Night of the Living Dead (1968)

USA, 1968
88m 53s (UK – video (Intervision)), 95m 39s
35mm film, black and white, 1.37:1
mono, English

A hugely influential American horror/science fiction film directed by George A. Romero, the first in a sequence of films (numbering six entries by 2016 with a television series in the works) detailing society’s many and varied responses to an apocalyptic event (possibly a virus from a crashed space probe as hinted at here) that returns the recently dead to life.

Plot Summary

A small group of bickering survivors shelter in a farmhouse, hiding from a small army of re-animated corpses who are roaming the countryside eating human flesh. Relationships within the group break down as the zombies repeatedly try to get into the farmhouse and the group slowly, one-by-one, falls victim to the hungry mob.

Credits

* = uncredited

Crew
Directed by: George A. Romero
© [not given on screen]
An Image Ten production
Produced by: Russell W. Streiner, Karl Hardman
Screenplay by: John Russo, George Romero
Photographed by: The Latent Image, Inc.
Editor: George A. Romero *
Music by: Capitol Records Stock *
Sound Engineers: Gary R. Streiner, Marshall Booth
Make-up: Hardman Assoc, Inc.
Hair Styles: Bruce Capristo
Special Effects: Regis Survinski, Tony Pantanello

Cast
Duane Jones (Ben)
Judith O’Dea (Barbra)
Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper)
Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper/bug-eating ghoul)
Keith Wayne (Tom)
Judith Ridley (Judy)
Kyra Schon (Karen)
Charles Craig (newscaster/ghoul)
Bill Hinzman (cemetery ghoul)
George Kosana (Sheriff McClelland)
Frank Doak (scientist)
Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille (field reporter)

Alternative Titles

The Flesh Eaters – early title
Monster Flick – working title
Die Nacht der lebenden Toten – Germany
Night of Anubis – shooting title
Night of the Flesh Eaters – pre-release title
Noc zywych trupów – Poland
La noche de los muertos vivientes – Spain
A Noite dos Mortos-Vivos – Portugal
La notte dei morti viventi – Italy
La nuit des morts-vivants – France

Sequels
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Land of the Dead (2005)
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Survival of the Dead (2009)

Before his death in July 2017, Romero was said to have been planning a further instalment for television, Empire of the Dead, based on his comic book series of the same name 1Cannes: George A. Romero’s ‘Empire of the Dead’ Set for TV Series by Dave McNary, published by Variety on 21 May 2015 and another film in the series, Road of the Dead.

Remakes
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)
Rebirth (2018)

Extracts included in
Birth of the Living Dead (2013)
Feed the Gods (2014)
Mischief Night (2013)
Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition (1999)
Precious Images (1986)
The Void (2016)

Press

1968
Variety 16 October 1968 p.6
Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the anatomy of violence, “Night of the Living Dead” will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In a mere 90 minutes, this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distrib Walter Keade, the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic, as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism. Although pic’s basic premise is repellent – recently dead bodies are resurrected, via that old fright-film debbil radiation, and begin killing human beings in order to eat their flesh – it is in execution that the film distastefully excels. No brutalizing stone is left unturned: crowbars gash holes in the heads of the “living dead,” people are shot in the head or through the body (blood gushing from their back), bodies are burned, monsters are shown eating entrails, and – in a climax of unparalleled nausea – a little girl kills her mother by stabbing her a dozen times in the chest with a trowel and the remainder of the cast (living living that is) suffer similarly disgusting fates. While all these set-pieces are staged with zestful realism, the rest of the pic is amateurism of the first order. Director George A. Romero appears incapable of contriving a single graceful setup, and his cast is uniformly poor. […] Apart from all those gory special effects and makeup, the production is even worse. Romero’s photography is abysmally lit and the processing appears to have been done on 20-year-old Army stock. The music (uncredited and almost certainly canned) ludicrously hypos every gratuitous shock effect and reminds one of a late-’30s serial with its moaning and droning. Even the lip-synch was off for about 15 minutes at screening caught, and sound throughout has the echo-in-an-empty-room quality of most unprofessional low-budget (under $200,000) efforts. John A. Russo’s screenplay is a model of verbal banality and suggests a total antipathy for his characters (particularly the women, all blithering idiots) if not for all humanity. On no level is the unrelieved grossness of “Night of the Living Dead” disguised by a feeble attempt at art or significance. – from a review by Beau (real name: Lee Beaupre)

New York Times 5 December 1968
Night of the Living Dead is a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending; to be flesh-eating ghouls. The dialogue and background music sound hollow, as if they had been recorded in an empty swimming pool, and the wobbly camera seems to have a fetishist’s interest in hands clutched, wrung, scratched, severed and finally – in the ultimate assumption – eaten like pizza. […] The movie was made by some people in Pittsburgh. – from a review by Vincent Canby

1970
Monthly Film Bulletin vol.37 no.432 (January 1970) p.8
Despite a shaky start and a few subsequent lapses occasioned by the manifestly minimal budget, this is probably the best and most minatory example of invasion by mutant since Village of the Damned and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. […] Having set its sail towards cataclysm, it proceeds on its appointed course with admirably ruthless logic, making an almost clinical dissection of the behaviour of people under stress: how they quarrel, dither, seek their own ends, and finally court destruction by following the wrong lead. Conventional expectations are flouted all the way: our heroine remains transfixed throughout, barely uttering an intelligible word; the resourceful hero (a Negro, to boot) does everything that a good hero should, and yet his every act leads his charges further into disaster; the juveniles, a pair of handsome young lovers, are burned into a cinder in an exploding truck almost as soon as they take their rightful places in the story; and even when civilisation shows its resourcefulness in getting the better of the invaders, human failings still call the tune as a sharpshooter, demonstrating his skill as though enjoying an early morning duck-shoot, draws a casual bead on the last survivor. […] [I]t is a real pleasure to see science fiction having the courage of its convictions, and also having the good sense not to trumpet its implications but to let them emerge naturally. One or two cuts, incidentally, make the narrative a little jerky and obscure in places. – from a review by Tom Milne

The Financial Times 16 June 1970
The plot sounds like a combination of routine horror film and standard science fiction, but the treatment is anything but routine. Grainy black-and-white photography and TV newscasts describing the mounting panic create a mood of chilling realism, while the real horror is shown to lie not outside the house but within it. Perhaps in an echo of those debates about shooting strangers in your fall-out shelter, the incarcerated survivors jostle for power and prove incapable of sustained co-operation. The film offers none of the usual reassurances. There is no awakening from the nightmare: the pair of young lovers have no immunity to death; worse still, victims become executioners, a dead brother returns to devour his sister, the child whom the group have been nursing suddenly attacks its parents. And the last survivor is casually gunned down by the sheriff’s trigger-happy rescue posse. – from a review by Jan Dawson

The Spectator 20 June 1970
[A] slightly tacky horror picture which makes quite an impact partly, I suspect, by ingeniously playing off its own limitations. […] As in Hitchcock’s The Birds, [the zombies] are alarming in their distortion and their ordinariness: hands endlessly clutching and grabbing, as the birds fluttered against the barred windows. Dull, harassed men, living relations of the zombies, read astoundingly flat and repetitive tv news bulletins about the nightmare around them: county sheriffs set out on zombie-hunting expeditions, laconically cheerful as though they were after deer, or fugitives from chain gangs. And the film is very ruthless towards its main characters, unblinkingly prepared to let pretty girls or upstanding negroes be incinerated, devoured or shot. Night of the Living Dead gets through by tapping some real apprehensions; the sickly drabness of the agents of its depredations, the squabbling cannibalism inside the house facing the silent threat outside. A true piece of modern American gothic, the film has the wit to use horror instead of being used by it. – from a review by Penelope Houston

The Scotsman 1 September 1970
Whether you like or loathe Night of the Living Dead […] depends on whether or not you subscribe to the cult of the “Z” movie. It is a horror film, made cheaply and efficiently. […] It is a “Z” film in which almost everybody dies; and the rest are dead already. This film overturns some horror conventions. There are no survivors. […] There is no crystal opposition of good and evil in the Terence Fisher manner, and none of the fashionable arguments about scientific responsibility that one finds, for example, in Haller’s “Monster of Terror“. It is unprincipled an exercise in suspense. It has its moments, certainly, when the ghouls are breaking through windows, tearing at arms. There, is an inevitable terror of a mob acting mobbishly. It aims to provoke fear, and George Romero’s direction manages that neatly, at times. But it is inconsistent, there are suggestions of real performances, and a few familiar devices of suspense would have been curiously welcome. If you’re going to make a “Z” movie, make an out-and-out “Z” movie, professionally and without compromise. Innovation, of any sort, introduces the problems of evaluating the film. I just wanted to be chilled, and wasn’t. – from a review (Almost everybody dies – and the rest are dead already) by Michael Pye

1971
Village Voice 17 July 1971
Most horror movies I’ve seen inspire hilarity more than fright. Florid atmospheric cliches, uncalled-for eye-rolling on the part of monsters, and erratic, almost incidental plot development complicated by sentimental side-plots often give these films a campy character that precludes the chilling creep of dread. One vivid exception is “The Night of the Living Dead,” a low budget sleeper that’s fast becoming a word-of-mouth classic. […] By the time the real action of the film is under way, most of the all-adult, typically Village sophisticated audience was shrieking and many people hid their heads in their hands and refused to do more than glance furtively at the screen. Only occasional bursts of nervous laughter marred the mood and diverted the dread. The state of shock continued right through to the surprise ending. What gives this film its power over the audience seems to be a combination of incredibly graphic grisliness, the grim realism of the locale, and the ultimate plausibility of the characters, a hum-drum lot of Pittsburgh locals short on Fay Wray-style glamor. Now that the wave of sexploitation films has crested and Hollywood-made fright films are glutting the market, directors of the new high-budget horrors would do well to study the honest brutality and unrelieved gruesomeness of “The Night of the Living Dead”: they might learn the difference between what makes people giggle nervously and what makes them scream in terror. – author not known

1973
Film Journal vol.2 no.2 (January – March 1973) pp.24-35
The real horror of Night of the Living Dead is not […] a result of inspiring a fear of the dead or even a fear of the ordinary world. It lies rather in Its refusal to resolve those fears in any way that does not sacrifice human dignity and human value. The deaths in the film are all to no purpose; they do not finally serve the practical cause of survival, nor do they act to the enhancement of larger human value. When someone dies, his values die with him […] The film as a whole undercuts most of the cherished values of our whole civilization, what Faulkner called “the eternal verities.” It ridicules government in the scenes in Washington, which seem to be left over from a Marx brothers movie, but more seriously It casts the whole rule of law into doubt with the territorial disputes inside the house and their final resolution in violence with the death of Harry Cooper. Courage is shown throughout to lead only to death. The idea of the family is perhaps more harshly assaulted than any other In the film […] Family ties actually become dangerous in the film […] Love itself comes to nothing but a fiery end, as Tom and Judy’s experience shows. Even the value of individual identity collapses as it reveals itself to be weak in the face of disaster […] [T]he real horror of Night of the Living Dead is that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all. Whether that horror is the result of a cynicism with an eye to commercial gain, or (as Joseph Lewis suggests) a deliberate put on, or a genuine nihilistic vision, its depth and the thoroughness of its unrelenting expression make the film what it is. – from an illustrated article (Drawing the Circle: A devolution of values in three horror films) by R.H.W Dillard

1998
The Guardian Guide 26 April-1 May 1998 pp.16-17
I was in high school when I saw this, and it really scared me out of my mind. It’s the classic midnight movie. […] If you see Night of the Living Dead again, you realise that as well as all the scary stuff, it’s an incredible commentary on the Vietnam issue and race relations in America. I’m thinking of that bit at the end of the film when that black guy gets just wiped out – they’re shouting, “That’s just another zombie, kill him!” Amazing. – from a review by John Pierson

Evening Standard 29 April 1998 p.28
Nothing could have prepared audiences for Night of the Living Dead […] when it was released in 1968. Chillers from Hitchcock, horrors from Hammer, monsters from the jungle or outer space: none of these generated the gut-churning, bowel-freezing dread of a bunch of dead people with bits falling off. Instead of the single killer of yore – larger than life figures from Dracula to King Kong to Norman Bates – Night of the Living Dead presented a cast of anonymous, deceased cannibals. At the beginning of the film, one is glimpsed lurching around in a cemetery in the manner of a tipsy gravedigger. By the end the dead are everywhere – for every one disposed of, another dozen rise from the grave and dust themselves down for an imminent meal. The dead, after all, outnumber the living. The film is shot in grainy black and white, some expense has been spared in production, but Night of the Living Dead has excited then ruthlessly suppressed more nervous laughter than any film ever made. – from a review by Pete Clark

References

Periodicals

  • Cahiers du Cinéma no.219 (April 1970) p.65 – review (by Serge Daney)
  • Cineaction no.53 (November 2000) pp.22-29 – illustrated article (Interracial Tensions in Night of the Living Dead by Robert K. Lightning)
  • Cinefantastique vol.4 no.1 (Spring 1975) pp.14-27 – illustrated interviews with Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner and John Russo (by Gary Anthony Surmacz)
  • Cinefantastique vol.21 no.3 December 1990 pp.20-21, 60 – illustrated article (Night of the Living Dead: The Original by Thomas Doherty)
  • Cinefantastique vol.31 no.1/2 (February 1999) pp.12-13 – illustrated article
  • Cinema Journal vol.41 no.3 (Spring 2002) pp.59-77 – illustrated article (Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968) by Kevin Hefferman)
  • The Dark Side no.47 (July 1995) pp.23-25 – illustrated article (by Brad Stevens)
  • Empire no.119 (May 1999) p.53 – illustrated article (Reel News: Dead Again by Clark Collis)
  • Empire no.121 (July 1999) p.130 – illustrated review (by Adam Smith)
  • Empire no.130 (April 2000) p.146 – illustrated credits, review
  • Empire no.161 (November 2002) p.105 – illustrated interview with George Romero (Don of the Dead by Mark Dinning)
  • Entertainment Weekly no.495 (23 July 1999) p.28 – illustrated note (part of 25 Scariest Movies of All Time)
  • Fangoria no.179 (January 1999) p.11 – preview
  • Film and Philosophy vol.3 (1996) pp.138-144 – article (From Night to Day: Nihilism and the Walking Dead by John A. Marmysz)
  • Film Daily 21 October 1968 p.7 – credits, review (by Lous (sic) Pelegrine)
  • Film Journal vol.2 no.2 (January – March 1973) pp.24-35 – illustrated article (Drawing the Circle: A devolution of values in three horror films by R.H.W Dillard)
  • Film Score Monthly vol.4 no.8 (September, October 1999) pp.15-16 – DVD review
  • Filmmakers’ Newsletter vol.5 no.3 (January 1972) pp.19-24 – illustrated interview with George A. Romero (Filming Night of the Living Dead by Alex B. Block)
  • Films and Filming vol.17 no.3 (December 1970) pp.53, 56 – credits, review (by Richard Weaver)
  • Flesh and Blood no.4 p.15 – review
  • L’Incroyable Cinema no.5 (Autumn 1971) pp.4-6 – illustrated credits, review (by Ray Lesenger)
  • Interview vol.1 no.4 (1969) p.23 – review (by George Abagnalo)
  • Invasion no.11 (1995) pp.89-90 – credits, laserdisc review (Peter Neal)
  • Journal of Popular Film and Television vol.16 no.3 (Autumn 1988) pp.100-107 – illustrated article (Films of the Nuclear Age by Jane Caputi)
  • Kine Weekly no.3241 (22 November 1969) p.22 – review
  • Midnight Marquee no.49 p.41 – review
  • Monthly Film Bulletin vol.37 no.432 (January 1970) pp.8-9 – credits, synopsis, review (by Tom Milne)
  • Motion Picture Herald vol.238 no.44 (30 October 1968) p.54 – credits, review (by Tony Vellela)
  • Photon no.19 p.13 – review
  • Positif no.119 (September 1970) p.105 – illustrated credits, review (1968: the night of the living dead, ou la photogénie de l’anthropophagie by Ado Kyrou)
  • Scary Monsters no.116 (2020 Annual) p.17 – illustrated article (Night of the Living Dead and me by Matthew Hanke)
  • Screen vol.29 no.4 (Autumn 1988) pp.44-64 – article (White by Richard Dyer)
  • Screen International no.564 (6 September 1986) p.31 – note about video release
  • Sight and Sound vol.39 no.2 (Spring 1970) p.105 – illustrated review (by Elliot Stein)
  • Sight and Sound vol.3 no.4 (April 1993) pp.30-31 – illustrated article (No particular place to go by Steve Beard)
  • The Spectator 20 June 1970 (UK) – review (by Penelope Houston)
  • Starburst no.48 August 1982 pp.40-43 – illustrated credits, article (by Martin Coxhead)
  • Starburst no.256 (December 1999) p.65 – credits, illustrated review of 30th Anniversary Edition (by Alan Jones)
  • Starburst no.269 (January 2001) pp.86-87 – illustrated DVD review (by Ian Atkins)
  • Take One vol.4 no.6 (July, August 1973) pp.8-10 – illustrated article (A Pittsburgh Horror Story by Paul McCollough)
  • Time Out no.85 (1-7 October 1971) p.17 – note (Film News: Censorship)
  • Variety 16 October 1968 p.6 – credits, review (by Beau (real name: Lee Beaupre))
  • Video Watchdog no.34 p.6 – note
  • Video Watchdog no.54 (1999) pp.22-34 – illustrated review
  • Wide Angle vol.14 no.1 (January 1992) pp.64-76 – illustrated article (Taking Back Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism & the Horror Film by Barry Keith Grant)

Newspapers

  • The Daily Telegraph 23 January 1999 p.A7 – illustrated article (Back from the dead by Clark Collis)
  • Evening Standard 29 April 1998 p.28 – review (by Pete Clark)
  • Expresso, Cartaz 6 November 1998 – review (by Manuel Cintra Ferreira)
  • The Financial Times 16 June 1970 – review (by Jan Dawson)
  • The Guardian Guide 26 April-1 May 1998 pp.16-17 – review (by John Pierson)
  • New York Times 5 December 1968 – review (by Vincent Canby)
  • The Scotsman 1 September 1970 – review (Almost everybody dies – and the rest are dead already by Michael Pye)
  • Village Voice 17 July 1971 – review (author not known)

Books

  • Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films a Markers of Their Times by Kevin J. Wetmore Jr pp.29-46 – article
  • The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead by Tony Williams pp.26-37; 271 – article; credits
  • The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook by John Russo – illustrated articles
  • Hoffman’s Guide to Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Movies 1991-1992 p.261 – credits, review
  • Movies of the 60s by Jürgen Müller pp.600-605 – illustrated review (by PLB [Petra Lange-Berndt])
  • The Pocket Essential: George A. Romero by Tom Fallows and Curtis Owen pp.20-26 – article
  • Reference Guide to Fantastic Films by Walt Lee p.335 – credits