Zombies have come a long way since the premiere of Night of the Living Dead. In recent years new adaptations of the classic zombie first seen in Night of the Living Dead have given audiences zombies that are fast, zombies that are gory, and zombies that are almost unstoppable when they are in packs. But as much as fans have embraced new interpretations of the classic zombie they still love the film that started it all. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the most iconic films in the entire horror genre. Fans continue to pay homage to the 1968 film that brought zombies into the popular consciousness and into pop culture permanently. Thanks to the massive popularity of zombies in popular culture today in shows like The Walking Dead an entirely new audience is discovering the brilliance of the original zombie film.
Night of the Living Dead was originally made on a shoestring budget of around $100,000. It made more than 20 million dollars after it was released. The film was controversial and very radical when it was released. At the time racial issues in the US were a very sensitive cultural topic and by having a central character that was African-American George Romero was making a big statement. The film was also controversial for showing blood and gore at a time when horror movies usually left the horror part to audience imaginations.
In the documentary Birth of the Living Dead which explores the creation of the film Romero talks at length about the political climate in the country at the time the film was released and what his feelings about it were. Because of the racial statement that the film made and because of the cultural significance of the film it was chosen to be archived in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Romero’s film was not the first zombie horror film to be made, but it was the first to characterize zombies, or ghouls as they are called in the film, as decaying human corpses that come back to life and eat the flesh of humans, particularly the brains. In other zombie films like White Zombie which was released in 1932 zombies were shown as living people who were put into a state of suspended animation by a Voodoo priest or priestess. Those films usually took place in the Caribbean and focused on zombies as a by product of the practice of Voodoo. Night of the Living Dead had zombies chasing down innocent people in rural Pennsylvania trying to eat their brains. Audiences couldn’t get enough of it then, and they still can’t get enough it.
One of the reasons why the film has remained so popular over the years is that because of a mistake made by the original distributor of the film it entered the public domain many years ago. That means that people could reference the film, copy the film, use clips of the film, and borrow heavily from the movie without paying any royalties or getting permission from the original creator of the film. Today the equivalent of what happened would be someone putting a film on the Internet and that film going viral.
Night of the Living Dead was not a standalone film. George Romero went on to put out five more zombie films based on the original film. In each one zombies showed some evolution and became more of a threat. A film historian or anthropologist with some time on their hands could probably draw an evolutionary line from Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead showing the progression of the zombie threat through the years.
In the last ten years or so Night of the Living Dead became hugely popular again thanks to a rise in the public interest in zombies. The famous CDC preparation guide about preparing for a zombie apocalypse and the relentless string of natural disasters combined with the constant threat of terrorist attacks that might include bioweapons have created an atmosphere of fear in popular culture. The zombie threat may not be real, yet, but people are feeling bombarded by real threats and are not sure how to deal with them. Using the zombie apocalypse as a catalyst to prepare for disaster is giving people an outlet for their fears and teaching people how to survive real disasters.
There is also a wave of nostalgia for horror movies like Night of the Living Dead. Fans that are featured in the documentary Birth of the Living Dead talk about why they watch the film over and over and why it remains a film that they feel is important and relevant. At cons dedicated to horror and zombies like the Walker Stalker Con in Atlanta Judith O’Dea, who played the role of Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, drew a huge crowd of fans who paid a lot money to come meet the actress, get her autograph and have photos taken with her.
Audiences and critics loved the film for different reasons. But the fact remains that culturally Night of the Living Dead is one of the films that had a measurable impact on the cultural consciousness at the time and throughout the decades. Even people who aren’t fans of horror movies know the film and can get popular culture references to the film. Without Night of the Living Dead the horror genre would have developed in a completely different direction.
It’s a great honor for George Romero and the cast to have the film included in the Library of Congress Film Archive but really there can’t be any greater achievement for a film maker than to craft a film that people are still talking about 50 years later. Even though Romero may not have gotten the money he was entitled to for the film thanks to the distributor’s mistake he will forever be a legend in the horror community for creating the quintessential zombie film.