Night of the Living Dead (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Produced by Russell W. Streiner and Karl Hardman; directed by George A. Romero; screenplay by John A. Russo and George A. Romero; edited by George A. Romero; cinematography by George A. Romero; starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and George Kosana. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 97 min., 1968. A Criterion Collection release.
George A. Romero was as sick of the imposed sobriquet “master of horror” as Sam Peckinpah was of “master of violence.” Both men would have preferred simply “dramatist,” but Romero was especially hampered in achieving such recognition by being stuck in the horror genre, with producers recognizing that Romero’s work—from the late-Sixties to the new century—was usually profitable. Why let him step outside of horror and ruin a good thing? He acquiesced, and producers and fans recognized only intermittently what a dramatist he indeed was, the producers counting money, and the fans enjoying the gore in his uncompromising parables about the decline of America. Being hailed as the “godfather of zombie films” was especially irksome to Romero, given the tons of utter trash featuring reanimated dead people that followed his success—he thought the phenomenally successful cable series The Walking Dead was “a soap opera.” Indeed, that attenuated show’s formula replicates the soap opera explicitly.
The first reel of his debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, shows what a dramatist he was. Although Romero’s budget imposed black-and-white film on the production, rarely has it been used as effectively as in the establishing sequence of this movie, as we watch a sedan wend its way through the unremittingly bleak western Pennsylvania countryside. I can’t think of a moment in other impressive postwar black-and-white cinema, such as early Frankenheimer or Lumet (I exclude fierce competitors like Bergman and Resnais), that introduces its argument so economically. The region looks not so much underpopulated as abandoned, America’s Rust Belt already establishing itself.
The car pulls into a cemetery, the camera focusing on a small graveside American Legion flag that looms large on the right side of the frame. Robin Wood long ago noted this and other images in Romero’s various films suggesting his key point: America is a graveyard. The passengers of the sedan, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner, one of the film’s producers) are at odds. They have made a long trip to place flowers, affixed to a large plastic crucifix, on the grave of their father, whom Barbara reverently loves, but Johnny loathes, claiming he can’t even remember the man’s face. Johnny starts to terrorize his sister, preying on her sensitivity and fear of the oncoming dark.
Many of the horrors of Night are instantly recognizable, as Romero offers ethnographic fragments of “normal” life in America. This common awfulness is amplified when we meet the bickering Cooper family, eventually annihilated by their little girl. In the background of the Barbara/Johnny scene, a dark-clad man, an obvious messenger of death, appears to stagger as he walks among the tombstones. That the zombies of the film are cannibals follows logically from the film’s premises: other people must be obliterated utterly, and consumed, this ritual basic to the Christian religion on which national sanctimony is built.
A shocked Barbara—Johnny suddenly dead—makes her way to an empty farmhouse where she sits comatose while a man named Ben (Duane Jones), two teenagers (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), and a hotheaded coward (Karl Hardman) fight off an army of attacking “ghouls” (the term “zombie” isn’t used) while newscasters and officials mouth consoling bromides on the barely functional TV set. A redneck sheriff leading a vigilante posse chimes in, hosted by real-life Pittsburgh newsman and movie emcee Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille. Nothing works out. All of the “survivors” die by dawn, including the very resourceful Ben, whose competence suggests he’ll make it. But the sheriff, thinking Ben is a ghoul, tells one of his marksmen closing in on the house to shoot Ben “right between the eyes.” Does the sheriff think Ben is a ghoul? Is it relevant to the story that Ben is black?
George Romero swore in every interview of the last half-century that Duane Jones was cast in the lead simply because he was the best actor in the area, at least among those he could afford. The casting is utterly lacking in self-consciousness, putting to shame well-intentioned but often awkward special-pleading films of the era such as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Jones was indeed a remarkable actor (he has been dead for thirty years, a terrible loss), but there are moments worth noting.
Romero also constantly stated that he wanted with Night simply to make the scariest horror film ever (he achieved that so well that the film made millions over the decades, and was canonized by the Museum of Modern Art). The obvious social allegory of virtually all of his later films had, according to the director, no conscious role in his first feature. His screenwriting partner John Russo claimed, in the very American grain, that those people who find “all sorts of implications” in the film are “full of shit” (see Britain’s The Darkside Magazine, #191, May 2018). But Romero was too intelligent a man not to reflect the society of his times, the America that produced him in 1940 and instructed him in the years afterward.
His direction of the actors playing the sheriff’s redneck posse contains utter loathing for what they represent (“Beat ’em or burn ’em—they go up real easy!”). Anyone with an even mediocre knowledge of U.S. history cannot help but associate Romero’s images with the nation’s enjoyment of lynching of blacks, its many acts of barbarism preserved on tourist postcards (Bob Dylan sang on “Desolation Row” that “they’re selling postcards of the hanging”). Romero documents the epoch in Night, giving leave, in the mind of his stupid if useful partner, to make his crude remarks (Russo would go on to make “sequels” and “remakes” of his friend’s masterwork).
The film’s coda is particularly chilling. The sheriff instructs his men to throw Ben’s body on their bonfire (“That’s another one for the fire!”). As the credits roll, we watch stills, with striations suggestive of age, showing men with grappling hooks wrestling with Ben’s body, Romero editing the images with a staccato rhythm. We are reminded not only of slavery, but also of the violence against the Civil Rights Movement, of the Holocaust— indeed, of an array of horrors making up the last century.
There has long been a search for the “ideal” copy of Night of the Living Dead since, to Romero’s consternation, the film’s copyright lapsed. He was occupied producing a number of masterpieces, from The Crazies (1973) and Jack’s Wife (1973, later renamed Season of the Witch, one of the most important—and ignored—feminist films in any genre) to his two zombie trilogies (Land of the Dead  may be the best accounting of the Bush II years in fiction). With the copyright gone, any number of unwatchable copies of Night appeared, although a few of the opportunists produced reasonably credible editions of the film. This new 4K digital restoration from Criterion was made from the print in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, restored with Romero’s assistance—it was his last project before his death in July 2017. I can’t imagine any edition surpassing it.
The Blu-ray disc has plentiful extras, some familiar, many new, including a commentary with Romero and too many others, allowing the whole thing to dissolve into jokes. The disc also has archival interviews with Romero and other creators. There are also remarks by Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez (these names can’t help but remind us how low horror cinema has sunk, although they offer Romero fine tributes), new interviews with old Romero colleagues, analyses of the film’s style, and a workprint of the film entitled Night of Anubis.
George Romero’s death last year came as a shock. Many of us knew he was along in years, and a chain smoker much of his life. Still, this was a man known for his vitality, to a point that he seemed eternally youthful even as his hair turned gray. His big, knowing yet innocent smile was his most notable characteristic, fitting for such a gentle person who embodied erudition and humane values. This “master of horror” was among our greatest artists.
Christopher Sharrett, Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University, was recently appointed to the board of the Montreal horror film journal Monstrum. He is also a Contributing Editor for Film International and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.
You may purchase the DVD or Blu-ray of Night of the Living Dead here.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 3