in Criterion Month

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I have never been so happy to see a film added to the Criterion Collection. Not only does it feel like validation for horror fans, this release gave Dead fans the definitive version they’ve always wanted. If you’re not aware, there has been a metric shit ton of releases of this film. VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, Laserdisc, you name the format and you can find a dozen versiosn of Night of the Living Dead.

Even I used to own two copies on DVD. One because it included a colorized version. Thanks, Border’s Books. Why so many versions? Because Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain for the stupidest reason. Do you know that little copyright symbol that you see next to titles and logos? Night of the Living Dead had that stupid mark when the title popped up in the initial print of the film, but in the initial print the film was called “Night of the Flesh Eaters”. So when they changed the title and forgot the mark and screened the movie, all Hell broke loose.

One little mark. Stupid, right? That’s why in 1976 the industry altered the copyright law to avoid these kinds of incidents. Which means George A. Romero “The Father of the Zombie” missed out on millions when the zombie genre exploded in the 2000s. He could have singlehandedly owned the genre. Though in a strange way, I think this fuck up helped pave the legacy of this film. Because of this mistake, Night of the Living Dead—much like It’s a Wonderful Life–became a film easy to program into any TV schedule. Anyone can use it in the background of their shitty student film. Anyone can choose from a multitude of versions, or even release a version themselves. I’m not advocating for supporting art over the artist but Night is a unique case. This is a film that invented a genre and it did so because it was essentially given to the people for nothing.

Night of the Living Dead was a baby conceived by Pittsburgh filmmakers; George A. Romero, John A. Russo, and Russell Streiner. Before Night, the group had a production company “The Latent Image” and produced commercials. Even before Night, George A. Romero directed segments on what else but… Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It’s said that a segment Romero shot of Mr. Rogers getting a tonsillectomy freaked Romero out so much it inspired him to make a horror movie. Not to go off on this Mr. Rogers tangent, but Rogers continued to support Romero’s career throughout the years. Rogers even saw Dawn of the Dead and called it “a lot of fun.” What a weird thing to think about.

Back to Night, Romero and Co. were polished professionals before tackling their first feature. They conceived a simple story about a group of people trapped in a house surrounded by “Ghouls” or “Flesh Eaters”. There was never any mention of zombies. In fact, the film was more inspired by the vampires in Richard Matheson’s 1954 book I Am Legend than any preexisting zombie lore. The term “zombie” to describe the Flesh Eaters was a label given by fans, further solidified with the release of Dawn of the Dead in 1978.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the actual film. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (played by the film’s producer Russell Steiner) drive out to a cemetery in rural Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. While there, they are attacked by a “Ghoul” or whatever you want to call him and Barbra flees to a farmhouse. Moments later a man named Ben (Duane Jones) arrives and the pair discovers a family; Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and their 11-year-old daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) in the basement. Lastly, a pair of young lovers, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), arrive and the group boards up the house as undead ghouls surround the house in search of human flesh. A tale as old as time.

The story and execution seem quaint by today’s standards. What to consider is siege horror movies were not the norm in the late ‘60s. This was a cutting edge approach to a genre that was in flux. The shift from classy, old school horror to more exploitative grindhouse films was in effect and Night of the Living Dead was leading the pack. We see body parts being munched on and even though it’s in black and white the effect is still disturbing. A lot of credit goes to the cinematography (by George A. Romero himself), which has a gritty newsreel footage style to it. Even if black and white was done for financial reasons it adds a sense of realism and timelessness.

Another important decision was the casting of Duane Jones as Ben. Romero has been humble over the years stating he chose Ben because of his acting talent and for no other reason. I think that’s true but you can’t deny that was a brave decision for a fledgling filmmaker. Black actors in leading roles—sans Sidney Poitier—wasn’t a thing in 1968. Romero took a risk that anyone would give the film a chance because it had a black star. But he did and Duane Jones performance was a huge step forward not just for black actors in horror, for black actors in general. Not to mention Duane Jones is fantastic.

Let’s talk about that ending. It’s one of the greatest horror movie endings in history. Ben, the last survivor of the group, makes his way from the basement the next morning peers out a window and is shot by a militia killing off the last of the ghouls. The film cuts to unsettling music over grainy photos of Ben’s corpse. Whether or not Romero intended to make a political statement with a group of white men killing an innocent black man you can’t deny the disturbing feeling it leaves with you with. Unforgettable.

For such a simple story, there’s a lot to talk about. You can talk about Duane Jones, supposed political statements about Vietnam, the birth of zombies, the rise of indie filmmaking, or the fact that it’s a great film. It’s inventive and entertaining and an amazing debut from a legend. I miss George a lot. Right this second I’m looking at a poster of Night of Living Dead that the man himself signed for me. So I’ll part with the words George scribbled down on my poster. Stay Scared.