||It's no exaggeration to say that Night of the Living Dead changed not only horror cinema, but independent movies and the course of film in general. When George A. Romero decided he wanted to adapt Richard Matheson's classic chiller novel I Am Legend to the screen, he could not secure the rights, probably because not only had it been adapted as the Italian Vincent Price flick The Last Man on Earth a short time before, but also because it was shortly to be adapted once more, this time for the big budget Charlton Heston piece The Omega Man, though it had to be said neither of these captured Matheson's particular brand of apocalyptic prose, nor his grim conclusion about the old Nietzschean warning where those who fight monsters should beware not to become monsters.
Yet all of that was in what became, under the writings of Romero and his co-screenwriter John Russo, this groundbreaking work that pushed back the boundaries of what was acceptable on the screen. This was inescapably part of the times it was made; in 1968 the United States was torn between the peace and love generation and the more conservative population who were backing the war in Vietnam that would have sent them to kill and be killed, and this was also the year that saw the assassinations of two men of peace who might have led the country into a new era, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Basically, as riots sprang up there was social violence in the air as never before that century, and there was a feeling the States, the world in fact, was tearing itself apart.
Night of the Living Dead was a reaction to that, almost accidentally as Romero and his team purely wished to create a horror movie to play at drive-ins and grindhouses as a stepping stone to greater things, unaware that what they were crafting was that great thing after all. On release, it quickly became notorious as an envelope-pushing and disturbing item, and it fired up the imaginations of many who would go on to manufacture their own iconic works in the field, from Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the books of Stephen King, who would progress to collaborate with Romero some time later. But there was that screen violence, not indiscriminate in its depiction as many following would emulate, there was a definite purpose here.
The nineteen-seventies became the most violent for cinema since the movies had begun, and you can bet each and every one of those filmmakers who applied such shock and sensation to their opus had seen Romero's classic, and had learned from it. Yet few of them had his canny understanding of how transgressive such effects could be when married to a philosophy. When Duane Jones was cast in the lead, everyone involved admitted it was because he was simply the best man for the job, and his air of authority coupled with his physicality could well have you agreeing. But there was more, for Jones was an African American, and not even Sidney Poitier would have starred in a tawdry horror movie in the sixties, making Jones as revolutionary in his way as Poitier had been.
Even into the eighties and beyond, black characters in horror were too often relegated to cannon fodder, and it took until 2017 before a big hit, Oscar-nominated too, featured a performance by a black actor that had the arguable impact Jones had when Brit Daniel Kaluuya starred in Get Out; this was rightly praised as a valuable social commentary as well as a witty chiller, whereas the mainstream despised its unmistakable predecessor Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, unwilling to take onboard what it was saying about the state of the globe and the fact that the population were growing angry enough to turn to mayhem to either make their point, or more likely lash out at anyone, from peers to authorities, as dissatisfaction became frustration and that evolved into fury.
There were precedents to this film, notably from Alfred Hitchcock whose switch for the beginning of Psycho influenced the structure of the first half hour, as we expected Barbara (Judith O'Dea) to be the protagonist just as Janet Leigh was supposedly the same. However, she is so affected that she has a mental breakdown at the terror, and quickly grows useless, leaving Jones to take up the slack as he boards up the farmhouse refuge from the inside to keep the increasing number of flesh-eating ghouls out. What he doesn't know is there are other survivors in the cellar, and the question of whether their possibly racist leader Karl Hardman was correct to state it was the safest place is a question that remains unresolved, even as Romero swapped to Hitchcock's The Birds in form.
Herk Harvey, another independent filmmaker who had a hit with a low budget horror movie, was another influence with his Carnival of Souls, but that was a far more dreamlike experience, whereas Romero's vision was one of unrelenting brutality and eventual death. Just as viewers of television had tuned in every night to see images of bloodshed on the nightly news from Vietnam or more rioting from cities around the planet, the characters crowd around the set to watch the rudimentary news footage as explanations and solutions remain as vague as "shoot 'em in the head" or there is a radiation outbreak from a crashed space probe. The madness is that none of this matters, all that matters is that hordes of ghouls want to kill and devour the living, and the situation is getting worse.
Perhaps Harvey and later, Romero were influenced by seeing the sci-fi B-movie Invisible Invaders back in the fifties, as the zombie in a suit imagery was first used there, but by the time Romero made Dawn of the Dead some ten years later, his undead were from a wide variety of all walks of life, and he had another cult hit on his hands. Day of the Dead in the eighties was less successful as he focused on a more blatantly political comment, mixed with the best Tom Savini makeup effects available, and he was recruited to make the Night of the Living Dead remake in 1990, a work created to make sure Romero could retain some copyright on his original after making a bad deal and failing to see much of the millions of profits that the distributors were raking in for years following.
But Romero went quiet on the zombie front for fifteen years, making other projects, or more often not trying other projects he could not receive funding for, no matter that he had proven commercially canny with his horrors before. As if giving in to his reputation, in 2005 he released Land of the Dead, backed by a major studio who offered him one of his biggest budgets and stars of a higher profile - this was the stage when Simon Baker looked as if he would become a fair-sized movie star, instead of landing a long-running television series and slipping off the cinematic radar that leads in efforts like this did not consolidate into that celebrity. But cult star Dennis Hopper was onboard as the bad guy, supposedly a take-off of Republican politician Donald Rumsfeld.
That indicated where the director's mind was at, as he believed he could send up the administration of George W. Bush with his zombie movie in the same way he had taken on subjects of social unrest and racism in the first of the series, rampant consumerism in the second, and the ethics of militarism in the third. What everyone picked up on, as Romero was rarely subtle in his satirical intentions, was the lead zombie here, Big Daddy played by African American actor Eugene Clark, was in some ways the hero of the story as he rallied his reanimated troops to take down the corrupt and obscenely privileged of the last outpost of civilisation as it used to be, overseen by Hopper's mayor character. Here the black guy got even with The (white, rich) Man after it seemed he would never do so alive.
Alas, whereas Night of the Living Dead was a lean and tight ninety minutes or so, Land of the Dead's still-breathing denizens were obviously not where Romero's main interest lay, and even with performers like John Leguizamo, Robert Joy and Asia Argento, who may be many things but lacking in personality was not one of them, the supposed heroes came across as stock personas that their director was less able to bring to life. This movie got a lot of love from the Romero fans at the time, but it was clear with his second zombie trilogy - this, Diary of the Dead (found footage!) and Survival of the Dead (comedy!) - was lacking in comparison with his world-beating first and the repetition was noticeable, not least because in the time between and since he had been ripped off extensively.
The 2005 work was undoubtedly the best of the latter trio, but the sense that Romero had changed the world of entertainment at his first try dogged his career, especially so controversially. When The Walking Dead became the biggest television show in the world, indicating how zombies had gone from lucrative pariah to even more lucrative mainstream, the fact that both that small screen hit and everything else inspired by his template not only didn't credit him for his ideas, but were content to craft facsimiles too often with barely a fraction of Romero's intelligence was something of a pity. After Shaun of the Dead was a success in 2004, and the Day of the Dead remake did likewise the same year, zombies became the emblematic monster of the twenty-first century, aping the tribes of unthinking consumers and parroters of unquestioned commentary that seemed to spread across social media. If only Romero had been able to make something of that, he may have lived up to his debut - or been able to direct a project in the final decade of his life.
[Criterion have released Night of the Living Dead on Blu-ray in the most pristine version ever seen on home video, and with an array of special features designed to keep Romero aficionado and newcomer alike amused for hours. Those features:
New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director George A. Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner
New restoration of the monaural soundtrack, supervised by Romero and Gary R. Streiner, and presented uncompressed
Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film
New program featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez
Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel
New program featuring Russo about the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead filmmakers got their start
Two audio commentaries from 1994, featuring Romero, Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actor Judith O'Dea, and more
Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley
New programs about the editing, the score, and directing ghouls
New interviews with Gary R. Streiner and Russel W. Streiner
Trailer, radio spots, and TV spots
PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans.
Night of the Living Dead is available on Blu-ray now. Click here for Amazon.]