The first time I saw Night of the Living Dead was in 1972, in the basement of a radical student group’s headquarters near UC Berkeley.
I was just a young teen dazzled by the grown-ups’ excitement over George Romero’s movie coming to town. Back then, it still belonged to a subculture that layered most things obscure and peculiar with a kind of anti-traditionalist veneer. The word was that Night of the Living Dead, a crude thriller made for only $100,000, was too creepy for the big theater chains. It was shown in tiny art houses, backwater drive-ins, rented halls, even basements.
I’m Hungry-And Hate The Man!
The 1968 black-and-white picture-available just about anywhere on DVD or streaming video and almost a must for Halloween-also had a life of its own to those who loved it. Some even thought it was an uncompromising message film. Before the lights went out in that Berkeley basement, the organization’s president, an intense guy in a ponytail, described Night of the Living Dead as nothing less than an allegory for the mess the country was in.
It was a pungent political allegory, he said, a blast at the repressive Establishment. All those ghouls searching for fresh meat were symbolic of the bureaucracy; they could be mindlessly evil functionaries, maybe CIA agents in cemetery drag trying to gnaw at our civil liberties. He mentioned overthrowing the government. He sputtered a bit about The Man.
After finishing, another fellow stepped up. He had his own wild theory: that the political victims were actually the living dead, made that way by repression. He said the last part of the movie, when they’re mowed down by shotgun-toting vigilantes, showed how innocent they really were.
Thinking back on those first impressions of the picture, the polemics of revolution never came up. There was appreciation of Romero’s decision to cast a black man, Duane Jones, in the only hero’s role (it seemed atypical and pro civil rights) and some inward chortling about how silly the authority figures came across, but mainly I thought it was great camp. Not only was it spooky, it was hilarious.
Vegetarians, Dinner is Served
My girlfriend at the time, a vegetarian with a vengeance, didn’t have much fun. She thought it was disgusting. When those shambling corpses started dining on a couple of teenagers in mid-film, she walked out. There were a lot of groans and moans throughout that screening; it may not seem like much now, what with today’s level of graphic movie violence, but the scenes were startling back then.
Seeing Night of the Living Dead again recently, I had to marvel at how it ever got to be so huge. Everything about it is cheap: the film stock is scratchy, the sound quality is inconsistent, the acting is one-take crummy and the dialogue is often idiotic and always arch. The images are coarse horror schlock.
Give Romero credit, though. Within his pennyweight budget, Romero, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Russo as well as directed, was able to develop a very weird story about the recently dead being reanimated by Venus radiation and going on cannibalistic orgies. Just holding onto that plot took real courage.
Hitchcock? Well, Maybe a Little
Along the way, he borrowed a scene or two from Hitchcock’s Psycho, most notably, the living room with its stuffed animal heads and the stabbing scene at the end, all accompanied by piercing Hitchcockian music. Likewise, he used cockeyed camera angles, bizarre lighting and basically threw out any self-censorship.
One of his cleverest moves was sticking his actors in a small house, their refuge from the creeps outside. Romero generated a claustrophobic tension without any finesse, only ugly close-ups, loud music and not much down time. The best thing is that Night of the Living Dead isn’t over-composed- it just hurtles ahead with all its gruesomeness.
Director’s cue: George Romero stayed with the “dead” theme in several bloody sequels, including Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead.
Author’s note: If you enjoyed this article, you may also like A Fresh Look at Lawerence of Arabia and A Fresh Look at Citizen Kane.