When NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released in 1968, it was far from the first zombie picture. From the 1930s onward, zombies were a frequent – if not prominent – feature in horror cinema, starting with Bela Lugosi starring in WHITE ZOMBIE. But what George Romero would do with a little over $100,000 would practically undo everything that came before it and become the barometer of quality, financial success and fandom disputes for anything to follow.
Romero’s zombies have become the stuff of genre lore at this point. The Haitian, non-gut-munching zombies of Lugosi and Val Lewton days are but a faded picture show now. Still deserving of much respect – and flat out entertaining in their own right – they have little footing in regards to what constitutes a depiction of a “zombie” at this point, a matter that seems outright silly when put into writing.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD arrived at a strange time in regards to both genre cinema and public acceptance of graphic content(s). Produced and released only a few years following Herschell Gordon Lewis’s seminal gore classic, BLOOD FEAST, Romero was able to capitalize on a type of cinema that the public had a newfound appetite (sorry) for. Gone were the shadow clad, moping zombies of the decades prior, and in their place were hungry, mutilated corpses reanimated to threatening results, both on screen and off.
Of course, in the context of the film, the living dead of the title posed a threat to anything with a pulse. But off screen, they apparently did too. Not much unlike the Video Nasty scare of the UK in the 1980s, there was a public fervor over content of a graphic nature being released in the 1960s in the US. Thanks to the finesse of exploitation hucksters like the aforementioned Lewis and his peers, Lee Frost and Doris Wishman, amongst others, a new appreciation and subsequently profitable market emerged for films that not only promised excess, but delivered it.
Releasing exactly one month before the date the MPAA rating system would be introduced, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would be released without any sort of rating or seal, following the outdated Hays Code. Amidst much controversy and even instances of censorship, the film would go on to become the most profitable horror film ever made outside of the Hollywood studio system and would eventually be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1999.
Though some viewers, and even prominent film critics, would note problems with the violence on display, it was hard to ignore its political and racial subversions. Much like his work that would follow – including all of the subsequent DEAD films – Romero laid the social commentary on rather heavily and didn’t shy from his political leanings. It’s likely not a coincidence the film was read by academics and casual viewers alike as a critique on Vietnam. And any viewer would be hard pressed to ignore the historical importance of Romero casting an African American lead, especially in regards to the final, pivotal, moments of the film.
Now in public domain, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is much easier to see than it was in 1968, though not necessarily as complete. There are still plenty of censored and otherwise altered versions being distributed by anyone looking to earn a quick dollar, but its potency still remains regardless of incarnation. It has been remade, re-cut, colorized, “re-animated”, parodied and riffed, and still carries all of the (dead) weight that it did on October 1st, 1968.