I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing what is now recognized as the first zombie movie ever made: White Zombie (1932), starring none other than Bela Lugosi. But arguably, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the actual zombie urtext. It preceded the first of its four official sequels by almost a decade, but laid down the definitive template for the great flood of derivatives, remakes, homages, and ripoffs to come. Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, and can be legally downloaded for free from Archive.org.
If there is any doubt as to the endurance of the genre, check out Wikipedia’s compilation of over 300 zombie-themed feature films. Zombies thrive online in the open-ended zombie narrative ZombieAttack slowly unfolding on Twitter, and in online shrines to the undead like AllThingsZombie.com. Max Brooks has cornered the literary zombie field with his books The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006) (the first a disposable trifle, but the second a gripping tour de force). Zombies have invaded the Marvel Universe comics, ironic t-shirts, and hacked roadwork signs in Austin.
One may wonder about the mental health of such obsessive zombie fans, but now that this blog is hosting a Romero Zombie Cycle film Festival, I must now count myself among them. Also, the word “zombie” is just kind of fun to say. Zombie, zombie, zombie. Perhaps sensing the recent spike in the zombie zeitgeist, Romero himself has picked up the pace of his zombie cycle, adding fresh new entries in 2005 and 2007, with yet another planned for the near future.
What exactly is the appeal? The basic zombie conceit is uncomplicated. Indeed, the Night of the Living Dead marketing tagline “They won’t stay dead!” pretty much says it all. Simply, any and all dead people (no matter what the manner of their expiration) will inevitably come back to life as unthinking, unfeeling, carnivorous monsters. There’s something pure to Romero’s original concept, without the complexities added by later zombie stories. Horror and science fiction blog io9 posits that war and social upheaval correlate with spikes in zombie movie production. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), forever retooled the zombie concept for a world obsessed with contagious diseases (SARS, AIDS), and the essentially animalistic badness of human nature (torture, terrorism). Boyle’s zombies don’t want to eat; they are just plain mad.
Romero’s zombies have some rudimentary intelligence and are able to open doors, employ simple tools like bludgeons, and are afraid of fire. But they have no remnants of their former memories or personalities, and exist only to sup upon the living. Common to nearly every zombie tale is that an epidemic effects a breakdown of societal order, be it on a micro (such as the classic horror movie scenario of a few survivors locked in a farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead) or macro scale (witness the total collapse of civilization in Brooks’ novel World War Z). There’s a basic pessimism inherent in the genre; everything we regard as human is fragile. Faced with zombie hordes, the living turn on each other, cut and run, or totally shut down.
Romero & John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead screenplay includes some pseudo-scientific technobabble concerning a returning space probe contaminated with radiation from Venus, but for all intents and purposes the origin of the phenomenon is irrelevant to the story. Later zombie films would introduce the concept of a blood-transmitted virus, but it is irrelevant here whether or not any victim is contaminated by a germs or extraterrestrial radiation. Merely dying is all it takes to become a monster. In a way, Romero’s original conception of the zombie, absent of any plague metaphor, is the bleakest of all variants. Human society will be forever changed in a world in which even those that die naturally will have to be decapitated before they revive as beastly ghouls.
Like all of Romero’s zombie flicks, Night of the Living Dead is set in the Pittsburgh, PA area (except Day of the Dead, which is the odd one out for many reasons to be discussed in the forthcoming review). The opening sequence is set in graveyard littered with American flags, perhaps meant as a silent allusion to the vast numbers of fresh corpses being sent back from the Vietnam War. A random assortment of survivors barricade themselves in a farmhouse. Romero tells Parallax-view.org that the cast and crew actually lived in that farmhouse while filming: “We had no bread. We were literally sleeping out of that farmhouse, chopping ice out of the tank behind the toilet bowl in order to wash our faces, and we were taking baths out in the creek.”
In the best horror movie tradition, we have a cross-section of society with representatives of every gender, age, class, and race: a traumatized woman, a young couple, a classic nuclear family, and a lone black man. For all intents and purposes, their various social standings are erased as they all must unite to defend themselves against a common foe. Ben (Duane Jones) proves himself the most intelligent, sane, and capable of the bunch. But the humans can barely agree on anything, and expend most of their energy on infighting. One suspects that they wouldn’t be able to get along even without the zombie hordes assembling outside.
Night of the Living Dead is notorious for remaining unrated by the MPAA, proudly showcasing a considerable amount of gore (and even a little nude zombie derriere) unprecedented in 1968. But I think it’s fair to say that the true reason the movie is remembered as more than a cheapie horror flick is its African American protagonist. Of superior intelligence and maturity than everyone else, he alone (spoiler alert!) survives while the rest of the gang self-destructs. But unbeknownst to him, authorities have mobilized to sweep the countryside in order to execute any and all shambling zombies. It’s impossible to ignore this group’s resemblance to a lynch mob of the white male establishment, bearing scythes and hunting rifles. Given this scenario, one might predict the powerful, racially charged ending. In an interesting stylistic choice, the final sequence is told as a photomontage, a series of still images showing us the tragic aftermath of what happens when the supposedly civilized “living” are given free reign to indulge in their bloodlust.
You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
- Part I: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Part II: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Part III: Day of the Dead (1985)
- Part IV: Land of the Dead (2005)
- Part V: Diary of the Dead (2007)
Watch the public domain movie for free: Archive.org
Must read: Internal Bleeding Zombie Week ’08