This film started it all. Our current fascination (although it is showing significant areas of wear and tear) with zombies can be traced back to this film. Although they are never once told that these creatures are zombies, all the characteristics are there. The ghouls, as this film calls them, walk as if in a trance, feed on humans, moan, and can only be killed if they are shot in the head. Beyond the characteristics of the zombie, this film also starts a series of conventions that are hard to break lose of when dealing with this monster. A group of ragtag men and women have to band together to protect their strong hold. Tensions rise and there are altercations between several people. Certain people are sacrificed early on to show that this group is not completely vulnerable. I have watched several other zombie movies and all of these things pop up in the storyline as we get closer to the conclusion. So does this make Night of the Living Dead loose some of its potency? No. I do not think so. Because there is more here than just a straight forward zombie flick.
Night of the Living Dead hit at just the right time. Released in 1968, Romero took the unrest that was boiling under the surface of middle America and transformed into something that was tangible. A new generation didn’t want to be corporate zombies like their parents were. That generation persecuted suspected communists on their own soil, entered a war for seemingly no reason and projected an image of a nuclear family that was never true. The generation that Romero was making this film for wanted liberation. They wanted to be free of the conventions, the morals and the war mongering that was raging. That generation were the people inside the farmhouse fighting off the zombies or older generation trying to enter their fortress. Night of the Living Dead became such an iconic film because it dared to push the boundaries. This was the first film to feature a black man as a hero that was not specifically written about its race. This was also one of the first films to be made completely independently and go on to make a lot of money. But most importantly this was the first movie to manifest our new fears of conformity and exploit them for entertainment value.
Next week I will talk about one of Romero’s many sequels to this film, Land of the Dead. I will see if there is still that political message and if the updates dilute or strength the zombie universe.