It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder…Medical authorities in Cumberland have concluded that in all cases, the killers are eating the flesh of the people they kill
– Broadcaster, Night of the Living Dead (1968)
And so began a cinematic revolution. George A. Romero, who passed away last week at the age of 77, was an innovator. With a budget of little more than $100,000, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead almost single-handedly created a genre.
‘Zombie’ films had existed before, but Romero’s 1968 film was the first to establish them as undead, slow-moving, cannibals who can only be killed with a shot to the head (or by being burnt). It is essentially what Dracula was to vampire fiction. It established canonical zombie lore. Night of the Living Dead created the rules which the vast majority of zombie films and shows have adhered to ever since.
– The zombies from Night of the Living Dead
Last year, AMC’s The Walking Dead was the most watched tv show in the world by people aged 18 and over with almost 18 million weekly viewers. It is also firmly rooted within the tradition which Night of the Living Dead established. The use of make-up and practical effects as gore, the style of zombies and the focus on the breakdown of human relations in a time of crisis all harken back to Romero’s classic.
In the 5 decades since its release, there has been a constant and steady stream of zombie films which would not and could not have existed without Night of the Living Dead. World War Z (2013), 28 Days Later (2002), The Evil Dead (1982) and countless others all owe a debt of gratitude to Romero.
Beyond the impact on zombie fiction, Night of the Living Dead also paved the way for low-budget cinema having mainstream appeal. Despite its shoestring budget, Romero’s debut grossed $30 Million at box office.
Since Romero’s release, this has been fairly common in the horror genre. Most famously, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project were made with far less than $100,000 each. Outside of horror Napoleon Dynamite (2004), the original Mad Max (1979) and even Rocky (1976) all had budgets of under $1 Million, but ended up grossing tens of millions of dollars.
– Napoleon Dynamite
What Night of the Living Dead lacked in budget, it makes up for in creativity. It achieves its scares with make-up and innovative lighting. This can be seen in particular towards the very end of the film. The male lead (Duane Jones) is trapped in the basement of the house with a recently zombified young girl, the daughter of two other characters. Expressionistic lighting akin to that seen in German horror classics Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is used to highlight the violence. A pitch-black room lit by a single spot-light casts shadows as a backdrop to the horrific violence.
The casting of Duane Jones as the lead, too, indicates how progressive and forward-thinking Romero was as a film-maker. In the 1960s, the idea of casting a Black lead in a film, particularly in a capacity where their race goes unmentioned, was almost unheard of.
The year before Night of the Living Dead was released, Stanley Kramer cast the indelible Sidney Poitier as the male lead in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This was, obviously, a huge step forward for African-Americans in American cinema.
– Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
However, Poitier’s character served as a representative for Black Americans in general. The race of his character is used to make a point about attitudes towards African-Americans in 1960s America. In Night of the Living Dead conversely, Duane Jones’ race isn’t mentioned once. He is simply the main character: his race is irrelevant. Romero’s casting was extremely progressive, perhaps more so than the casting in many contemporary Hollywood films where consistent under-representation of minorities is still an ongoing issue.
Romero’s influence on writers and film-makers has not go unnoticed. Since his death, Stephen King, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro and Jordan Peele, director of recent Horror hit Get Out (2017) all took to twitter to express their remorse at the loss of Romero. His influence will continue to shape modern cinema in the decades to come. He will be sorely missed.