The Wikipedia entry for Night of the Living Dead cites 126 references, not to mention extensive bibliography, external links, etc. This is not bad for a film that reputedly cost a little more than $100,000 and came out of nowhere—or, rather, Pittsburgh. (I love the line in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, when a studio official tells film director Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, that “they know what they like in Pittsburgh,” and Sullivan responds, “If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.”) Of course, most of director George A. Romero’s characters are zombies, and this may not be a fair representation of the local populace. It is also extraordinary that this little independent film would, two generations later, be a major and acknowledged influence on the most popular cable television series, The Walking Dead.
During the nearly 50 years in between, Romero’s film has not lost any of its frightening and creepy quality. Of course, we now live in a time of almost daily mini-massacres, not to mention the recent revelation that ex-President W paints skulls. Although The Walking Dead (which I only watch, of course, for research purposes) essentially jazzes up Romero’s vision with color and overly graphic images of cannibalism, Romero’s film still seems quite contemporary. Part of this is attributable, I think, to the fine performance by the lead actor, Duane Jones, who reminds me a bit of our current president. For a 1968 horror film to focus on an assertive, rational, matter-of-fact black man as the guardian of civilization and order while surrounded by maniacs seems to bestow on the film an indisputable prescience. Jones, a former college professor (also like Barack Obama), once acknowledged that he thought that, because he was black, “it would give a different historic element to the film.”Zombies did not have the respectable lineage of vampires in American films, with their lack of any Dracula-esque heritage. True, Bela Lugosi had crossed over in Victor Halprin’s White Zombie, and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie brought forth later comparisons with Kenji Mizoguchi’s style, but there was something distinctly low-rent and socially unacceptable about the potentially flesh-eating undead. Generally, they were relegated to B movies like Steve Sekely’s anti-Nazi Revenge of the Zombies (1943), with the likes of Mantan Moreland quaking in his racially stereotyped boots. The associations between zombies, cannibalism, and voodoo are somewhat outside the scope of this essay, but I think the thought of being chased by one Romero’s zombies across a rural Pennsylvania cemetery is quite scary enough without contemplating being breakfast.
Whether Romero’s enormous success in his twenties might have stunted his development in later films is open to question. One can hardly think of him as making romantic comedies and musicals, yet he has cited the Michael Powell adaptation of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann as a major influence. Curiously, the only other favorite he listed that might qualify as a horror film was Roman Polansksi’s Repulsion, made a few years before Night of the Living Dead. One can imagine that, given a few more scenes, zombie or not, Catherine Deneuve might have snacked on one of her victims. Although he dismisses Romero’s other films, the distinguished critic Robin Wood sees the “Living Dead” trilogy (including also 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead) as “one of the major achievements of American cinema, an extraordinary feat of imagination and audacity carried through with exemplary courage and conviction.”