The quintessential zombie movie, George A. Romero’s first film gave rise to myriad imitators, sequels, and remakes, and reanimated the horror genre. The 28-year-old Romero and a group of friends and colleagues shot Night of the Living Dead in Evans City, PA, outside of Pittsburgh, on a shoestring budget of $114,000. Spreading a 30-day shoot over nine months, Romero filmed on nights and weekends after his day job making industrial films and television commercials. Using his financial shortcomings to his advantage, Romero employed unpolished sound, harsh lighting, hand-held cameras, and non-professional actors, which gave the film a documentary feel, making the terror more realistic. With no budget for complicated dolly-track shots, Romero conveyed movement through editing—via the rapid succession of static shots—a throwback to Michael Powell’s war movies and a technique that elicits realism by suggesting actual photographs. The hand-held camera work (and close-ups of real animal organs from the local butcher shop cameoing as human viscera) added the intended effect of queasiness—a device adopted by such nouveau zombie films as 28 Days Later (2002).
One of the key innovations of Night of the Living Dead, and a key factor in the film’s realism, is the relocation of the monsters from some far-off land right into our own middle-American backyards—no more counts in Transylvania or voodoo-inspired undead in the Caribbean. The monsters are now everyday people and the film’s protagonists can’t escape back into the “normal” world. In addition, the fear is relentless. There is a near total absence of comic relief, romantic distraction, or scientific exposition, which usually served to release tension in most horror films.
Generally dismissed at the time of its release, the film appeared on the midnight-movie circuit at grindhouses on 42nd Street in the early 1970s—sometimes on a triple bill with racy Betty Boop cartoons and Reefer Madness (1936)—and gradually built a following. Recognizing the film’s significance to its genre and Romero’s impact on the filmmaking landscape, MoMA was one of the first institutions to screen Night of the Living Dead, honoring Romero in a Cineprobe program in 1970, years before the film achieved commercial success via its cult status—and leading many critics to revisit the film and reverse their previously negative reviews.
Variety, in its 1968 review, called it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism.” Yet the timeliness of its themes enabled the film to survive the pornography of violence label and critics’ initially dismissive reviews. Released at a time when disillusionment was running rampant in the country—spurred by the Vietnam War and the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy—Americans identified with the film’s most shocking suggestion: death is random and without purpose. No one dies for the greater good or to further the survival of others. Instead, people die to feed faceless, ordinary America. A metaphor for societal anxiety, the sight of America literally devouring itself and the representation of the desecration of the wholesome American family were “reflections of social hysteria” (J. Hoberman) and served as a release for the country’s repressed trauma.
The film was acquired by MoMA in 1980 and added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1999. Whether appreciated for its film-historical impact or enjoyed for its unabashedly rollicking, gory fun, Night of the Living Dead gives you plenty to chew on.
Organized by Jenny He, Research Assistant, Department of Film.