“It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder.”
“Yeah, they’re dead, they’re all messed up.”
Who the fuck premieres a movie in Pittsburgh?
Specifically, who premieres their movie in Pittsburgh, on a Saturday in October, during matinee hours, for an audience primarily composed of kids and teens? Youngsters were in the seats, the ones who were probably regular audience members at the Fulton Theater, and who figured they’d be in for the same sort of horror movie — the title mentioned Dead, so they assumed there would be some kind of monsters lurking around in it — that they usually saw when they plunked down their cash to kill some time on a weekend. Besides, the filmmakers behind this scrappy, lower-than-low budget were based in Pittsburgh and had shot this modest black-and-white movie in the area, off and on for seven months. So why not unveil it here, for the sort of underage folks who appreciated a good fright?
It’s fun to imagine the mostly adolescent moviegoers hooting and hollering, getting rowdy as the lights went down and a pretty young woman walked around a graveyard with her dorky brother, vaguely sinister stock music playing in the background. You can picture them howling as he says, “They’re coming to get you, Barrrrr-bara” in his best Boris Karloff voice, as a figure stumbles toward them. Then the laughter gets a little more uneasy as this strange man tries to bite the sibling, and Barbara has to flee shoeless down the road. She runs until she finds a house. Soon, other people will join her, and the “ghouls” outside the boarded-up door will multiply. They’ll try to grab the folks trapped inside, their arms grasping for whoever is nearby. The creatures are hungry. They’ll eventually starting eating people. And those kids aren’t laughing anymore. Perhaps they’re whimpering or weeping. This is not a fun Saturday-afternoon horror movie anymore. It’s like a waking nightmare.
That was 50 years ago, when George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had its first official screening on an unassuming afternoon on October 1st, 1968. This experience would be repeated numerous times again: Roger Ebert describes a similar scene when he saw the film in 1969 during a matinee, a film review/you-are-there field report of what sounds like PTSD-affected kids acting as if they’d just been psychologically assaulted. By that point, however, the National Theaters Owners of America had dubbed it “exploitation picture of the month” (this was an award?) and its notoriety had, like an epidemic, begun to spread. Still, it’d take a while before people realized what they had in front of them, before it started showing up first in drive-ins, then grindhouses, then long-running midnight screenings and the Museum of Modern Art. Soon, this disreputable little project from Romero & Co. would become one of the most financially successful independent movies ever, back when non-studio movies were the exception to the rule, and virtually invent a subgenre. The rest is history. Shambling, flesh-craving, incisor-gnashing history.
In a way, it makes all-too-perfect sense that the movie was made thousands of miles away from Hollywood; the fact that it feels as if it’s been discovered crawling under some rock only adds to the sense of watching something roughhewn, sickening, viral. (The sensation that you’d stumbled across some hidden transmission from a cinematic leper colony was even more pronounced when it was primarily available in trashed and/or badly copied public-domain prints; the recent restoration, thankfully, has cleaned up the images but left the content’s inherent feeling of infection intact.) Its backstory has become scary-movie and indie-film lore, with the Bronx-born Romero taking a break from making industrial shorts and the occasional segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to co-write (with John Russo) a horror comedy. Several drafts later, the funny business would be leached out. They took self-proclaimed inspiration from E.C. comics, B movies, Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend and Hitchcock’s The Birds, though Romero — who’d worked as a production assistant on North by Northwest — would later take issue with that particular Hitch work. They formed a production company, Image Ten, to make it. They shot when they could afford to. When no one would release it unless the downbeat ending was changed, they took it to independent distributors the Walter Reade Organization, who pushed it out into the world with bleakness intact.
The company didn’t ask him to tone down or whitewash the socially conscious, ripped-from-the headlines aspects of the movie either, which by October of that year was all too evident, if totally inadvertent. The much-lauded casting of Duane Jones, an African-American man, as the heroic lead was not a matter of message-mongering but meritocracy; per Romero, the actor was simply the most talented person they could find to play Ben, the gent who takes charge once a group of folks find themselves fighting off famished corpses from inside a farmhouse. The gesture speaks volumes once the all-white militia shows up at the end, and the “cavalry” shoots him in the head. The filmmaker later recalled driving to New York to talk to potential buyers when someone on the radio announced that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. The way it was being described, he’d later say, resembled the death he’d staged for his character to a startling degree. And though using monochromatic stock had mostly been a budget necessity, the filmmaker would note (in the invaluable documentary The American Nightmare), “the news is in black-and-white.” Watch the posse with their barking dogs and images of civil-rights demonstrations immediately spring to mind. Watch them march through fields while taking down the walking dead and it’s hard not to think of Vietnam, “the TV War,” playing out on living room screens every night. “All of my zombie films are just sort of snapshots of the time they were made,” he’d admit to a journalist in 2010.
Had it been released 10 years earlier, Night of the Living Dead would be lumped in with the pulp McCarthy parables of the day (your friends and neighbors may turn against you!). Had it been released 10 years later, the movie would be part of the wave of gorehound horror hitting screens and might have become a wake-up-sheeple metaphor (see: Dawn of the Dead ’78). It’s a movie squarely of its time, infused with the chaos and center-cannot-hold mojo of a singularly divisive year in American history. When you watch it today, hindsight provides the history lessons. But even after a gajillion other zombie movies (no, the Z-word is never uttered and yes, Romero would come to embrace the term and his history in popularizing it), there is still something genuinely unnerving about seeing the reanimated cadavers chomping on guts en masse. Herschell Gordon Lewis had given the world the splatter flick five years earlier with Blood Feast, and in garish color to boot, but again, this had the look of handheld newsreel footage. You can know that the locals in the community-college-theater-department make-up are gnoshing on innards provided by one of the film’s backers (a butcher, natch) and yet that nauseating sense of seeing something forbidden, taboo, wrong never leaves you. And even if you argue with the logic of that little girl attacking her mother in a basement (why does she use the trowel to killer her when she could have just bit into her?), the sequence still resounds with a genuinely unnerving return-of-the-repressed sense of dread. The shock of the new is long gone. The shock itself, however, remains.
So yes, dig into the entire Dead franchise and the Eurosploitation movies filled with rotting herds it inspired, and tune in for your Walking Dead marathons, and argue the fine points of the sprinting infected versus the shuffling flesh-eaters. Let a thousand zombie apocalypse stories bloom. When you go back to Romero’s ground zero, however, you find yourself slowly becoming one of those kids in that first matinee, giggling at the gothic gloom and goofy, stiff-limbed man in the graveyard. The tittering gives way to a low-simmering terror. And then the screaming starts. It starts with one hungry ghoul slouching out of Pittsburgh. It ends having taken over the world, one bite at a time.