They're coming... they're coming for you, Barbra!
Written by a first-time director; filmed by a small-time independent company more experienced in producing television adverts; shot entirely on location in Pittsburgh with a bigger cast than production crew and more local extras than actual actors, Night of the Living Dead is, on paper, far from the stuff of traditional cinematic legend.
But, despite all these points against it (or maybe because of them), soon after it was released on an unsuspecting audience in the late 1960s, the film rose to cult status and marked the beginning of a new style in the horror genre that still dominates the films of Hollywood studios today.
The screenplay for Night of the Living Dead was based upon a short story written by George A Romero and inspired by Richard Matheson's seminal novel I am Legend. In the book, a mysterious plague transforms the population into zombie-like vampires. The solitary survivor of the plague struggles against the odds to evade the creatures, who are after his blood; the parallels between book and film are plain to see.
Set in an isolated part of rural Pittsburgh, the film follows the fortunes of a small and disparate group of characters thrown together in a bleak farmhouse against the desperate background of a world invaded by the walking dead. As if the idea of corpses getting up from the slab and wandering around wasn't bad enough, the audience soon learn that the newly awakened dead are in the grip of an insatiable hunger for the flesh of the living. Of course when the dead have hunted down and devoured all they can of a living human being, the result is another corpse, and these victims soon join the ranks of their own killers in the hunt for living flesh.
As bizarre and ludicrous as the premise may be, the film has a certain stark quality that renders the shambling cadavers of the departed more terrifying than anything cooked up in a Hollywood effects studio. As the film progresses, the situation of the survivors becomes increasingly desperate as they struggle to save themselves from their relentless foes. The film asks the question: can a few isolated individuals put aside their own fears, prejudices and neurosis long enough to survive an assault of the massed ranks of the dead?
The characters involved in Night of the Living Dead can be divided into three distinct groups: the living, the undead and the media1. Perhaps the most logical reading of the protagonists is that the disparate and distinct personalities trapped together are representative of the individual struggling to escape from the masses that consume that quality which sets him apart and add him to their own mindless ranks. In many ways, the film shares themes with that earlier sci-fi paranoia-fest, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Barbra (Judith O'Dea)
The first of the main characters to appear on screen, Barbra, arrives with her brother Johnny at a lonely rural graveyard just as dusk is falling. They have driven for hours in order to complete their annual pilgrimage to the grave of their father on behalf of their infirm mother. Returning to the car they are attacked by a solitary zombie. Johnny tries to fend off the attacker while Barbra escapes. Forced to flee for her life, Barbra finds her way to a seemingly deserted farmhouse nearby. Locking herself in and collapsing with fear and exhaustion, Barbra spends most of the film in a state of near catatonia and denial, refusing to believe that her brother is most likely dead or to accept the danger in which she has found herself. Perhaps the most obvious stereotype of the genre to feature in the film, Barbra contributes little to the efforts of the protagonists other than to provide one more innocent who is unable and unwilling to protect herself.
Ben (Duane Jones)
Energetically portrayed by Jones2, Ben reaches the farmhouse shortly after Barbra has hidden away inside. Driving a pickup truck that he has acquired in the ensuing chaos, Ben initially intends to do nothing more than fill the truck's tank with gasoline from a pump in the yard. But, as the pump is locked, he is forced to enter the house in search of the key. Here he finds Barbra insensible upon the sofa. After rousing her and finding that she has no idea where the key to the gasoline pump might be, he decides that for the moment they are both safest in the house and sets about barricading the windows and doors and gathering together any weapons left in the house by its former occupants. Ben even makes the effort to find shoes for Barbra, who lost her own in her flight from the graveyard.
Quite the opposite of Barbra, Ben approaches their desperate situation with a stern determination to survive and refuses to give up hope in the face of the overwhelming odds. The final survivor among those who seek refuge in the farmhouse, Ben is in the end shot and killed by a member of the local sheriff's party as they dispatch the remaining zombies and search for living survivors. Some have argued that this makes a statement about the inability of the white gunman to differentiate between the zombies he is hunting and Ben, whom he also sees as 'different', less than human, due to the colour of his skin. But as the ethnicity of Ben was not originally specified in the script by Romero, this reading of the exceptionally bleak final scene of the film comes down to the interpretation of the individual.
Henry Cooper (Karl Hardman)
Played by one of the film's financial backers, Henry Cooper is an irritable, nervous and paranoid man trying desperately to protect his wife and daughter from a fate worse than death at the hands of the undead. The Cooper family are forced to flee to the farmhouse when their car is swarmed on the road by a pack of zombies and overturned. Cooper manages to get the family into the house and holes them up in the basement where he and his wife Helen try to save the life of their young daughter Karen, who was injured in the attack. They remain hidden until a young local couple named Tom and Judy seek refuge in the house and join them in the basement. All this takes place off-screen, prior to the arrival of Barbra and Ben.
We first meet the rest of the protagonists when, hearing movement upstairs and accompanied by Tom, Cooper eventually ventures upstairs and happens upon Ben and Barbra. Convinced that the only place they will be safe is in the basement, Cooper insists violently that everyone retreat down there and bar the door. Ben, on the other hand, is adamant that the only hope is to refuel the pickup truck and drive to safety. In the end, Ben wins the battle of wills and forces Henry to let go of his one piece of security in the basement and work towards their escape.
Tom (Keith Wayne)
Level-headed and practical, Tom is a young local man who brought his fiancée Judy to the isolated farmhouse after finding that they were in the middle of the same waking nightmare as the other protagonists. Neither paranoid, like Cooper, nor confrontational like Ben, Tom is called upon time and again to act as the voice of reason and mediate between the two. Tom accompanies Cooper when he finally goes to investigate the noises upstairs; when Ben explains his plan to refuel the pickup truck, Tom not only locates the key but also volunteers to drive the vehicle as well. But for all his positive action, Tom seems to have little independence or individuality and is for the most part simply swept along in the plans of the other male characters. Before the arrival of Ben he remained in the basement with Cooper, but as soon as Ben asserts his authority over the group Tom agrees to help him in any way he can. Perhaps the one person over whom Tom has any influence is his girlfriend Judy who looks to him for reassurance. It seems likely that Tom's willingness to aid both Cooper and Ben in turn stems from his need to take positive action to save Judy and himself, but he lacks the intelligence and initiative to formulate his own plan of action.
Judy (Judith Ridley)
A simple country girl caught up in the centre of a plague of the living dead, Judy was led to the farmhouse by her boyfriend Tom and, once there, was posed with the pressing question of how to get out again in one piece. As with the other female characters in the film, Judy is portrayed as a vulnerable and rather helpless individual who looks to the men around her for protection. Also, much like Tom, Judy seems to be quite coercible. Despite the fact that she voices her concerns to Tom about Ben's plans for escape she is easily comforted and talked around into helping those plans along. Perhaps the one point at which Judy, or indeed any other female character in the film, shows a glimmer of practicality and independence is when she insists that she accompany Tom and Ben in the pickup truck as they race to unlock the gasoline pump out by the barn. But even then Judy does this more to be near Tom than for any desire to take a hand in her own fate.
Helen and Karen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman and Kyra Schon)
Trapped in the dank cellar of a strange house while their husband and father tries to protect them from the flesh-eating undead outside, Helen Cooper and her daughter Karen spend most of the film in the background and play little part in the efforts of the men to effect their escape. Tending to her wounded child in the basement, Helen Cooper is forced to listen as her husband clashes with new arrival Ben. Later agreeing to emerge from the basement in an effort to make her husband co-operate with Ben and his plan to refuel the pickup truck, she also finds herself caring for Barbra who is still in a dazed state on the sofa. Karen Cooper on the other hand, is kept firmly away from the action until the film's climax.
The Newscaster (Charles Craig)
One of the most striking and original elements of Night of the Living Dead is the use of radio and television newscasts to tell the story of the events taking place beyond the confines of the farmhouse where the film's main protagonists are trapped. Periodically, the audience is treated to a fleeting glimpse of military and scientific experts on their way to emergency meetings in Washington DC, accounts of mass-hysteria in major cities in the eastern US and the increasingly desperate measures that private citizens are urged to take by the authorities in the face of the walking dead at large in the streets.
The television newscasts that appear in the film were actually shot in the sound gallery of the studio where Night of the Living Dead was cut and edited. Here, the newscaster delivers a chilling mixture of accounts from around the country of the chaos resulting from the rising of the dead and information intended to keep the survivors alive and out of the clutches of the zombies hungry for their flesh.
Taking his cue here from Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds a few decades earlier, Romero took great pains to ensure that the content of the news broadcasts was as convincing as possible in order to draw the audience into the world of the film. As the television newscaster delivers his stories, a list of local 'refuge centres' are flashed up along the bottom of the screen and people are urged to leave their homes and make their way to the nearest centre where they will be protected by detachments of the National Guard and attended to by medical personnel. The names and locations of these were deliberately chosen from places in the area where the film was shot so as to lend an element of authenticity. The idea was that as the names of well-known landmarks popped up, the local audience would be drawn into the experience of the characters as their world was overrun by the undead.
Beyond Night of the Living Dead
As this was the first full-length movie he had written and directed, Romero made the mistake of failing to register Night of the Living Dead with the proper authorities when it was first released. As a result, Romero lost his chance to copyright his material and the film immediately entered into the public domain. This led to it later becoming one of a batch of black-and-white US films to be 'colorized'3 by another distributor simply because Romero had no legal rights to stop the release.
Romero produced a colour remake of Night of the Living Dead with Tom Savini at the helm as director. Savini had been a stuntman and make-up guru for the two later films in what has become known as the 'Dead Series' and played the role of a rapacious biker in Dawn of the Dead. Both Romero and Savini acquitted themselves well with the remake, but it still failed to reach the heights of the original as by the time it was made cinema-goers had become fairly comfortable with the stark and often extreme style of horror which had been pioneered in the original film all those years ago.
Romero also wrote and shot additional footage for a special anniversary edition of Night of the Living Dead. The new scenes were added to the start and the close of the film as well as a few more scenes of zombies in various stages of decay shambling about on country roads in pursuit of prey. Though most of the scenes fitted the mood of the original footage, they served in the end to add very little to the actual impact of the film overall. Predictably the new edition was met with mixed reviews, but with disdain from purists.
Many zombie films have followed in the wake of the original, bearing titles such as Return of the Living Dead or Night of the Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, but none have been as original or innovative in their genre as the original.
The Internet Movie Database entry for Romero's seminal film can be found here.