Halloween Havoc!: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (The Walter Read Organization1968)

The late, great George A. Romero’s first feature, NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD, was shot in the wilds of Pittsburgh, PA on a budget of $114,000. This unheralded,  gruesome little indie became a landmark in horror, influencing and inspiring generations of moviemakers to come. Better scribes than your humble correspondent have written countless analyses on the film, so I’m going to give you my perspective from my first viewing of the film… at the impressionable age of 13!

My cousin and I, both horror buffs, first saw it as the bottom half of a double feature in 1970. The main attraction was EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Forrest J Ackerman , editor of the Monster Kid’s Bible, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. As we eagerly awaited the main attraction, we sat through the warm-up, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At first, we thought it was an older rerelease, because no one would dare make a black & white film in this modern day and age! But as things unfolded, we were treated to the scariest movie we’d ever seen (and much better than EQUINOX, which was a huge letdown after watching NOTLD!).

The movie opened in a creepily stark white cemetery, always a good sign. Johnny and Barbara are there to put flowers on their dead father’s grave, when Barbara spots a figure approaching from afar. Barbara, who’s already creeped out, is mercilessly teased by her brother, who intones in his best Karloff impression, “There’re coming to get you, Barbara!”. More cool points scored for the Boris reference! But the zombie thing attacks her, and Johnny is forced to defend against it, getting overpowered and cracking his head open on a headstone. Barbara flees for her life, making it to the car, but the zombie catches up, and soon she’s frantically running down a deserted road, her destination a lone farmhouse…

After the unrelenting terror of that first scene, we were hooked, black & white be damned!! More ghouls descend on the house, when suddenly a savior appears. His name is Ben, and he’s a black man! This was unheard of, as blacks in horror were usually relegated to comedy relief a’la Mantan Moreland , or Carribbean-type voodoo priests . But this guy was the star, the main good guy, and the one who keeps his cool amidst all the mayhem. There are other people inside, including the Cooper family, whose daughter has been bitten by one of the zombies, and young couple later shows up, but there’s no doubt Ben’s in charge of keeping this zombie apocalypse at bay.

As if all these shocks to the system weren’t enough, we find out these zombies are flesh-eating ghouls. Not only that, we’re SHOWN the undead terrors chowing down on raw flesh and guts, munching human entrails with gusto! Even Herschell Gordon Lewis was never this gross! Loud, audible cries of “EWWW!” and girlish pre-teen screams (not me, of course!) echoed throughout the theater at the sight of this cannibalistic flesh feast. Then a treat of a different kind… Bill Cardille, the voice of TV’s CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, popped up on the screen playing a reporter! He was the only recognizable actor in the film, and we wondered if Bruno Sammartino would appear next!

The tension and the shocks kept piling higher and higher, and those old theater armrests took a hell of a beating. The final shock came when Ben, hearing shots outside, came up from the basement and was shot in the head, mistaken for a zombie. His dead body, after all he did to avert the carnage, was tossed onto a pile of dead zombies, as a redneck cop quipped, “That’s another one for the fire”. Ben, the hero of the movie, died – again, unheard of in this genre!

You can see why EQUINOX was such a washout with us after viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I could write a whole other post using my critical eye, underscoring Romero’s cinematic influences, from Hitchcock to Corman , from Hawks’ RIO BRAVO to Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES, from the DIY films of Ed Wood to Herk Harvey’s chilling CARNIVAL OF SOULS. But I prefer to watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD through the lens of that 13-year-old boy I once was, on the edge of my seat and mesmerized by the ghastly tableaux unfolding before me. My VHS copy of NOTLD is grainy as hell, well worn from repeated viewings, yet still manages to scare the beejeezus out of me. This movie is required viewing for all Cracked Rear Viewers, especially during the Halloween season. Rest in peace, George Romero.

The Zombie King: RIP George A. Romero

Way back in 1970, my cousins and I went to a horror double feature at the old Olympia Theater in New Bedford. The main attraction was called EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Quite frankly, it sucked, but the bottom half of that double bill was an obscure black & white films that scared the shit out of us! That movie was George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

NOTLD (1968)

From the creepy opening in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) to the gross-out shots of zombies feasting on human entrails, from the little girl eating her father’s corpse to the tragic final scene when the hero (a black man, no less!) is shot by the cops, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was an edge-of-your-seat nightmare of horror. There were no stars in it, unless you count Bill Cardille, a local Pittsburgh DJ and horror host known around these parts as ‘The Voice of Professional Wrestling’. As a 12-year-old horror fanatic, I absolutely loved it, and still do today, thanks to the genius of George A. Romero.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George Romero’s dark, apocalyptic vision opened the floodgates for zombie movies to come. He followed up NOTLD with 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, set inside a suburban shopping mall (where I happened to see it!), and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, the final chapter in his original “Zombie Trilogy” (though there’d be more walking dead to come). Born and raised in the Bronx, Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which became his home base. Unlike other low-budget horror filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example), Romero stayed true to his roots, making all his movies in and around the Pittsburgh area, refusing to “go Hollywood”.

Martin (1978)

His movies are the stuff nightmares are made of: THE CRAZIES (1973) deals with a biological weapon accidentally unleashed, turning people into homicidal maniacs. MARTIN (1978), Romero’s personal favorite, features both religious fanaticism and vampirism. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) is the bizarre tale of a traveling medieval show with jousters on motorcycles. CREEPSHOW (1982), a collaboration with Stephen King, has a quintet of stories in the style of 50’s EC Comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR. MONKEY SHINES (1988) involves a bond between a quadriplegic man and a service monkey that turns deadly. TWO EVIL EYES (1990) is another collaboration, this time with Italian maestro Dario Argento, with each director taking on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. THE DARK HALF (1993) is one of the most successful adaptations of a Stephen King novel put to film.

NOTLD (1968)

But it’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that everyone will remember Romero for, a shocking masterpiece of terror that’s been often imitated, but never duplicated. It still scares the hell out of me, and I’m going to go dust off my VHS copy and watch it right now. I think George would’ve wanted it that way.