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October 1st, 1968. A lucky audience attends the premiere of director George A. Romero's horror film Night of the Living Dead and a sub-genre is born. Budgeted at a very modest (even for the late 60's) $114,000 and featuring a cast of talented unknowns, the movie would go on to earn an unprecedented $12M domestically and $18M internationally. It was decried by critics as "depraved" and "trash,' but embraced by an already war-weary counter-culture who saw it as an anti-war, anti-racism, anti-establishment movie.
Romero and his producing partner John Russo originally intended the movie to be a horror comedy about aliens who befriend local teens. A third draft of the script changed the aliens into "ghouls" and the teenagers into a group of strangers seeking shelter in a rural farmhouse.
Zombies had been around in horror movies since the 1940's but they were passive slaves, carrying out the bidding of their masters. They were the dead brought back to life by Voodoo magic, but had no wills of their own. While Romero's ghouls were also reanimated corpses, they were hardly passive, hungering for living flesh in any form they could find it. Audiences were alternately repulsed and fascinated as they watched the actors eat insects, rodents and butcher shop leftovers.
The plot was simple enough. Siblings Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnnie (Russel Streiner) are visiting their mother's grave in a remote western Pennsylvania cemetery when Johnnie is killed (after teasing his sister that "They're coming to get you, Barbra!") by what appears to be a pale-skinned maniac of some kind. Barbra runs away in terror and finds herself at a farmhouse where she finds several half-eaten corpses. She runs outside, only to find more "maniacs' shambling towards the house. Suddenly, Ben (Duane Jones) pulls up and drags her back into the house, barricading them against the encroaching dead. They eventually find a family and a young couple hiding in the basement. As tensions mount, they soon find out that the entire Eastern Seaboard has apparently come under attack, the result of what one scientist believes is radioactive fallout from a satellite which exploded upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Featuring graphic violence; cannibalism; matricide; racial tension and redneck vigilantes, Night of the Living Dead was kind of sensational.
Uncle P first saw Night... in the mid-70's on a late-night broadcast from a New York station I managed to pick up with my paltry rabbit-ears antenna on an especially clear evening. I think I was about 12, or so and I was horrified, watching alone in my upstairs bedroom. I don't think I slept properly for several weeks.
I don't imagine Romero and Russo set out to make a political statement or redefine horror movies. They just wanted to scare people. Romero's following films include Hungry Wives (AKA Season of the Witch), the anti-war The Crazies and the vampire-themed Martin, which were modest indie-film successes. It would be a full ten years before he made the truly genre defining sequel Dawn of the Dead in 1978. I may have already mentioned that I attended a midnight showing of Dawn...alone, as all of my friends were too scared to come with me. The theater manager came into the auditorium before the movie started and warned us that the film made people want to smoke and that smoking was not allowed. Almost as soon as the lights came down, joints were lit all over the place. So much for warnings. I drove home that night in my father's little brown Nissan, a little high from all the pot being smoked in the theater, shocked and delighted by what I had just seen...
Night of the Living Dead has been remade twice since 1968; once by makeup FX pioneer Tom Savini (which featured a very different and girrrl-power ending) in 1990 and again in 2006 as Night of the Living Dead 3D. Savini's version is certainly worth a look, if only for it's revisionist ending, though the 2006 version has a completely different plot. A new 3D version, based on the original screenplay and featuring Tony Todd, has been announced for a 2012 release.While the Savini version is worth a look, it pales in comparison the original. I have not seen the 2006 version and will probably not see the 2012 remake.
A staple of Halloween parties and an essential in any horror movie collection, Night of the Living Dead is probably one of the most discussed, dissected and divisive horror movies ever made. To fans, it's simply the start of the sub-genre that inspired AMC's phenomenal "The Walking Dead."
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