Night Of The Living Dead has long been regarded as a trailblazer in terms of the horror genre but also as an indicator to the depths that a film can enter the pop culture zeitgeist.
Go to anyone on the street, young or old, and say the title Night Of The Living Dead. Whether they have seen the film or not every single one has at the very least heard of the film. Night Of The Living Dead has been homaged and referenced and parodied so much so there are people out there who have never seen the film themselves and yet know it completely through cultural osmosis alone.
Night Of The Living Dead did more for film than can be quantified. The film was made on a low budget by commercial filmmakers (literally commercial filmmakers, they made commercials for living) and this scappy regional film jumpstarted not only the zombie genre but also a new era for horror movies. There was nothing like this prior and the aftermath of Night Of The Living Dead is still being felt today.
Before Night Of The Living Dead horror films were generally tame affairs be they studio productions adapting to the Hayes Code or indy fare horror really didn’t show that much in terms of violence. In 1968 that all changed. Night Of The Living Dead was the goriest and most graphic horror movie ever made to that point. The viscera, the organ eating and even the implied grue were unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. This sort of hurt the film as initially people thought with a title like Night Of The Living Dead this was a kids movie or a fun Saturday Matinee picture but very quickly they found out this was a lynchpin in film (horror specifically) growing up.
Night Of The Living Dead works as a film on multiple levels and that, perhaps, is part of it’s enduring legacy. Night Of The Living Dead is a siege movie, it is a monster movie, it is a movie with the subtext of a changing culture and most of all it is a movie that (intentionally or not) broke many racial barriers.
Lets look at the subtext in Night Of The Living Dead.
Keep in mind that this movie was made and released in one of the most turbulent times in American history, bar possibly today. You had civil rights at the forefront of every newscast, you had a massively unpopular war raging over in Vietnam, there was the rising women’s rights movement and a general pushback to everything that the 1950’s “Americana” had once stood for. Then this little film comes along and under the guise of a ‘creature feature’ boils this all down to 90 minutes of allegory.
The zombies (Ghouls as they are called in the film) are a new society taking over the world just as the youth and hippy movements were doing in the real world. This new society was swallowing and consuming the old one… although in this case a little more literally. The civil unrest of America was reflected in the in film with battles between Harry Cooper and Ben each so entrenched in their own point of view neither can fathom the idea that the other may have a few points.
Also it is not insignificant that Ben is a black man in this situation and he is the coolest head, the most rational and the one who problem solves the best. Keep in mind that casting Duane Jones for this part was totally colorblind as he was merely the best actor they had but after the fact this makes his actions even more impactful. In 1968 it was rare to see a black man seriously cast as a star in a film and for him to be punching a white woman and beating and then shooting a white man… This was incendiary stuff, so much so that some southern counties refused to screen the movie due to these factors. It is also worth noting for anyone that thinks I am blowing this out of proportion that when Night Of The Living Dead debuted it was right as Martin Luther King was assassinated. That is how racially charged this country was in 1968. The ending to the film is even more hammered home and tragic in this light.
All of that aside it should also be noted that Night Of The Living Dead literally invented a film genre. How many movies get to make that claim? Sure the “Zombie” movie had existed prior to Night Of The Living Dead but not like this. Before Night Of The Living Dead a zombie was supernatural slave created by (usually) voodoo. After Night Of The Living Dead it was never the same. For that reason alone Night Of The Living Dead is one of the most important films of all time and strangely the longevity of the movie may be the reason it’s filmmakers hated the most… it’s ubiquitous availability. Night Of The Living Dead was not originally called such and it was shot as Night Of The Flesh Eaters (original title during production was actually Night Of Anubis) and copyrighted as under the Flesh Eaters title.
Soon it was discovered there was a film titled The Flesh Eaters so the movie was changed to Night Of The Living Dead… and they forgot to copyright the new title as required by US Copyright Law at the time. This meant that from the very moment Night Of The Living Dead was released it was Public Domain and this is a huge part of it’s legacy. With the film being Public Domain it soon became a stable of late night television and midnight movies which exposed it to massive audiences that may never have encountered it otherwise.
Many of us grew up seeing Night Of The Living Dead on some syndicated TV station which oddly makes the film even creepier when seen in a beat up print. It’s more visceral almost.If the movie was properly copyrighted it may have just came and went with narry a notice from the public. Also yes, John Russo the film IS PUBLIC DOMAIN despite you claiming it not to be any longer (long story but short version is that John Russo claims that since he remastered the film ALL versions are now copyrighted, this is not how copyright law works and even the US Copyright Office has told him this).
On the occasion of the film’s 50th anniversary. Criterion has released a beautifully remastered print on Blu-ray. Along with the gorgeous transfer (I wager even in 1968 it never looked this good) they have included commentaries, numerous featurettes including a retrospective featuring the Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez discussing the impact and legacy of the film, as well as a variety of trailers, commercials and radio spots.
If you have not seen Night Of The Living Dead before then now is a perfect time to add the film to your holiday wish list. Brains not included.