by George A. Romero
Though his body of work is small and uneven, George A. Romero has done more to influence trends in independent cinema than John Cassavetes. Entire production houses have been built on love for Romero’s movies; their homages, no matter how carefully considered, are never as satisfying as the real thing. Much of horror cinema can be traced back to a cemetery in Butler County, PA. George A. Romero wasn’t a film student, he was just a kid who loved films. He used to rent reels of films so he could watch films like Tales Of Hoffmann in his grandparents house in New York City where he lived at the time. He spent his youth consuming movies and at his earliest possible opportunity, gave back to the world he loved so much. Initially hanging out at editing labs, he quickly became head of a Pittsburgh production house and started directing commercials. It was when he and a few friends each contributed six hundred dollars and long hours of their time that history was forever changed.
A shy woman named Barbra and her obnoxious brother Johnny arrive at a cemetery in the middle of the nowhere to plant a wreath on their father’s grave. They argue, wonder about the dead radio reception, pray, and then a man in a suit assaults Barbra and murders Johnny with his bare hands. Barbra runs and the man chases her all the way to an empty farmhouse next to a gas pump. She locks the doors, but the man is outside, and soon more men just like him show up. No American film had ever thrust its audience so deeply into harm’s way. The man is dead, the woman is catatonic and alone, danger has nothing preventing its entry into the house to make short work of her. Audiences must have experienced the ultimate double-take when the hero finally shows up and he is a handsome, strong black man. Duane Jones, the best actor Romero was acquainted with at the time, gives the performance of a lifetime as Ben, the resilient, forward thinking brains and brawns in the small house of survivors. The monologue he delivers about wanting to drive his truck into the group of the living dead is pitch-perfect. Next to the bitter Mr. Cooper, the biting Mrs. Cooper, the invalid Karen, the slow-witted Judy, the well-meaning dope Tom, and vegetative Barbra, Ben is the only protagonist worthy of the name. He is the most levelheaded, the most reasonable, and yet it is his actions that lead to everyone’s demise. And even when the story seems to have brought us out of the fire with the arrival of local law enforcement, Romero has one last cruel ace up his sleeve.
This film was the start of not just Romero’s life as a director, but of his career as a maker of existential horror films. His movies present heroes with more than just the movie monsters they by definition have to fight. The real threat is in the oppressive air that surrounds the characters at all times, the feeling of utter helplessness. In all of his horror films the real reason to be frightened isn’t necessarily because of the ghastliness of the zombies, vampires, or killer, but because that thing has invaded your well-being and done all it can to erase it. In Night we are shown immediately what this is like when Barbra’s brother is killed in front of her very eyes and the man who does it just has time to wipe his mouth before he starts in on her. Ben’s troubles really start when the cowardly Mr. Cooper comes up from the basement and begins acting unreasonable apropos of nothing. He ends doing battle more seriously with Cooper than the ghouls who wait patiently for them to self-destruct.
This being a horror film, it is the horrific elements, not the well-crafted characterizations, that it is remembered for, and this film became infamous for one scene. After reports on television advise all survivors to head to rescue stations, Ben, Tom, and Judy try to fuel up Ben’s truck. When things go awry and the truck goes up in flames, the undead hoards partake of the newly barbecued lovers in what is cinema’s most important gore scene. Thanks to black and white cinematography, real meat, and the impassive looks on the zombie extras faces, a macabre scene was achieved that was wholly original at that point in history. This scene was what put the film into production limbo; it’s the reason that it can be found in every dime horror bin across the country, why there are legions of zombie film fans all over the world, and why I want to make movies.
There are a few titles that will always spring to mind when horror movies as a genre are brought up in conversation; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead will always be one of those names. The images of crowds of the undead roaming about and eating flesh are unforgettable and have been copied more times than can be easily counted (even if they were borrowed from lesser known films from a few years earlier). This was also effectively the catalyst of the "cabin in the woods" genre. Even if you’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead, you know it by reputation; it is one of ‘those’ films, the ones with unspeakable things that are never elaborated on in polite conversation. These are the films I spent my youth searching for; these are the films I plan to make someday. It was Romero’s drive that most influenced my decision to make movies. He had no permit, he had no money, the only thing he had was ambition and friends.
The acting, cinematography, music, and editing are all solid considering the budgetary restraints. Compare Duane Jones' or Judith O’Dea’s performance to those of the leads in any Jack Hill or Roger Corman movie and a few things become clear. The first is that Romero’s family was incredibly supportive and functional. The second is that Romero was capable of working with people in ways that maybe only John Cassavetes understood as well. His movies would not seem quite so scary were it not for the actor’s capability of showing how far from comfort they have fallen. Cooper acts out of concern for his pride, but he also has a family to worry about. When he and Ben clash, sympathy initially falls in Ben’s court, but then consider that Cooper’s actions are understandable given the extreme circumstances. He is pig-headed and loud, but he isn’t the villain the black-and-white filmic code of ethics paints him as subconsciously. He seems the villain because a film needs a villain and the zombies just don’t cut it for the entire second act.
Since Night of the Living Dead had no producers with expectations, it could do whatever it pleased and the existential nightmare world it creates is really just the beginning. On top of its casting and gore scenes, there is that ending; it defies all expectations, all standards of decency. Just after Barbra is carried away to certain death by her zombie brother, Karen, the little girl, dies, only to be revived as one of the undead, and then she murders her mother with a jagged trough. Things like this just weren’t done in films but Romero pulled no punches. This was the end of the world like no one had ever shown it: brutal, dark, and terrifying. No other filmmaker in the world had been as bold as George Romero, and rarely has anyone taken the chances he took. When he finished editing the film, Romero through the reel into the back of a truck and drove around looking for some place to screen it. Courage and vision drove this man to his destiny, and I can only hope that I can be allowed to make films of my own and continue telling the world about George Romero and his legacy.