In April 1968, director George A Romero threw some reels of film in the trunk of his car and took a long drive from Pittsburgh to New York. The grainy, black-and-white footage stored on those reels was little short of incendiary: then called Night Of The Flesh Eaters, Romero’s film would, in time, change horror cinema forever.
Shot on a budget of just $114,000, Night Of The Living Dead (as it was later renamed) was aggressively lo-fi: its producer, Russell Streiner, also played one of the film’s first victims – he gets the immortal line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” before he’s attacked by a shambling zombie. The copious gouts of blood splashed around were actually generous helpings of chocolate syrup. Indeed, Night Of The Living Dead‘s gore, violence and apocalyptic tone were such that Romero’s initial attempts to sell the film to distributors in New York ended in failure. Eventually, the Walter Reade Organization, which owned a chain of cinemas around the state, finally gave Romero’s movie a home.
Night Of The Living Dead eventually made its debut in the autumn of 1968, and reactions were as visceral as the movie itself: some railed against its graphic violence; the late Roger Ebert wrote a lengthy piece detailing the shocked response from its young audience. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called it “One of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made”.
Romero’s film was, however, more than just a splatter movie. Like a nightmare, it seemed to take shreds of contemporary reality – Civil Rights protests, the increasingly ugly Vietnam war – and turned them into something new. Loosely inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend – plus, perhaps, a smattering of The Birds – Night Of The Living Dead gave pop culture its first modern zombie movie, and also a horror with a broad streak of social satire.
Through its grey, documentary-style images, Night Of The Living Dead captured the turbulent air of the late 1960s. Although Romero downplayed his casting of a black lead – Duane Jones, who plays apocalypse survivor Ben – its impact on the narrative is difficult to miss. At a time when African Americans were only just beginning to receive equal rights, Jones’ leading turn as the resourceful, level-headed protagonist immediately marked the film out as something different.
Then there was its conclusion; Ben’s fate at the hands of a gang of trigger-happy red necks still packs a brutal punch almost 40 years later. Critics have frequently drawn a line between Night Of The Living Dead‘s ending and the assassination of Malcolm X; by pure, tragic coincidence, the very night Romero was driving his cans of film from Pittsburgh to New York, civil rights activist Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Again, Romero had his finger resting on the pulse of a tumultuous chapter in American history.
Night Of The Living Dead was, of course, the patient zero of zombie movies: without it, we wouldn’t have Zombie Flesh Eaters, Shock Waves, Resident Evil, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later or World War Z. Romero was also an early member of a new vanguard of horror storytellers who took the genre out of dusty gothic castles and into the 20th century; undoubtedly, he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Stephen King, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
The films Romero made after Night Of The Living Dead may have been uneven, but they constantly hinted at a movie-maker whose head was positively bursting with wild, weird ideas; it’s difficult to think of another director who could come up with a vampire film as unsettling as Martin, the tale of a young man who thinks he’s a blood-sucking ghoul. Or Bruiser, which stars Jason Flemying as a rather meek guy who wakes up with a white mask on his face; the sudden anonymity gives the anti-hero the licence to exact bloody revenge on all the people he feels have wronged him – including his bullying boss, played by Peter Stormare.
If those films didn’t have quite the same impact as Night Of The Living Dead, that’s probably because, as a single, defining metaphor, Romero’s zombie is just about perfect. In his 1968 film, the zombies are a literal mass movement – a heaving, flesh-eating horde that up-ends the cosy, natural order of American society. One of the most its most startling scenes involves an undead daughter murdering its mother with a trowel; one generation suddenly turns on the other. The climactic scenes throw up an even more disturbing suggestion: as the small army of red necks roam the countryside, apparently enjoying the task of indiscriminately blasting everything they see, Romero strongly implies that the posse of shooters are little more than zombies themselves.
Romero took this one stage further in 1981’s Dawn Of The Dead, which transplants the first film’s zombie siege to a shiny American shopping mall. As blood spatters against mannequins and designer clothing, the message is clear: consumerism can make zombies of us all. The writer-director’s third film in the series, Day Of The Dead (1985) switches focus again: sealed off in a military installation, a small group of scientists tries to figure out a means of stopping the zombie apocalypse, while the base’s soliders, led by the endlessly aggressive Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), grow ever more impatient. Within another confined space, Romero lays bare the warring halves of the human psyche: on one side, the half that uses reason and logic to solve a problem; on the other, the half that resorts to violence.
Even Romero’s most ardent supporters would likely admit that his later zombie films – Land Of The Dead (2005), Diary Of The Dead (2007) and Survival Of The Dead (2009) – were lesser works than those earlier ones, but they’re nevertheless full of his personal brand of satire. Land Of The Dead dealt with class divisions; Diary was a zombie film for the age of blogging and YouTube.
In pure genre terms, Romero’s films pushed the boundaries of horror filmmaking. They redefined what the zombie meant in the minds of modern cinema-goers, from the enslaved corpses of Haitian folklore – as seen in early films like White Zombie and I Walked With A Zombie – to flesh-eating, virus-spreading ghouls. They set a precedent for screen bloodshed and cannibalism, as some outlets railed against its “orgy of sadism”.
Romero’s gift to cinema ran far more deeply than all this, however. His zombies first sprang from a turbulent decade, but their significance is far more lasting and universal: through his violent, claustrophobic movies, Romero’s films serve as a timeless warning. To think for ourselves; to not mindlessly follow orders. If we don’t hold onto our individuality, we too could become zombies.