One chilly night in October of ’68, my husband and I along with two other couples squeezed into our old, rusty, oil-leaking Caddy and headed to the drive-in theater. It was a cheap date, but we were extremely low on funds and it was all we could afford. We thought we would be watching the typical Hollywood horror film, but we were all wrong. Find out why after the jump.
Introduction to Zombies
Expecting the routine evil voodoo priest or priestess who could control the dead and have them do their every bidding, we were totally unprepared for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This movie was an introduction to a previously unknown level of terror, a monster that was near impossible to destroy. Written and directed by George A. Romero, produced by Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner, who also played the part of Johnny, Night of the Living Dead changed for me all previous notions of what a zombie was.
The movie starts with siblings, Johnny and Barbara, played by Judith O’Dea, visiting their father’s grave at the cemetery where they are attacked by a stranger. Barbara escapes and finds her way to an abandoned house where she meets up with Ben, played by Duane Jones. Hiding in the cellar is the Cooper family, consisting of Harry played by Karl Hardman, Helen, played by Marilyn Eastman, and young daughter Karen, played by Kyra Schon, who is sick because she has been bitten by one of the zombies. With the family is also the teenage couple Tom, played by Keith Wayne, and Judy, played by Judith Ridley.
The dead are rising and attacking. Why? We never know for sure, but like many unwanted guests, the zombies arrive at the farmhouse and they’re hungry. Ben turns on the television and hears a reporter speculate that the living dead might be a result of some radioactive contamination brought back from a space probe to Venus. The film is graphic, the mood dark and the scenes bloody. Normally, we girls would chat during a movie, usually pissing off the guys, but this time we were all silent, stunned as the zombies tore into and ate the teenage couple. Nothing seems to stop the zombies on their quest for human flesh and they just keep coming. Remember Johnny? He is now one of the zombies attacking the house. Barbara is shocked to see him and, in her confusion, is pulled from the house and into the frenzied mob.
Harry and Ben argue and Ben shoots Harry, who then hides in the basement. When Helen goes to check on her husband, she finds her infected daughter feasting on the father. The child then attacks and kills her mother with a trowel. Ben hides in the cellar while waiting for rescue, but unfortunately for him, there are armed men searching the area for zombies. The only way to kill a zombie is with a shot to the head. Mistaking Ben as a zombie, they shoot him and throw him on the pyre of fire.
There was a lot going on in the late sixties and Night of the Living Dead reflected the mood at the time. The nation was going through a moral awakening as black people marched for equal rights and I feel that Romero’s choice to use Duane Jones as Ben was a welcome and needed move. Our nation was not only in a cold war with Russia, but now found itself sending our young men to some distant jungle to fight an unpopular war. Even though we would soon put a man on the moon, not everyone was behind the space program. This disapproval was seen in a few of the sci-fi movies featuring aliens attacking our planet.
Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking film when it first premiered and its influence is felt even today. It opened the door for some of the best movies and TV shows dealing with zombies, like my all-time favorite, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” which has its third season premiere on October 14th.
Today, as countries around the globe deal with the crippling financial crash, the idea of hordes of hungry mobs searching for food isn’t so farfetched. We have a popular black President, but there are others who do not accept him because of his color. We’re constantly hearing of new and dangerous diseases that are immune to antibiotics, causing many of us to worry about a pandemic breakout. People are stocking up on guns and supplies, fearing a worldwide apocalypse. Zombies serve as gauges of what scares us the most, be it the end of a civilization that we know or the extinction of all mankind, but maybe they can also teach us to be ready for any widespread natural emergency.
Make sure to watch the start of the new season of “The Walking Dead” on AMC October 14th at 9PM EST.