As Pittsburgh celebrates the 50th anniversary of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” it’s important that we remember the history of the most famous and influential film our city has ever produced.
Here’s how the key American film industry periodical Variety greeted Night upon its original release in 1968: “Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. … [The film] casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and exhibitors who book the pic, as well as raising doubts about … the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.” And yet by 1970, Romero was traveling from Pittsburgh to New York to host a screening of his film at one of America’s most prestigious temples of high culture, the Museum of Modern Art. This extraordinary transformation from “orgy of sadism” to modern art only begins to hint at the power of “Night”: It is not just one of the most successful and influential horror films ever made, but one of the most significant independent American films of any kind.
From today’s vantage point, it is easy to see the evidence of the movie’s success and influence. How many films, let alone films produced on a shoestring budget (reportedly $114,000) far from Hollywood without any recognizable names in its cast or crew, can claim the kind of legacy that belongs to “Night” in the international realm of popular culture? Thanks to “Night,” we live in the age of the omnipresent zombie. The matter of its status as a landmark in independent American cinema is a more complicated subject, but finally just as undeniable.
Hollywood’s success has always been rooted in the skillful manipulation of familiar genres and stars to deliver what has been broadly construed as “entertainment” to as wide a public as possible. Films that depart from this mission of entertainment, opting instead for art or politics or education, have usually been relegated to the ranks of foreign, documentary, exploitation, avant-garde or independent cinema. What “Night” accomplished so successfully that it can be considered a precedent for many films that followed was its melding of a popular genre (a marker of entertainment) onto a set of independent, anti-establishment aesthetics and politics (a marker of art).
A number of social, historical and industrial factors contributed to the film’s phenomenal success. Part of the aforementioned transformation in its reception as sadistic in 1968 and artistic in 1970 has to do with the fact that these years were some of the most turbulent in American history. The space between 1968 and 1970 exposed the American public to such traumatic events as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the killings of antiwar student demonstrators at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.
Shattering events like these crystallized the national turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War and drove home a sense of America in deep crisis, perhaps even on the verge of self-destruction. In this chaotic social climate, what once looked like pornographic violence in “Night” now seemed closer to political commentary. If America was eating itself alive metaphorically during the Vietnam era, then “Night” made that metaphor literal. In one of the nation’s darkest moments, “Night” showed America to itself in ways few other films dared.
Among the daring aspects of “Night” is its casting of Duane Jones, an African-American actor, in the lead role of Ben. Ben is the film’s central protagonist, the leader inside a country farmhouse where a group of seven people struggle to survive an onslaught by “ghouls” that have risen from the dead to eat the living. The strength, courage, intelligence and resolve displayed by Ben is something rare to find in lead film roles for blacks even today, never mind in 1968.
Indeed, the fact that its critical redemption followed the film’s pairing on a double-bill with a slavery drama (the 1969 film “Slaves,” directed by a Jewish target of the Hollywood blacklist, Herbert J. Biberman) suggests that the racial subtexts in “Night” were crucial for its reception as “art.” Romero completed the film prior to King’s assassination, but “Night” did not reach audiences until afterward. So Ben’s demise at the end of the film, when he is shot by a posse of white militiamen who “mistake” him for a zombie, inevitably evokes for viewers the often violent resistance faced by the civil rights movement, including lynchings and, of course, assassination.
In this sense, “Night” is as much about today as yesterday. It is a powerful film that Pittsburgh can be proud of. PJC
Adam Lowenstein is professor of English and film/media studies at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a member of the steering committee for the ongoing citywide tribute Romero Lives: Pittsburgh Celebrates George A. Romero.