NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – Zombies Forever

     |    Saturday, der 19. July 2014

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD wasn’t the first zombie film. The undead walked across movie screens as early as 1932 (in “White Zombie”) or even 1910, when a re-animated corpse was featured in an early cinematic adaptation of “Frankenstein”. Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943) explored the zombie figure’s roots in Haitian  rituals. Technically, the “living dead” in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are ghouls rather than zombies. But George A. Romero’s 1968 low budget horror film introduced many tropes which are the stock of zombie films, whether pure horror or laced with humor, to this day: explicit (in this case not gratuitous) gore, the group dynamics within an ad hoc anti-zombie task force that is gradually decimated, implicit psycho-social commentary and apocalyptic dread.

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Romero, 28 years old at the time of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s release, had previously worked in commercials and directed a segment for the children’s show “Mr. Rogers‘ Neighborhood”. For his feature debut he convinced friends and acquaintances to contribute to the eventual production budget of 110,000 dollars or act in the film – or both. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was shot in Evans City, a small, remote town north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Romero was a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and based in Pittsburgh at the time.) The natural light, black and white cinematography, understated acting by largely non-professionals (except lead Duane Jones, who later starred in the cult vampire film „Ganja and Hess“), low key makeup and use of a condemned house as one central location were results of budget restraints. But in retrospect, these creative decisions contributed to the film’s mundane horror. Not an unreal, supernatural nightmare one could awake from and forget, but the impending doom that is constantly lurking beneath the surface of an eroding society. The film’s release in October 1968, towards the end of a year of assassinations, inner city riots and war overseas, further foregrounded any intentional or unintentional social commentary.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s legacy doesn’t extend only to the horror film genre. Romero’s film forms a bridge between cheap genre and exploitation flicks (sub B-movie) that played in drive-ins and on the lower half of double features and a more artistic independent film practice that had its roots in avantgarde and underground cinema, fine arts and literature. One could argue that Romero is one founding father of the U.S. independent cinema that emerged in the late 70s and early 80s and peaked artistically in the late 80s/early 90s, before “indie” became a co-opted, formulaic sub-brand of Hollywood. Romero paved the way for the next wave of independent filmmakers who didn’t disdain genre  (like John Cassavetes did) or deal with it in a camp, purposefully homemade way (Andy Warhol and Jack Smith). Instead, directors like Jim Jarmusch, Abel Ferrara and most famously, Quentin Tarantino both embraced and subverted genre elements while infusing their films with formal experimentation to redefine storytelling for their unique visions.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was the first of five “undead” films directed by Romero.  The first sequel, 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead”, set in a suburban shopping mall, earned near-blockbuster box office and begat a commercially and critically successful remake in 2004 (co-written by Romero, directed by Zack Snyder) which considerably boosted Canadian indie darling Sarah Polley’s visibility with mainstream audiences. The other three films also did respectable business and were reviewed more or less favorably. There are also numerous sequels and remakes without Romero’s participation, such as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION. As recently as “World War Z”, zombie films and mutations thereof pull huge crowds. Romero’s semantic and cinematic reinvention of the zombie has replaced the vampire as all-purpose bogeyman and simply just won’t die.

Natalie Gravenor
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