Although we lost the great George A. Romero last July, his most influential work lives on. Romero's feature debut, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, arrives this week in a glorious new Blu-ray edition from the elite Criterion Collection, the high-end home video company that produces archival editions of both classic and contemporary films.
Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD for short) has been released countless times; it's in the public domain, so many companies looking for a cash grab have issued it on VHS and DVD over the years. But this new edition is restored in 4K and packed with just about every bonus feature imaginable — including new interviews with Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez about the film's impact and an early workprint cut known as Night of Anubis — that it will almost certainly be the definitive one going forward.
There's no debate over whether NOTLD deserves this kind of treatment and respect. The film, which turns 50 this year, remains one of the all-time landmarks in the history of horror cinema, and quite possibly the genre's most game-changing and influential film ever. Horror movies — and movies in general — were never the same after NOTLD arrived on the scene. Five decades on, its influence is still being felt and the movie itself has lost none of its eerie and terrifying power.
Below are 10 reasons why NOTLD is still a classic — including the simplest reason of them all at the end.
It introduced a new kind of monster
The zombie was associated for decades with voodoo, and generally embodied as a soulless automaton resurrected and controlled by whoever has the magical ability to do so. Romero's resurrected corpses were something almost completely different — Haitian zombies did not hunger for human flesh, for example — and even though the word "zombie" is never heard in Night of the Living Dead, his "ghouls" (as they are called in the film) eventually came to be known as such.
But the fact is that aside from a few small connections to the original idea of the zombie, Romero's creatures were a whole new breed of monster. Coming after the classic Universal monsters of the 1930s and '40s, the always reliable ghosts and witches of various films and the atomic mutants of the 1950s — this was a refreshing and effective change.
It invented an entirely new subgenre of horror
NOTLD didn't just create a new monster with its undead flesh-eaters: it gave rise to a whole new genre of horror as well. From Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) to Lucio Fulci's classic-in-its-own-right Zombie (1979) to The Walking Dead, Romero-style zombies have been a part of the horror landscape for five decades, and perhaps the dominant monster in the field for the better part of the last 20 years.
The Walking Dead alone made them into mainstream entertainment, but there wouldn't be a Walking Dead if it wasn't for dear old George and that little farmhouse in Pennsylvania. And let's not forget things like the Resident Evil video game (and film) franchise, along with countless other games, comics, books, films and TV shows. Romero's movie was ground zero.
Indie movies owe NOTLD a rather large thank-you
It's not like there wasn't independent cinema before NOTLD, but this was the first movie made outside a Hollywood studio to achieve any sort of comparable success, grossing $12-15 million (in late '60s dollars) in its first few years of release in America (it also grossed some $30 million internationally).
NOTLD was also an early example of crowdfunding: Romero and nine partners coughed up $600 each for the initial $6,000 budget, gathering the rest of the movie's final $114,000 price tag from outside investors. It also led the charge for regional filmmaking, showing that quality cinema could be made outside the confines of Tinseltown, and remains a template for indie horror filmmaking as well. There would be indie cinema without Romero's little B-movie, but it might not have gotten the same kickstart.
The movie gave the world George A. Romero
The gentle giant of horror, who passed away last year at the age of 77, was an unassuming director of commercials and industrial films who was looking to make some easy money by churning out a horror quickie. But his skill as a filmmaker and clear vision of the film turned NOTLD into something else entirely.
Romero certainly did not make the movie on his own — everyone in the original Image Ten group pitched in on all fronts — but as a result he embarked on a career that gave us at least two more genre classics (Martin and Dawn of the Dead) as well as gems like Day of the Dead, Creepshow, The Crazies and even the underrated The Dark Half. Thanks to NOTLD, we got to enjoy this maverick artist's work for nearly 50 years.
It's all about Benjamin ...
The original script described him simply as a truck driver, neither white nor black. But then Romero saw Duane Jones audition and thought he was the best actor for the role of Ben. NOTLD was groundbreaking in its portrayal of Ben as the unquestionable hero of the movie. While the other characters range wildly in their abilities, motivations and intelligence (especially the women — it was 1968 and even a liberal like George Romero had a long way to go, we suppose), Ben is shown throughout the film as noble, smart and pro-active, doing his best to protect himself and the six white strangers he finds himself trapped with.
For 1968, this was almost unheard of, although its debatable whether it caused the film problems with distributors or in certain areas of the country. But all this time later, casting Jones remains a bold, brave move.
... until he's killed off
Not only is Duane Jones' Ben the hero of the movie, he's the sole survivor of the seven people trapped by the zombie plague in the farmhouse... or so you think. After keeping his wits about him for 90 minutes and staying alive, Ben is spotted through the farmhouse window by a posse of hunters and law officers and shot dead, apparently mistaken for a zombie. Or was it a mistake?
It's the final, cruel irony in a movie already trafficking heavily in despair and nihilism, and it works perfectly even as it gives the viewer one final shock. Before this, if a movie's hero died he usually went out in some sort of showstopping or glorious fashion — this time he bites it due to stupidity. And the fact that this dignified African American man is gunned down by some white country yokel is an unmistakable symbol of where America was at the time.
NOTLD wasn't the first film to take on-screen gore to a new level: Herschell Gordon Lewis had been painting the screen red for five years beforehand, starting with 1963's Blood Feast. But Lewis' films were crude and amateurish, while NOTLD was a professionally made production from start to finish. NOTLD was the first serious horror movie to up the ante on explicit gore, with its unprecedented shots of zombies gnawing on intestines, shreds of flesh and severed limbs. The film opened the floodgates for more carnage in movies than ever before, with Romero himself gleefully wallowing in blood and guts in Dawn of the Dead a decade later.
The breaking of taboos
Hand in hand with the movie's escalation of onscreen blood and gore was the reason for it: cannibalism. The images of humans — even dead ones — chowing down on other people was something never seen before, even in the disreputable horror genre. Matricide — the murder of Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) by her resurrected daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) — was also not something seen on your average Saturday visit to the movie theater. NOTLD broke other rules both narratively and culturally: killing off all the main characters and portraying the authorities and military as largely ineffectual were two more of the daring moves that the film made, paving the way for decades of subversive horror to come.
NOTLD made horror socially and politically conscious
Horror movies before NOTLD were largely free of social commentary. Many of the popular Hammer titles of the 1960s touched on repressed sexuality, and a lot of sci-fi was based on fears about nuclear war. But NOTLD came out in 1968 at a time when America itself was literally tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War, race relations, the hippie movement and much more. The country felt like it was under siege from within and without, and NOTLD reflected the concerns on all sides that the nation might not emerge undamaged from its struggle. The film has been analyzed by critics as a metaphor for all those issues, with some critics suggesting that the zombies represent an assault on capitalist society itself (Romero would explore this even further in Dawn of the Dead). Whether that was really the case is arguable, but the fact that we can still debate that aspect of NOTLD 50 years later is a tribute to its depth.
It's still damn scary!
I first saw NOTLD on New York's Channel 7 (WABC) on the 11:30 late night movie. Like so many prints of the film at that time, the one the station aired was grainy, a little choppy, somewhat fuzzy and scratched. And yet it was that physically coarse look that played a role — for many viewers back then, not just this one — in the film's effectiveness: it played almost like documentary footage captured in real time. A series of restorations, starting in 1994 with its laserdisc release, showed us the genuine movie under all that grime and brought out its appeal even more. It plays to this day as a kind of waking nightmare on film and IMHO, it has lost none of its ability to hold the viewer in its cold, dead grip. NOTLD was the first movie to give me actual nightmares. I hope it's still doing that today to new generations of horror fans.