I was twelve years old in 1980 when I learned that a local UHF (remember that?) channel (channel 15 in Phoenix) was going to be airing George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. At that time I had never had opportunity to see Night of the Living Dead, as it was far gorier fare (even for a black and white film made before there was an MPAA handing out film ratings) than I’d usually be able to catch on channel 5’s (another Phoenix local) Saturday morning creature feature World Beyond which usually specialized in things like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (I defy you to watch that film, which stars James Gregory as an ape, and not just picture Inspector Luger from Barney Miller every time he speaks) and Godzilla vs. Mothra. I was very aware of it, however. When I was a kid, I was all about horror movies. I relished horror stories in every form, actually, and was an avid reader of the early works of Stephen King before I’d ever turned a page in other youth classics like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or any of the three (four if you count The Hobbit) Lord of the Rings books.
It was actually from Stephen King that I knew about Night of the Living Dead, as he’d written about it rather extensively in his 1981 non-fiction work Danse Macabre (now I know I just said I watched NOtLD in 1980 and King’s book came out in 1981, but I’m sure I read about it before seeing the film. Maybe he mentioned it in some other book? Probably. He talks about it a lot.), an extensive treatment of the horror genre in popular culture. He also speaks a lot in that book about Dawn of the Dead, a sequel to Night which is remembered far more fondly by many people (especially people around my age. Dawn was released in 1978, so there are likely thousands of us who were about ten years old at the time and whose mothers forbade us to see it). As I read King’s words about Romero’s masterpiece, I longed to view it for myself. He described various bits of the film, such as the brutal matricide scene and the zombie cookout in which (SPOILER ALERT for a 43 year old film) the characters of Tom and Judy become the main course, and even the taboo-breaking comments of the local sheriff (“Beat ’em or burn ’em – they go up pretty easy… they’re dead… they’re… all messed up.” ) were all legendary to me long before I ever saw a frame of the flick.
Needless to say I was psyched.
For those who haven’t seen it (IS there anyone who hasn’t seen Night of the Living Dead?), the film opens with Johnny and Barbara, a brother and sister from Pittsburgh, arriving at their father’s grave site after several hours of driving. They make the trek on a yearly basis at the behest of the aging mother who is apparently too old and frail to make the trip herself. Their intention is to place some flowers of the grave, pay their respects, and then drive back to the city, the prospect of which Johnny complains about considerably. His disdain is revealed in the siblings’ conversation:
Barbara: Johnny, it takes you five minutes.
Johnny: Yeah, five minutes to put the wreath on the grave and three hours to drive back and forth. Mother wants to remember so we drive way out here for her. You know, we’re gonna have to move the grave back to Pittsburgh or move Mother out here.
Barbara: She can’t make a trip like this!
And so on. Of course the trip is cut short by the arrival of a zombie who, after some good-natured teasing of Barbara by Johnny, attacks the woman, prompting her brother to come to her aid, resulting in his demise when his dome connects with a tombstone in the scuffle. Barbara flees, returning to the car to escape the ghoul, which she regards simply as a homicidal maniac, only to realize that Johnny had the keys. Desperate to escape she jams the car into neutral, allowing it to roll down the hill and away from the attacker – until it collides with a tree. Barbara must escape on foot, which she does, eventually finding a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. The only resident of the house she sees is a decomposing female corpse at the top of the stairs. She is traumatized and speechless and remains so throughout the majority of the film.
In the farm house she eventually meets Ben, a man who has also narrowly escaped attack by the undead. He dispatches the few zombies shambling outside the house and relates tho the quaking woman the story of how he dealt with throngs of ghouls outside a local diner before liberating the pickup truck (now out of gas) which he’d arrived in. Ben is convinced that the house is the safest place at this moment and that they should secure it by boarding up the doors and windows. The two set about doing so and eventually learn that there are five other people in the house. The Coopers, Harry and Helen, along with their wounded daughter “One of those… things took a bite out of her arm,” Harry tells Ben in a matter-of-fact manner, and a young married couple, Tom and Judy, have been hiding out in the cellar all along. Ben and Harry are at odds with one another almost immediately, locking antlers over myriad issues, most pointedly whether it is safer in the cellar, with only one easily secured entrance but no escape routes, or in the house proper with plenty of ways to get away if necessary, but multiple places which could be easily breached by the reanimated corpses. It is at this point that the movie becomes more about the way people act with (or against) one another in crisis situations than it is a simple horror film.
The secluded survivors locate a television in the house and eagerly watch the news reports which detail exactly what’s been going on. “The bodies of the recently deceased are… returning to life and attacking the living…” reports the news anchor with a staid Walter Cronkite delivery. The television also reports the locations of various rescue centers which are equipped to aid people on the run from the murderous zombies and they devise a plan to fuel up Ben’s pickup and make a break for the rescue station in nearby Willard, PA.
The plan, of course, goes completely awry, and costs both Tom and Judy their lives. Ben is nearly taken by the zombies as well, thanks to the cowardly and vindictive Harry’s reluctance to let him in the front door as the hordes come after him. Helen, meanwhile, has retreated to the cellar to check on the status of her daughter who, unbeknownst (I’ve always wanted to use that word) to her has died from her injuries and since reanimated. he child attacks her mother and, in one of the most gut wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen in a film, brutally murders her with a garden trowel. After fighting with one another over the group’s one firearm, Ben shoots Harry, who stumbles back down into the cellar to die… and be partially eaten by his daughter. The zombies (now there are hundreds of them outside) launch a full scale assault against the house and are able to destroy the fortifications on the doors and windows. Barbara is pulled out of the house by ghouls and notices a familiar face among them: her brother Johnny. Knowing when he’s licked, Ben makes his way down into the cellar and bars the door. Then learns he must dispatch the reanimated bodies of Helen, Harry, and their little girl, which he does effortlessly with shots from the rifle.
Ironically the cellar was the safest place and Ben manages to stay safe from the zombies while locked down there, emerging at dawn after the zombies had given up and wandered away in search of more easily attainable victims. Ben gazes out the window and sees a Sheriff’s posse of local rednecks and hunters. They’d been out all night putting down as many of the walking dead as they could. The sheriff sees Ben from across a field and, thinking he’s one of the undead, orders his teammate to shoot him. The film ends with a montage of grainy still images showing Ben’s body being dragged from the house and thrown onto a bonfire.
Romero broke a lot of film conventions with Night of the Living Dead, not the least of which was casting African American actor Duane Jones in the role of Ben. “The part was written for a white man,” Romero has quipped, “but Duane gave the best audition. So we had a black actor in our white lead but we didn’t change anything about the script. We thought we were being very progressive.” The film is more social commentary than horror movie and has been described by Romero as “a movie about a new society rising up and devouring, quite literally in this case, the previous one.” Sure, one could say that Easy Rider was about the same thing, but no child to my knowledge was ever traumatized by Peter Fonda on a motorcycle. Due to the lack of a ratings board and theater owners’ misunderstanding of the film’s intended audience, Night of the Living Dead often played at Saturday morning matinees alongside films like The Thing (the 1951 version with James Arness, originally titled The Thing From Another World) and children across the country were freaked out.
Needless to say, this is the movie that launched my nearly lifelong love affair with zombies. I eagerly got my hands on a VHS copy of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead as soon as I was able to convince my stepfather to rent it and, though I loved much of the film’s premise and message (a comment on American consumerism more than anything else), I found a lot of it to be rather silly in comparison to its predecessor. It uses a lot of humor, which lightens an otherwise incredibly dark story, but that humor often feels misplaced in my opinion. The climax of the film involves a motorcycle gang battling the undead and delivering, of all things, pies in the face! Is this a horror film or the Three Stooges? Also, some of the moments which are intended to be pure horror tend to play as laughably silly, due in part to some of the worst movie blood ever filmed (it looks more like bright red house paint) and in part, I’m sure, to my more sophisticated tastes in movie effects by the time I’d seen it. Interestingly, this puts me at a polar opposite to many fans, who absolutely love Dawn of the Dead, but found Night to be rather talky and boring, which I have to admit I can see, but as much as I have come to love Dawn (and I do – I have a DVD of it which I watch often), I still believe Night is an infinitely better movie.
It was 1986 and I was eighteen when Romero’s third film in his … of the Dead series was released. Naturally I went to see Day of the Dead at the first opportunity I had. I took my girlfriend (she would become my first wife and the mother of my oldest son) Lora with me in a bit of a cosmic gag that was played on both of us. Lora despised horror films and was always angry with me if I managed to get her to watch one. As much as she hated horror and gore, however, she loved music (especially rap music) and dance (especially, at the time, break dancing). It just so happened that Day of the Dead was showing as part of a double feature with Krush Groove, a film that provides a fictionalized account of how Russell Simmons started Def Jam Records. It’s full of rapping (it stars the guys from RUN-DMC and Sheila E and has cameos from dozens of lesser known rappers of the time, even L.L. Cool J, no stranger to the camera these days, makes an appearance as, well, L.L. Cool J) and break dancing and Mario Van Peebles and it’s just an awful, awful movie. But I sat through it in order to have feminine accompaniment at Day of the Dead.
Lora and I have been divorced since about 1990, so I hope she has horrible nightmares of zombies devouring Sheila E and Reverend Run every night.
In the past few years the popularity of zombies has simply skyrocketed and all the filmmakers, writers, game designers, and artists making these zombified projects have George A. Romero to thank for literally creating the genre. There were zombies in horror stories before Romero, of course, but they were more of the White Zombie variety; mindless automatons raised from the dead to serve the whims and wills of evil scientists and Voodoo witch doctors. Heck, even Frankenstein’s monster qualifies as a zombie under those guidelines. Romero balks at the idea that he created a new genre of horror with Night, however, and was once quoted in a documentary about the zombie phenomenon as saying “stop telling me I made new zombies. I didn’t want to make new zombies. I liked the OLD zombies!” I’m sure Danny Boyle (director: 28 Days Later), Simon Pegg (writer and
actor: Shaun of the Dead), Capcom (publisher: the Resident Evil video game series) AMC (cable broadcast channel: The Walking Dead), and many others, would beg to differ.
Sorry, George, but you made new zombies, and they are wonderful.