My first encounter with director George A . Romero's DEAD films was a midnight showing of the second in his series DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) at the Tanasbourne theater in Beaverton, Oregon in the early 80's. The theater was crowded and the audience shrieked and cheered when zombies disemboweled humans. I remember being nervous because the gore was suppose to be graphic but there was a cartoon-ish edge to it, as if director Romero was winking at us, letting us know it was fake blood and intestines. DAWN OF THE DEAD may have kick-started the zombie craze but it was Romero's first in the series that changed the horror landscape for zombies.
Before DAWN OF THE DEAD, Romero made his splash into horror cinematic history with the groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) ten year earlier. If ever there was a classic horror film title, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was it. I had always been intrigued by NIGHT but after seeing the colorful and gory DAWN, could NIGHT really live up to the second film?
The answer is a resounding yes. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is almost like watching a documentary, shot in harsh black and white, with lots of hand held camera work, which makes the zombie plague seem authentic and real. Director Romero and his crew of young filmmakers were making commercials and industrial films in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when Romero and fellow screen writer John Russo decided to make a low budget horror film. With a cast of unknowns, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is not a perfect film. But for 1968, NIGHT has some shocking classic horror scenes as well as a sub-text to the mood of America at the end of the turbulent 60's.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is about a mysterious plague that is turning every day citizens into flesh eating killers. A group of survivors find themselves barricaded inside a farm house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside as zombies roam around outside, waiting to attack and eat. The survivors include Barbra (Judith O'Dea) who was attacked in a nearby cemetery by a zombie (Bill Heinzman); Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American man who discovers the farm house after surviving a zombie attack; Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) who finds refuge in the farm house basement with his wife Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) and their injured daughter Karen Cooper (Kyra Schon); and a young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley).
Radio reports suggest that radiation from a downed Venus space probe may be the cause of the zombie epidemic. While the zombies stumble and stagger outside the farm house, inside the survivors bicker about whether to stay trapped inside or make a dash for the highway, using the dead owner's truck to escape. Harry votes for barricading themselves in the basement but Ben convinces Tom to help him take the truck to a nearby gas pump where they can fill up the truck's tank and speed away from the zombies.
Ben's plan goes awry when Tom accidentally starts a fire with the hose. The truck explodes, killing Tom and Judy, and the zombies converge on the burnt corpses as Ben runs back to the farm house. Tension mounts as Cooper and Ben both want to be in charge. Ben shoots Cooper as they struggle for control of the gun. Cooper stumbles back down into the basement where the injured Karen (did I mention she was bitten by a zombie) awaits to snack on her father. The zombies begin besieging the farm house and a catatonic Barbra sees her brother Johnny (now a zombie) and lets them pull her into the night as the house is overrun by zombies. Ben descends into the cellar, shooting the Coopers (who are now all zombies) and awaits the morning night. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ends with a pack of law enforcement officers and hunters roaming the countryside, picking off wandering zombies like it was deer season, throwing their bodies onto a burning pile. One sharpshooter sees movement in the farm house. Is it Ben alive or just another zombie?
As fantastic as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is, let's not forget that it's a low budget horror film made by a first time director. The first time I saw NIGHT, I was surprised by how slow and talky it was. There were long dialogue scenes between Ben and Barbra with Ben describing action that the film's budget can't show. Probably for budgetary reasons, the majority of the film takes place inside the farm house. The acting is passable but none of the actors really shine except for Johnny (Russell Streiner), Barbra's brother, who only appears at the start and end of the film and utters the creepily prophetic "they're coming to get you, Barbra." Kyra Schon as the young zombie Karen Cooper steals the film with her brief, shocking appearance at the end of NIGHT and she doesn't even have any dialogue. The music is mostly cheesy and over dramatic. Even the camera work is uninspired at times and confusing. But even with all those negatives, it's superior than most first time, low budget horror film attempts.
What sets NIGHT apart from bad low budget horror films is that it has zombies. Never before had an audience seen monsters that look like our friends and family behave in such a hideous manner. Never had a film shown zombies (or any monster) eat the flesh and intestines of other human beings so graphically. Director Romero and his actors set the standard for zombie motion - the sluggish movement and shuffling feet that zombie fans copy today at flash mobs and zombie festivals. Even though zombies move slow, their constant patience, their waiting, their hands reaching through boarded up windows, Romero always keeps the mood tense and suspenseful. NIGHT'S zombies appear in their work clothes, pajamas, even in the nude. What Romero may have lacked in production value, he makes up for it in shock value.
With DAWN OF THE DEAD, Romero poked fun at consumerism, as the band of survivors in DAWN are trapped in a shopping mall, the symbol of consumerism, trying to avoid being consumed by zombies. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, whether intentional or not, reflects the mood of the country in the late 1960's. The armed policemen picking off zombies reminded me of the confrontation on college campuses across the country between students and police. Or the tragedy at Kent State where police fired upon and killed unarmed demonstrators. Romero casts black actor Duane Jones as Ben in the leading role when race relations were boiling and the only black actor playing leading man parts in Hollywood was Sidney Poitier.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD plays against all expectations of the horror genre. The seemingly strong hero Ben's plans ultimately fail. Tom and Judy die and are eaten because of Ben's doomed decisions. Ben shoots Cooper, who although not the most friendly guy, hasn't really done anything to deserve it besides question Ben's ideas. Ben doesn't want to hide in the cellar but when all hell breaks loose, the cellar is his last outpost. None of the characters are very sympathetic. Barbra is traumatized and hysterical. Cooper is uptight and nervous. Karen, the injured daughter, ends up killing both her parents. The survival rate is not very good for this group. In horror films, the monsters are usually killed at the end. In NIGHT, some of the zombies are destroyed but the news reports tell of outbreaks all over the state. When the police and law abiding citizens begin shooting the zombies, who really are the monsters? Us or the zombies?
I would say DAWN OF THE DEAD not NIGHT kick started the zombie craze which has been picking up speed in recent years. Romero followed up DAWN OF THE DEAD with DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) which may be my favorite besides NIGHT but didn't quite have the following of DAWN and NIGHT. Romero has made a few more DEAD films since then including LAND OF THE DEAD (1985), DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007), and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009). Director Danny Boyle introduced us to fast zombies in 28 DAYS LATER (2002). Actor Simon Pegg wrote and starred in SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), a black zombie comedy that was well received as was the recent ZOMBIELAND (2009) starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg. The RESIDENT EVIL video game and movies owe its success to Romero's DEAD films. Television has gotten into the living dead act with AMC's acclaimed series THE WALKING DEAD based on a graphic comic series that just started its second season. Even Michael Jackson used dancing zombies in his classic music video Thriller.
The zombie has come a long way from Romero's 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD yet NIGHT is the gold standard for zombie films. The fact that NIGHT is low budget and shot in a realistic way with actors that are not household names made it seem like a zombie plague may have really occurred. The zombie is an extension of all of us - curious, stubborn, and always consuming something, even if it happens to be your best friend's intestines.