On October 1st 1968, a small, ultra-low budget Horror feature was released. A month before the MPAA ratings system was put in place, it was shown mostly at Saturday matinee performances which the norm for low budget Horror films at the time. Consequently, even small children were not prevented from purchasing tickets to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The film drew little attention from film critics, apart from debating the merits of censoring it. Audiences loved it, however, and over the next decade in release and re-release it made up to fifteen million dollars, making it still one of the most profitable independent Horror films ever made. To this day, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is considered the bible of the Zombie mythos, and the establisher of the Zombie “rules” - rules to be followed and, of course, broken.
Director George Romero found, as is always the case, that many of his creative choices were dictated by the low budget. The actors playing the zombies were made up very simply, the budget not allowing for the elaborate make-up effects we enjoy today. Pale faces with blackened eyes along with some mortician’s wax did the trick. The entire shoot was on location since sets were too costly to build. The cast were all unknown actors from the Pittsburgh area. Even the decision to film in black and white was mostly due to the fact that color stock was just too expensive.
Yet for all the film’s budgetary shortcomings, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD managed to break new ground. The hero of the film, Ben (played wonderfully by Duane Jones), is the leader of a group of people taking refuge in a house trying to hold off the horde of undead outside. That Ben is an African American man is not an issue in the film. This was a very different attitude in ‘68. In fact, George Romero claims that the racial commentary so often seen in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, while legitimate, was quite unintentional. Romero always held that he cast Duane Jones because he was the one that wowed them at the audition. Another notable first for this film what that up to this point, violence in movies was largely sanitized. Showing violence, sure, just not the result of that violence. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was among the first to unflinchingly depict graphic violence on the screen. This includes the shocking, tragic ending of the film that still has the capability to haunt.
Those in 1968 who railed against this film as depraved, pornographic, and even ‘satanically inspired” would be surprised to learn that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was recently selected by the Library of Congress for preservation as “Culturally Significant”. The film is also in the public domain (no copyright restrictions) due to an error by the distributors - which is justice since the same distributors screwed George Romero out of the film’s profits. So not only is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD recognized by our government as a significant achievement, it is now one of the easiest movies to find. Not bad for a $114,000 budget film. Not bad at all…
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD fun fact - George Romero never referred to the creatures as ‘zombies’. He called them ‘ghouls’
The part of Ben was originally a working-class truck driver, but the role was re-written after Duane Jones’ audition. George Romero thought that Jones’ more cerebral take on the character was more interesting.
Johnny -”They’re coming to get you Barbara!”
Ben - “I don't want to hear any more from you, Mister. If you stay up here, you take orders from me, and that includes leaving the girl alone!”
Sheriff McClelland - “Put that thing all the way on the fire. We don't want it getting up again.”