Night of the Living Dead and the birth of the modern zombie

Like a bizillion other people, I’ve caught snippets of Night of the Living Dead on late-night AMC while channel surfing, but I’ve never stopped for more than a few seconds. There’s something so quintessentially “B-movie” about any given thee-minute segment of the movie that keeps it from being too enticing (and that coming from a guy who generally loves old B-movie monster pics, too).

But watch George Romero’s seminal zombie movie from start to finish and a creepy excellence somehow manifests itself. Night of the Living Dead rises up beyond B-movie status into something enduring and chilling—and like the zombies themselves, it just keeps coming at you.

The movie takes place in rural western Pennsylvania right around Daylight Savings Time. Hmmmm…suspiciously close to my own circumstances when I watched the movie for the first time…..

In the film, several hapless travelers find themselves trapped in an abandoned farmhouse just as a mysterious wave of homicide sweeps the eastern third of the country. As it turns out, radiation from a satellite has apparently awakened the dead, who’ve risen up to feast upon the flesh of the living. Romero keeps his zombie apocalypse confined to a few dozen undead who lay siege to the farmhouse while news reports flesh out the larger scale of the horror.

In what will apparently become a trademark of Romero’s many subsequent zombie movies, the humans pose a greater threat to each other than the zombies do. One by one, the band of survivalists begins to unravel, and just when it looks like they might successfully make a break for it, everything goes to hell. This isn’t a “beware the walking dead” flick so much as a “beware each other” flick.

Filmed in 1968, Night of Living Dead frequently shows a Hitchcock-like appreciation for black and white cinematography, although Romero never lives up to that level of directorial brilliance because he also has a fascination with moody shadows, which often fall across the faces of his characters in haphazard, un-artful ways. The choppy editing also degrades the quality of the film, and the special effects look…well, like special effects. The acting reminded me of Twilight Zone-era melodrama, where characters tend to yell at each other as they get excited and scared.

And yet… And yet….

Romero builds textbook-perfect suspense, raising the stakes with complications after complication. He evokes mood. He slowly ratchets up the shock factor. I never thought the gore too gratuitous (although for 1968, it was boundary-pushing—just check out the zombies eating entrails and liver so fresh it glistens or a little zombie-girl gnawing on her father’s corpse). He throws in shocks but never abandons his ever-building sense of dread and anxiety. He forgoes a cliffhanger ending, popular in the genre to suggest a possible sequel, for something with irony and greater dramatic heft.

Night of the Living Dead’s greatest significance is that it represents the birth of the modern zombie. This is no product of Haitian voodoo: this is risen-from-the-dead-to-eat-your-flesh creepiness—and George Romero is its father. He is to zombies what Bram Stoker is to vampires or Mary Shelley is to Frankenstein’s monster.

In the screen versions of those stories, film buffs will ever associate Bela Lagosi with Dracula or Boris Karloff with Frankenstein, but they probably don’t roll Bill Hinzman’s name off their tongues for his on-screen role as a zombie. However, Hinzman holds the distinction of being the first. He’s relentless—which is what makes zombies so scary—and he’s a scrambler.

It’s worth noting some of the zombie precedents Romero establishes beyond just the idea of a reanimated corpse. His zombies shamble (Romero, it turns out, is big on “shambling”), but hey can be surprisingly quick scramblers, too, as Hinzman demonstrates when he attempts to break into a car. Zombies who bite victims without killing them infect them with zombie-ism. Zombies have some ability to think, trying for instance to pull a car door open by the handle.

They also use tools, such as rocks and pieces of broken furniture to break headlines and windows. One zombie goes so far as to pluck a hand spade from the wall to use as a murder weapon, forgoing teeth to kill her victim. The zombie apparently seems uninterested in feasting, though, as she abandons her victim in order to sneak up on another of the survivors.

In later films, as Matt Mogk explained in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, Romero varies from some of the “rules” he established in Night. Other filmmakers have also varied in their treatment of the rules (which I’ll get into in more depth as my explorations continue). Night established the rulebook, though.

I knew that the modern zombie first appeared in Night, but I didn’t know until I watched it that the zombie apocalypse first flared up in western Pennsylvania. I’ll have to watch my back more carefully.


3 replies »

  1. Chris, I’m so glad that you took some time out to watch this fantastic film. It’s a truly frightening classic that everyone interested in zombies, or horror in general, should see, and with the film in the public domain, they have no excuse not to! 🙂
    I had never even heard of zombies until I saw NOTLD and Dawn of the Dead in a horror movie double feature video rental one stormy summer night. (This was in the early eighties, and the then-nascent video rental market had reintroduced many classics to new viewers like me.) Frankly, I’ve never been the same!

  2. Great write-up! Romero’s films, like his zombies, unfortunately seemed to deterioriate as well 😦