I’ve debated writing about this film for the site for a long time. It’s beyond a seminal movie and it’s also from right where we call home. There’s probably no modern horror movie as important as this one for so many reasons and so many films have their inspiration right here.
I’ve spent a lifetime in advertising, so I can see how making television commercials and industrial films as part of The Latent Image pushed George Romero, John Russo and Russell Streiner to make their own movie.
And horror movies? Horror movies sell.
Shot between June and December 1967 in Evans City with friends, relatives, local actors and interested locals, this movie was made for around $114,000 but looks like so much more. The crew had been through the ringer — they did the original Calgon “Ancient Chinese Secret” commercial — and they knew how to get the most out of every shot.
You have no idea what it was like as a kid to drive past Evans City nearly every day, knowing that the dead lived there.
The movie was a huge success, obviously. That’s why we’re talking about it here. And yet, there’s so much that makes it a regional film, as it has local people like horror host Bill Cardille in it. And it feels, well, exactly like living in Western Pennsylvania. We’ve been preparing for the zombie uprising since before people knew there was such a thing.
The movie starts with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Streiner) in a cemetery, arguing over visiting their parents. Their sibling games soon give way to terror when what looks like a homeless man murders Johnny and sends Barbara racing away, finally discovering what seems to be an abandoned farmhouse. There, she meets Ben* (Duane Jones), a black hero saving a white woman in a time that these things just weren’t done. But the true joy of Night of the Living Dead is that unlike modern elevated horror, this is no message movie. These are just the right people to tell the story.
It’s funny because Romero has often cited Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as his inspiration, but that author has said that this movie was “kind of cornball.” What does he know?
The movie ups the tension when we discover that a married couple, Harry and Helen Cooper, and their daughter Karen have been hiding in the basement, The young girl has been bitten by a ghoul and Harry is obsessed with barricading himself and his family in the house while Ben wants to escape. In truth, no one is right and everyone pays the price. There is no happy ending in Evans City.
Perhaps the most astounding thing to me about Night of the Living Dead is its public domain status. Its original distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, never put a copyright on the prints. There was one under its original title, Night of the Flesh Eaters, but when the name change occurred, Walter Reade also removed that copyright notice.
That’s why when the VHS era started, you could actually buy this movie, as well as why it shows up in so many other movies and in DVD multipacks. There’s also the unfairly maligned Savini remake that this site needs to get to someday, which I love because Barbara is a more capable heroine and also because I saw it in a theater near Zelienople and when they said the name of the town, people lost their minds.
Roger Ebert’s review of this film has always stuck with me: “The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying … It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.”
That’s probably why I like it so much.
*According to an interview on Homepage of the Dead, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman said, “Duane Jones was a very well educated man [and he] simply refused to do the role as it was written. As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself.”