Celebrating Romero: 50 Years Of “Night Of The Living Dead”

As George A. Romero’s seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead reaches its 50th anniversary, Neal Damiano remembers why it remains an indelible entry in the genre.

Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero, cult classic horror movie film, zombies,

Marking its 50-year anniversary, theatres are screening the George A. Romero seminal classic Night Of The Living Dead. A story of six strangers trapped in an isolated farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania in a dire attempt for survival from flesh eating zombies. The film is noted as the first modern zombie film that spawned a cultural phenomenon. But the film is so much more than that, touching on themes of fear in human nature. Let’s look beyond the “scary movie” and break down the meaning and impact that the film has had on society. Perhaps the zombies represent us, when pushed upon fear and paranoia, will we turn on ourselves? The notion of greed and status all represented here in a clever narrative.

Night of the Living Dead - George A Romero

The most evident social representation in Night of the Living Dead is that of gender roles and stereotypes; under dreadful situations we will do anything to survive. At its core is the shallow emptiness of the zombie, who lives and dies by specific conditions, but has no internal motivation beyond pure consumption. Perhaps Romero was communicating a specific backlash against the Vietnam war symbolising the zombies as killing machines. Maybe it’s a message of an older generation’s disgust at the youth. One thing is for sure, the humans can be more dangerous than the undead. There’s a profound nod to an era of civil rights and social unrest too: the hero being a black man who survives the night only to be shot down by a bunch of country folk and lawmen.

Night of the Living Dead - George A Romero

The film also broke some boundaries in storytelling, for one it did not have a happy ending, the hero dies and authority continues to rule. The zombies have no cure and cannot be stopped. And a child, although undead, still commits murder. Beyond all the gore perhaps the most frightening aspect is the scene of the 11-year-old girl, who turns and devours her father’s dead body, literally killing off the patriarchal society of the time. The influence Night of the Living Dead has had on culture is immeasurable; five decades later and the film still influences all aspects of pop culture from film to television and music. It’s often imitated but never quite matched in its ferocity.

In the last ten years, zombies have become mainstream with the popularity of shows like Walking Dead, Z Nation and IZombie. Whatever you get from Night of the Living Dead, one message is clear that society was headed for a downfall.

Words by Neal Damiano

Mill Creek Entertainment released a 50 Year Anniversary edition on Blu-ray in the US recently.

About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    Danny Peary made an interesting point about this movie some 35 years ago – namely the obnoxious unlikable white guy in fact turns out to be correct; the basement is the safest place to be. The hero, in this instance, is wrong, and he is ultimately punished for it. There’s an interesting racial subtext at work here. Tom Savini, of course, reversed this a bit in his early 1990s remake, just as he did with gender by making the sole survivor a woman who steps right up to the plate during the course of the film.

    It’s a remarkable film on many levels, not least being it still holds together despite being quite basic, black and white and with a cast of unknowns.

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    Rory Fish Reply

    Good points Neal. Romero’s efforts here example how and why the horror genre deserves more credit than it sometimes gets. Granted, the best of the genre inspired some very trashy knock-offs but there were few films at the time that captured the mood of the nation and its various societal issues as well, or as profoundly, as Night of the Living Dead.

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    Callum Reply

    A great film. I saw the colorised version a while back and it had an oddly negative impact on the film. It was badly done anyway but it goes to show that the black and white somehow makes this one better.

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    Dan Reply

    Great read Neal.

    Such a good film. Perhaps the sequel might edge it for me but regardless, this was where it all started and I still love how the film resonates beyond just stalk, slash and mutilate. The ending is so chilling, so effective.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    I know top 10 lists get the most comment flare but thanks for the feedback, guys.
    It certainly is one of the most important films in cinema history.

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    Erich Kuersten Reply

    Nice job, Neal, but I agree with Dan up there- DAWN surpasses it and in the process almost makes putting the first in any kind of list hard, the way Godfather 1 or Frankenstein 1 also wind up left off or out. BUT- even with the TON of tiresome zombie retreads upon retreads, NOTLD can be re-watched endlessly – it’s so vividly edited and shot and, now that Criterion remastered it, the b&w photography is gorgeous in its starkness. (the main issue, and the same crops up in Day of the Dead and even Land of the Dead) is a heavy foot on the ‘polemic argument’ jazz, the whole cellar vs. ground floor white/black argument drags on way too long, as does that long drawn out argument with the crazed snickering military guys in DAY OF, and the whole class-climbing stuff in LAND OF. I think Romero needs a more high-octane creative partner (like Russo in NIGHT and Argento in DAWN) to keep him from drifting too far into pamphlet country instead of just flooring it.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      I agree to some extent Erich but we’re not talking Dawn Of The Dead here a masterpiece in itself! Maybe one day I’ll do a write for that too. I will say NOTLD broke boundaries and influenced so much more. A masterpiece in independent filmmaking.

      Thanks for the read

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    CineGirl Reply

    It was such an influential film. But instead o being something that is only viewed by academics and historians and students of film, it’s still a very engaging horror movie. I love it’s look and feel; the black and white photography adds to the drama. I’m not sure if academics have put context upon the film when it isn’t there – for instance, is it really a comment on Vietnam – and Romero has stated he didn’t consider skin colour when he cast Duane Jones but there’s a lot going in NOTLD and I think it’s beauty is in how we all interpret it. We wouldn’t have the great slasher films without it so a lot of filmmakers owe a debt of gratitude to Romero.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Thank you, cinegirl. You always read my stuff I appreciate the feedback. You’re right the film has influenced so many directors.

      • Avatar
        CineGirl Reply

        Always a pleasure reading your stuff.

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    Paul L Reply

    I much prefer Dawn of the Dead but what I love about NOTLD is that it has aged so well compared to the studio horror movies of the sixties.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      A lot of people prefer Dawn there’s shall we say more MTV flash, a lot going in that film. But for the simple aesthetic and what Romero has to work with in Night , it was brilliant.

      Thanks for the read my friend

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        Paul L Reply

        Yeah, I don’t want to take anything away from NOTLD. It’s Romero’s fault for doing such a fantastic sequel that we’re talking about it. But NOTLD is genius. FACT.

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    ArchE Reply

    Ah… all this talk of Dawn being better. Pah! Stick me in the camp that says Night is by far the superior movie.

    Both films are a mirror on US society but Night makes its point far more poignantly. dawn just bugs the hell out of me (even though Savini’s work is bloody brilliant).

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    Rachel Reply

    ArchE – I’m not sure how anyone can say Dawn is inferior to Night of the Living Dead. Both are great films but Night was the warm-up act to Dawn’s brilliance.

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    ArchE Reply

    Of course, each to their own but without Night there would be no Dawn. Without Night we may not have witnessed the great American independent horror scene of the 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not sure Dawn comes close to Night’s socio-political face-slap or its magnificent ending or its chilling realism. But each to their own. 🙂

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      Rachel Reply

      All good points. What I particularly like about Dawn of the Dead is that despite Romero having a bigger budget and the ability to increase the scale of his zombie apocalypse, he still maintained that independence and a flair to create a vision that was distinctly his own. A sequel is always difficult but, if we’re talking about setting standards, Dawn showed that sequels didn’t need to be inferior. The ominous tone of the original is still evident but there’s an effective dose of humour which works well.

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    Freddie Reply

    Great celebration of a great film.

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    Pauline Evans Reply

    Good article, Neal. I’m not a huge horror fan but I’ve always appreciated this one.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Good point, Pauline. The film is that good you don’t have to be a horror fan to appreciate it. That’s how influential it is!

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Terrific piece, Neal. What I love about low budget films from years gone by, especially the horror genre, is that when they were being made, no one, especially the director, had hopes of this being anything more than a film that maybe made a few dollars and allowed them to break even. No way could they have known that their films would go to be not only cult classics but some of the defining films in the genre. Tobe Hooper did it with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, same with Carpenter with Halloween. Romero would of had the same hopes when he made this film and yet here we are 50 years later and look at what the zombie motif has evolved into.

    Really glad you revisited this one Neal.

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