dead – he brought a deceptive, heavily stylised documentary feel to horror movies, which had always tended towards the baroque. The gun-toting mob are the platoon clearing a village in Vietnam, like the national guard getting rid of long-haired agitators on a college campus or redneck cops in the aftermath of a race riot. The context is sci-fi horror, but the formats aped by Romero derive from television and non-fiction.
Night of the Living Dead unexpectedly captured the nation’s dour mood and its fever pitch social horrors. Romero’s movie is exceedingly bleak in its assessment of people, power and society. In later additions to the Dead series, the director appeared to gravitate more and more towards outright sympathy for the zombies. In Night, they’re arguably at their most alien, terrifying and downright eeriest.
Night of the Living Dead is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2019.