Visionaries of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead

The recent passing of film legend George A. Romero inspired me to take another look at his groundbreaking debut, Night of the Living Dead.

Prior to this film’s conception, the idea of zombies was rooted in Haitian and Voodoo lore. Their appearance in early films was sporadic at best, often depicting them as mindless henchmen under the spell of some evil overlord as is the case in the 1932 classic, White Zombie, staring Bella Lugosi.

But it wasn’t until Romero and his writing partner, John A. Russo, came on the scene, that the idea of the modern zombie tale was born. These guys were true visionaries and responsible for many of the basic characteristics that we associate with zombies today. The idea that they gather in hordes, are driven by an uncontrollable urge to devour human flesh, and can only be taken down with a blow to the head, can all be traced back to this ghoulish classic.

I’d like to mention a few cool things that I managed to glean from a few sites and documentaries that I checked out recently, but first I wanted to say a few words about why this film is important to me.

I remember seeing it on TV when I was a kid (because back then, they played really cool shit on TV). I’m not sure what age I was, probably eleven or twelve, but I can remember being instantly captivated by the film’s aesthetic.  Its look and setting was instantly recognizable to me. It was filmed in a rural community just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. Living in eastern Ohio, probably about a two hour drive from that very place, it looked an awful lot like home to me.

We lived in an old farm house out in the countryside with many similarities to the house used in the movie. Void of your basic city, or even suburban neighborhood streetlights, the view outside any given window at night was one of total darkness, save for maybe a single bulb shining above the barn door in the backyard. Therefore, it wasn’t hard for an impressionable little squirt such as I to peer out of one of those windows and imagine seeing droves of lumbering flesh eaters as they stumbled toward me from out of the blackness. Heck, we even had a grubby old cemetery within walking distance of the place, no doubt ready to supply our secluded little piece of the world with an unlimited stream of undead masses.

Yep, as you can see, this particular piece of cinematic macabre had hit me, quite literally, where I lived.

As a result, I’ve been a zombie fiend ever since. Books like World War Z and The Rising, other films like Romero’s equally awesome sequel Dawn of the Dead and Edgar Wright’s Dawn inspired parody, Sean of the Dead, and of course the widely popular AMC series, The Walking Dead, are like cat nip for me. And it all started with the granddaddy of them all: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

So let’s take a quick look.

Romero, a native New Yorker, moved to Pittsburgh to attended Carnegie Mellon University. Eventually he went to work for a local Pittsburgh news channel, which gave him the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of local film production. He then went on to co-found a production company, The Latent Image, with his friend John A. Russo, where they produced commercials and industrial films. They soon grew bored with that and decided that they wanted to make a horror film.

Original drafts of the script conceived it as a horror comedy. First they played with the idea of having adolescent aliens visiting Earth and befriending teenagers. Another draft focused on a teen runaway who finds rotting corpses in a meadow that aliens are using for food. From there, John Russo came up with the idea that the corpses would be recently dead since they couldn’t afford the effects to make them look too decomposed. Romero liked this because he knew it would help set them apart from the popular Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, which served as a big inspiration for this story.

The owner of the local farm house, where a majority of the movie is set, was planning to tare the house down so he gave them permission to use it for the film. This freed them up to do whatever damage they saw fit for the story.

This was an early example of a true low-budget indy production outside of the Hollywood system. Romero created a production company for the film and called it Image Ten. The original budget was just $6,000 with Romero, Russo, and eight friends kicking in $600 a piece for a share in any profits. They quickly decided they needed another $6,000 and got ten more people to invest. It didn’t take long to discover that this wasn’t near enough to shoot a feature length film so they went back to work and eventually raised a total of $114,000 for the picture.

Many of the creative choices came about due to the small budget. The blood was made from chocolate syrup that was drizzled over the actor’s bodies.  The flesh and entrails that the zombies consumed were donated by one of the actors who owned a butcher shop. The clothes were donated by the cast and purchased at Goodwill. The small budget also prompted them to shoot on 35mm black and white film. These money saving techniques helped to give the film a lived-in feel that elevates the story’s sense of doom. The zombies are our neighbors, wearing our clothes, and attacking our homes. The black and white gives it a bleakness that adds to the film’s eerie, endless-night feel.

It was panned by critics upon release, some going as far to call for its removal due to what was then considered to be overly-graphic content. It premiered on October 1st 1968, just shy of the placement of the MPAA rating system, which was implemented in November of 1968. For this reason, it was released without a rating, making it possible for teens and even adolescents to buy a ticket.

They did, and the rest is history.

It’s no doubt that the film would go on to have a huge following that endures to this day. It has influenced countless storytellers and will likely continue to do so well into the future.

I’ve always hoped to one day meet the great George A. Romero and thank him for the legacy he gave to a generation of horror fans. Sadly, with his recent passing, that’s not to be. However, I did have the unexpected pleasure of meeting his Night of the Living Dead writing partner, John A. Russo, at a convention a few years ago. While he was at a table signing copies of his work, I walked up nervously, introduced myself, and let him know that I was a big fan. He was gracious and friendly and happy to talk with me about his work. I purchased a copy of his graphic novel, Escape of the Living Dead, a sequel to Night set three years later and chalked full all the good, ghoulish things you’d expect from the series. After signing it, he thanked me and said that it was a pleasure doing business me.







That’s right. I’ve “done business” with one of the creators of Night of the Living Dead!

What more could a country kid ask for?

Except maybe a few more lights outside my window. Just in case.