Year of the Zombie

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead showed a new society devouring the old.

Illustrations by Christoph Kleinstück.

The most radical film of 1968 wasn’t French — it was a low-budget horror feature made in Pittsburgh, PA. First-time feature director George A.  Romero later said, regarding the way Night of the Living Dead seemed to reflect so many aspects of the violence and despair of that year, that this film like all his zombie films were “snapshots of the time they were made.”

A political lefty living and working in what he called the “dead towns” of Rust Belt Pennsylvania, Romero knew that aspects of the film would be recognized as highly topical. For example, during production, he and his filmmaking partners referred to the harrowing last sequence of the film as the “Search and Destroy” sequence, borrowing language and imagery from the Vietnam War familiar to everyone from tv news coverage. Later when they delivered the final cut of the film to the lab for processing, they heard announced on the car radio the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Recalling that Night ends with its protagonist, a black man, gunned down by a white man, they wondered in the guilty manner of obsessed film-makers if this latest horrific real-life event would hurt the film, or help it.

Romero was an ambitious filmmaker, and had hoped to make art films, but could never raise enough money. He and his partners in Latent Image, a Pittsburgh company specializing in tv advertisements, finally agreed that making a “monster movie” seemed like a practical way to finance a low-budget film and get it seen. They little suspected that they’d eventually be given credit for the radical recreation of the zombie film genre that, pre-Romero, focused on the figure of the Haitian “voodoo zombie.”

This earlier iteration of the zombie was a legacy of the US military occupation of Haiti from 1915–1934, which was intended to quell any political turmoil that might endanger Washington’s control of the sugar industry there. During that time, Americans became enthralled by amateur anthropologists’ lurid reports of empty-eyed, somnambulistic “undead” indigenous workers seen in the fields and towns that had supposedly been revived from death and enslaved by powerful local voodoo priests. This racially charged zombie fascination led to a spate of popular books, plays, and B-movies featuring the shambling creatures in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, with titles like White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, King of the Zombies, and Plague of the Zombies.

It was inevitable that audiences would interpret the undead cannibal creatures of Night of the Living Dead as zombies, though the word is never used in the film, and though Romero seemed to take no interest in the Haitian voodoo zombie film antecedent.

“Ghouls” rather than “zombies” were the monsters Romero’s team initially thought they were dealing with, and Night of the Flesh-eaters was the film’s original title. The other “monster” influence came from the pitiful infected masses of starving vampires in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. The 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, features hordes of vampires clawing weakly at the house of the Last Man in a foretelling of Romero’s main setting, a besieged rural farmhouse. This picture also features a Romero-like upending of typical horror film logic, when in the end the Last Man, a relentless vampire-killer by day, is revealed to be the true monster in the eyes of the revolutionary new vampire society that’s emerging.

For Romero, the zombie figure that he identified with was “always the blue-collar kind of monster,” representing the working underclass that needs to overcome the hopelessly cruel, corrupt, and self-destructive hegemony controlling the nation. “To me,” he said, “they were dead neighbors.” In his famous sequels to Night of the Living Dead, this stance becomes progressively clearer. By 2005, with Land of the Dead, zombies are literally represented as the oppressed working class living in slums ringing the “Fiddler’s Green” high-rise in downtown Pittsburgh where elite humans wallow in walled-off luxury.

But such ideas were still embryonic in Night of the Living Dead. It’s a stark film, black-and-white at a time when color filmmaking was ubiquitous. Romero liked the fact that the tv news was still in black-and-white, which lent a disquieting realism to the movie’s events. Romero’s “ghouls” dragging down humans and tearing them open to feast on entrails versus humans beating zombies to death with crowbars, shooting them down in methodical “Search and Destroy” marches across open country, and torching their writhing bodies played out on a continuum with the real-life televised gore of public assassinations, mass rioting, and the slaughter in Vietnam.For Romero, the zombie figure that he identified with was always the blue-collar kind of monster.

Night’s plot is simple: dead people are inexplicably rising out of their graves to devour the living. A disparate group of survivors hole up in an isolated farmhouse, fighting off slow-moving hordes of undead “flesh-eaters.” This life-or-death crisis fails to unify the group in the farmhouse. Seven fractious individuals undermine their own survival through constant arguing, factionalism, and power struggles. In the end, only Ben, a truck driver who happens to be black, is left alive. Exhausted and traumatized, he staggers outside in the morning only to be accidentally shot down by an all-white local posse formed to kill “ghouls.”

Romero always swore that it was color-blind casting, and that Duane Jones got the part of Ben because he was the best actor who showed up to audition. Supposedly there was never any intention of making a film about racial injustice in America. But this seems incredible while watching the last moments of the film, as Ben’s body is lifted with hooks and tossed into the fire by callous, grinning posse members, and the images trans-form into grainy newsprint evoking America’s racist violence.

Romero and company were far more conscious of showing the breakdown of US society in other terms, signaled in part by the pointed shot in the opening scene of an American flag waving over the cemetery where the first zombie attack occurs. People’s disastrous inability to communicate or unify, even if their lives depend on it, was an obsession of Romero’s that would manifest in all his Dead films.

Representing the rancorous dissolution of the nuclear family, the supposed backbone of the nation, is the bitter, bickering couple Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) and their ghoul-infected daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). And indicating that American institutional authority is in shambles are the tv reports watched anxiously by the farmhouse inhabitants, who still mistakenly trust the media to guide them. Scientists and government officials — those once heroic figures of old 1950s Cold War sci-fi films who would unite to save the world from alien invaders — are seen ducking reporters, unable to get their story straight on the cause or the means of dealing with the crisis.

Nevertheless, Duane Jones, an NYU graduate student who reconceived the role of Ben in order to base it more on his own cerebral personality, was highly aware of the difference his race would make to the part and to the film. As he noted, “It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black. But it did occur to me that because I was black, it would give a different historical element to the film.”

As the lone black man involved in the film, he was having different experiences than his friends on the shoot. In a rare interview, he told of being driven the long distance through rural Pennsylvania to his home one night after the day’s filming. An obliging actress in the cast was at the wheel. Midway through the journey, they were chased by white men in a pickup truck, one of whom was brandishing a tire iron, and they only just made it to town in time to discourage their pursuers.

“I’d just been brandishing a tire iron myself,” Jones recalled ironically, having been filmed fighting off ghouls in the scenes shot earlier that day. A black man acting violently and not just on the receiving end of violence would, he knew, be electrifying to viewers. Only the year before, the film In the Heat of the Night had become notorious for an unprecedented scene when Sidney Poitier, as a black police detective working a case in the South, is slapped in the face by the white officer (Rod Steiger) he’s partnered with, and actually slaps him back even harder, a response Poitier claimed he insisted on.

When the Night of the Living Dead opened, advertising posters prominently featured shots of Duane Jones as Ben punching out Karl Hardman as Harry, the middle-aged white man who vies with Ben for leadership over the survivors.

The completed film was dumped into low-rent theaters and drive-ins by Continental, the only distribution company that would handle its release without demanding changes that Romero refused to make. Night shocked audiences who weren’t expecting its gory mayhem. It fell in the gap between the waning of the strict Hollywood Production Code of censorship, and the enforcement of the ratings system that got instituted a few months later. This lack of advance warning about the film’s gruesome content caused a certain amount of exhibitor and audience confusion, as described by young critic Roger Ebert when he attended an afternoon screening of Night and found himself sitting among terrified, weeping children. They’d been dropped off at the theater by their parents, who figured — in an era not yet marked by the fear of roving pedophiles and “stranger danger” — that there was never any harm in a typical “monster movie” kiddie matinee.

Critics who bothered to review Night tended to wail louder than the children. Lee Beaupre writing for Variety railed, “Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve quite nicely as an outer limit definition by example.” 

But this was before the film was discovered by the louche Andy Warhol crowd dominating New York City’s art scene. They wrote extravagant and perceptive paeans to it in Warhol’s inter/VIEW magazine, and named Kyra Schon, who played Karen, the zombie-bitten child that “turns,” kills her own parents, and is discovered gnawing on the flesh of her father’s arm, the great new star of 1968. Night promptly became a must-see on the urban hipster film circuit, playing certain theaters for months or even years at a time.

Shell-shocked by the sudden success of the film, Romero had to figure out how to talk about the social messages attributed to the film. He felt his way toward expressing the vaguely revolutionary vision that had shaped its production: “There’s a new society coming in … devouring the old, and the old society being unable to process it, not knowing how to deal with it.”

In the harrowing “Dead” trilogy upon which Romero’s reputation rests, Night, Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985), he would continue to push forward this vision, showing the zombie population steadily overwhelming human survivors. But meanwhile the new society that was fighting to break through never did “devour” the old. As Ben Hervey put it, “By 1971, Night’s ending must have felt agonizingly prophetic. A few stragglers held out, feeble as those last ghouls, but normality had won.”