Why Night of the Living Dead was a big-bang moment for horror movies

Horror films were never the same again after George A. Romero set hordes of zombies loose in farmland Pennsylvania, 50 years ago. But what was new about it?

Jon Towlson
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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Premiering 50 years ago, on 1 October 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is often spoken of as a manifesto for the modern horror film.

Taking its inspiration from the racial and political strife of late-60s America, it created, as a BFI programme booklet put it in 2004, “a vérité nightmare which overturned the conventions of fantastical horror”.

Romero took the genre out of its gothic castles and swept away its cobwebs. Night of the Living Dead marked a transition in horror cinema: from the classic to the modern. Less remarked upon, though, is how Romero effects this transition within the film itself, in its opening scenes.

This landmark horror film begins in a cemetery, with nods to Vincent Price, 1950s B-movies and Universal horror. Brother and sister Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) arrive to put flowers on their father’s grave. There they are attacked by a zombie. Barbara flees from the graveyard (amid lightning strikes straight from a Hammer movie) to a remote farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

With this, we are taken into a stark new world of apocalyptic horror, far removed from the old monsters of Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) – into the world of Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965), absurdism and a landscape of social-political meltdown.

The graveyard sequence utilises standard 50s sci-fi/horror tropes while slyly undermining them. Barbara’s flight from the graveyard to the farmhouse feels like a journey not just to another location but to another film: she runs out of a classic horror movie and into a modern one.

Her arrival at the farmhouse evokes the madness of Psycho and Repulsion, banishing the lampooning tone of the earlier sequence (as evoked by Johnny’s impersonating Price – “They’re coming to get you Barbara!”) in favour of the starkness of Hitchcock and Polanski.

The transition continues with the arrival of the black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones), and it soon becomes clear that the characters are besieged. Ben and Barbara attempt to fortify the farmhouse against zombie attack, turning it into a kind of nuclear bunker in the process.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) is often quoted as an influence on the survival horror of Night of the Living Dead, but one can also see in Romero’s depiction of a dying world such post-apocalyptic dramas as On the Beach (1959) and the BBC television play Underground (1958), as well as the racial antagonism between apocalypse survivors featured in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959).

In all of these, too, the characters are unable to give up society’s doctrines, even after civilisation is destroyed and those old rules are rendered obsolete.

But it’s the nature of Romero’s zombie threat that completes the transition from classic horror to modern horror. The zombie is traditionally a blue-collar monster: Romero himself has cited White Zombie (1932) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936) – whose living dead toil in mills – as influences on his film.

Neither was Romero the first to depict zombies as symbols of a lumpenproletariat rising up against its masters: the zombie as exploited worker featured in Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966); and much has also been made of the influence of The Last Man on Earth (1964), an adaptation of the Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the novel upon which Romero consciously drew for his story.

The Last Man on Earth (1964), a key infuence on Night of the Living Dead

The Last Man on Earth (1964), a key infuence on Night of the Living Dead

Indeed, modern-day zombies resurrected by science gone wrong were the subject of several B pictures made in the 1950s by the director Edward L. Cahn. Invisible Invaders (1959) pioneered the classic Romero zombie shuffle 10 years prior to Night of the Living Dead; while The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) has its zombies revived by radiation, à la Night of the Living Dead. There’s more foreshadowing of Romero’s film in Zombies of Mora-Tau (1957), which presents images of revived corpses moving slowly en masse against the living.

Both Zombies of Mora-Tau and The Last Man on Earth showed on Channel 11’s Chiller Theatre in Pittsburg in the summer of 1967, when Romero was filming Night of the Living Dead, so it’s possible that he saw these films and was inspired by their imagery.

The real-game changer for Night of the Living Dead, though, was Romero making the zombies into flesh-eating beings, creating an allegory of a society devouring itself from within. This would become the central metaphor underlying much modern apocalyptic horror, including classics like the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Romero’s own zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Night of the Living Dead takes us into the apocalypse almost in real time. The story is compressed into a single night, as the title suggests, but within that, the apocalypse, or at least our growing realisation – along with that of the characters – that apocalypse is taking place, happens in 90 minutes of almost continuous time. The effect is to create a very powerful sense of a definitive point of change: we see the precise moment that history collapses.

Viewing Night of the Living Dead now is like watching a big bang in reverse – life as we know it diminishes at a rapid rate until suddenly there is nothing left on screen of the world we once knew.

The film evokes this beautifully through its characters’ response to it. During a quiet moment, Ben and Barbara tell each other their backstories directly leading to them seeking refuge in the farmhouse. Ben’s monologue fulfils the normal functions of dramatic exposition: we learn that he has escaped from a diner that was attacked by the living dead.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Barbara’s speech, however, fulfils no such story function. We already know what has happened to her; she merely repeats what we have already seen. But somehow this redundancy increases the poignancy of the moment, the point at which we, along with the characters, realise that apocalypse is upon us and that the world is about to fall apart.

No other film of the 60s captured the allegorical moment so completely. At the time of Night of the Living Dead’s release, it seemed that America was, itself, at the point of collapse. Apocalypse was happening and there was no reversing it. After Night of the Living Dead, there was no going back to the old horrors.

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