After last night’s return of AMC’s The Walking Dead (based on the comics by Kirkman and Moore), what could be more appropriate than a look at what is arguably the progenitor of the genre, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Now it’s true, there were films featuring the walking, shambling, crawling, creeping, lurking, and otherwise mobile undead before this 1968 classic; some even called them zombies (unlike Romero, who credited them as “Ghouls”). Hammer had The Plague of the Zombies in 1966; Val Lewton produced I Walked with a Zombie in 1942 (or 1943, depending on your source); and of course, there was White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi in the titular role, released in 1932.
But Romero arguably came up with what most of us equate with the zombie story S.O.P.:
- The dead get reanimated by some kind of contagion.
- They crave human flesh, so they’re coming to get the living.
- Once they bite someone, if they don’t consume that person entirely, s/he becomes one of them.
- They’re already dead, so they’re damned difficult to thwart; either shoot them in the head or burn them completely – it’s the only way to make sure they stay down.
- (Sort of a side effect) Unlikely people from disparate backgrounds end up working together to defend against the onslaught.
The specific plot has Barbara (played by Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russel Streiner) making their annual visit to their father’s grave in a rural graveyard. Only the dead don’t seem to be too keen on taking any more dirt naps – they want snacks! Barbara and Johnny snacks will do for a start. Johnny dies defending her, and she does NOT make the usual heroine mistake of standing and screaming, but wisely hightails it away.
She crashes the car, but makes it to a farmhouse where she meets Ben (Duane Jones); together they later discover the house has a basement. It’s holding the Coopers, a nuclear family of Mom, Dad, and Daughter – who is not feeling well – and you can imagine what we find her snacking on later.
Also in the mix (briefly) are Tom and Judy, a couple of teenagers with smarts enough to pay attention to the radio broadcasts warning people to stay inside because of all the crazies. When they offer to help Ben fuel up an escape vehicle at the gas pump outside, no good deed goes unpunished and the zombie distraction technique of throwing flaming projectiles mixes poorly with the gasoline, blowing up the truck, killing the teens, and removing the hopes of escape.
After that, it gets kind of bleak. You know how on TWD they have this thing about primary characters dying in mundane fashions? Romero was way ahead of his time.
Romero wrote the film with John Russo, and admitted to taking inspiration from several sources. He mostly cited Henk Harvey’s 1962 film Carnival of Souls, and Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend. Duane Jones also had a large part in rewriting the script. Originally conceived as a poorly educated truck driver, Romero adapted the character of Ben to better suit Jones, a Sorbonne-educated professor, stage actor, and artistic director. Also, Romero and Russo had originally pictured Barbara as a strong, take-charge type; but O’Dea brought a vulnerability to the character they just couldn’t ignore, and so adapted accordingly.
This is another case of a cult classic built on a shoestring. The film itself was produced for only a little over $100K, using a condemned property, borrowed vehicles, a lot of locals caked in make-up and dirt, and gallons of Bosco chocolate syrup. When no one else stepped up to be the ghoul set on fire, Russo volunteered because they really, REALLY wanted a shot of a walking, flaming ghoul. And that creepy body they find upstairs? Romero made it himself.
With such a small budget, Romero and his team relied on the actors to give them the best performance possible. Which is why Jones played Ben – Romero repeatedly said he wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement making the hero of the film a black man – Jones simply gave the best audition. Even the friends and locals they roped into playing the ghouls really gave it their all.
This is what I love about Halloween: there are loads of creature features upon which my unholy appetites may feast! If you want to watch for yourself, you can view Night of the Living Dead for FREE from The Internet Archive. The picture quality is fairly good, if a little jumpy at times. The sound is about the same.
If you’d like to check out some of the other films listed above, two are available in their entirety:
This is where you can watch Bela Lugosi in White Zombie.
Here is where to go to find Carnival of Souls.
Now go – They’re coming for you, Barbara!