Arguably the scariest offering from the 1960’s, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is more than the average zombie flick. For starters, it is the original zombie movie, and its original incarnation has served as inspiration for the myriad of humans-eating-humans in media for the last decade, most notably with television/graphic novel series The Walking Dead. In fact, at New York Comic Con in 2012, the creator of the series said his show was to Romero “What Fifty Shades of Grey is to Twilight.” Epic fan fiction. Even Roger Ebert, a budding critic for the Chicago Sun-Times regarded the film as “…something else.” At the time there was no rating system, and often children would show for the monster movies. No one expected the Romero film to elicit such a visceral reaction.
Though Romero’s zombies were the stuff of nightmares, the film has a very political and social focal point. It plays on many of the themes from the 1960’s—a time of civil unrest and dissension among the masses, and was one of the first horror films to feature an African American lead. Much of the dialogue from the film was ad-libbed, and though there was a script, it was Romero’s intention to capture as much surprise and candor from the actors, often telling them to “explain” a situation with no further notes than that. In many of these cases, there were only one or two takes before Romero moved on.
In a time when cinematography and film were in their prepubescent age, Romero brought a very new—and very dark—insight into what a horror film could be, and how it could touch upon the nerves of an already turbid and volatile apex in a societal realm. Though initially intended to be a dull-witted truck driver, the character of Ben was restructured by the actor Duane Jones. Jones, well-educated and mannerly, decided that if he were to play the character, the character should also be a reflection of the kind of people he knew. He once said he feared that if Ben appeared a lack-wit, that the audience would have a hard time liking him as a hero and respecting him as a leader.
The grainy black and white of 60’s era cinematography adds an additional haunting aspect to the film, the focal point of the movie is not the monsters themselves, nor the fear of them. The true core of the film is the fear of the unknown. In a world where the dead stalk the earth, they are a known fear. But the unknown fear of other people is in finding that, when faced with our own mortality, most people become monsters and would commit horrifying acts to save their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, and the moral codes that act as a cornerstone of our society and civility dissolve in that. The film seeks to explore what constitutes “moral” and “immoral” in a world verging on apocalyptic chaos.
As a movie, the acting is brilliant and the film itself pits strangers in a truly life or death situation to determine what manifests “good.” In a world where the dead come back to life as shambling monsters of their former selves, Romero executes a level of fear—not only from the dead rising, but from those of the living—rendering seven strangers struggling to survive in a world of the sick, the dying, and the dead, proving that the scariest monsters are not creatures of the imagination, but rather are people caught between the fear of death and the fear of the unknown.