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In 1968, Pittsburgh native, George Romero, would direct a low budget film that would revolutionize the horror genre forever, Night of the Living Dead. Through interviews with the talents involved, the story of this film creation is told and how it reflected its time with a grotesque and powerful immediacy. Furthermore, the film's difficult and controversial release to an unsuspecting film public is also recounted as it survived the early revulsion to become a landmark cinematic creation with a profound effect on popular culture. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
Fascinating look at one of the most influential films of all time
Very, very few films can truly claim to have wholly created a new sub-genre. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) is such a rare beast. It is truly the year zero moment for the zombie film as we understand it today. Sure, there had been sporadic examples of zombie films before Night but they all focused on a decidedly different type of thing. The early zombie, both in cinema and literature, was a sort of sleepwalking being in a deathly trance. Romero's film was the first example anywhere to postulate the idea that bodies returning from the dead would be rotting corpses who relentlessly pursue human beings in order to rip them apart and eat them. Nowadays, of course, zombies are simply everywhere. In the last decade in particular the idea of the Romero zombie has become so well known that it is a cultural reference that practically everyone understands. For this reason, it goes without saying that Night of the Living Dead is easily one of the most influential and important horror movies ever made. And that's only part of the reason why.
Birth of the Living Dead is a very good focus on the making and impact of this seminal film. It looks at the social climate of the time and considers how this influenced the making of the movie. The late 60's were one of the most dramatic periods in American history. The counter-culture was in full swing but about to come crashing down, political distrust was widespread, racial tensions were resulting in violence and the deeply divisive Vietnam War rumbled on ominously in the background. All of these elements and more led to the crumbling of the Hollywood studio system whose movies no longer connected with the rapidly changing times, this of course led to the brief but glorious New Hollywood years where many personal and left-field films were made by the big studios.
While all this was going on a bunch of inexperienced film-makers from Pittsburgh were putting together a low budget horror movie, so low budget that it was being shot in black and white. This very fact was a serious obstacle back then given that the move to colour was pretty widespread by 1968. But this independent film went against the grain in other ways too. For one thing it had a black lead actor. Not only that, but the film never even made any reference to this and dealt with it in a matter of fact manner, making the decision seem all the more bold. This may not sound like much now but in the 60's it was still quite a hurdle and ultimately transgressive. Also, the film brought in a unique seriousness to its b-movie material. Everything is played completely straight. The influence of the European New Wave can be detected in the television scenes of the news reports detailing the carnage. They are messy and naturalistic in a manner like an actual news-feed; this of course added to the urgency and realism and magnified the fear factor. With this more serious framework, Romero introduced graphic violence which added to the overall terror. Gory violence had been a staple of some schlock horror of the earlier 60's in the form of the films of H.G. Lewis and his imitators but these films always essentially had their tongues in their cheek. Romero removed the humour safety valve and so the visceral violence is all the more terrifying as a result. We have zombies eating human remains and a little girl bloodily murdering her mother in full on sequences. The film even had the nerve to end on an incredibly bleak and ironic note with the hero Ben being killed at the end when a gung-ho mob shoot him thinking him a zombie. But this hero also had survived by doing the one thing he advocated against the whole film, so this was a film that presented the viewer with many questions and gave few easy solutions.