The year was 1968, and a low budget independent horror film from a completely unknown director was about to change popular culture as we know it. Night of the Living Dead, a black-and-white thriller about a group of disparate, traumatized individuals trapped in a house together on the day the dead came back to life (with a taste for human flesh), started out as a hit and gradually built critical acclaim, a dedicated audience, a series of iconic sequels until a whole new horror genre sprang forth about the so-called “zombie apocalypse.”
Yes, few filmmakers have ever had the cultural impact of George A. Romero, who helped spawn one of the most ubiquitous genres in horror fiction. Blockbuster films, hit television shows, best-selling video games, the notion of society collapsing when the dead rise to devour us all has captured our collective imaginations. And the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was one of the first institutions to recognize Night of the Living Dead‘s artistic quality, so it only makes sense that they – along with The Film Foundation – would spearhead film’s new 4K restoration, premiering this week at To Save and Project: The 14th Annual Festival of Film Preservation.
Night of the Living Dead was, due to an oversight, not copyrighted upon its original release. That means there have been a preponderance of shoddy home video releases over the years, and that means the new 4K restoration is cause for celebration. I got George A. Romero on the phone on Halloween morning to discuss some of my burning questions about the original horror classic, consider the film’s enduring legacy and ask what the future holds for the horror genre.
Crave: Night of the Living Dead was a low budget production in a genre that wasn’t terribly well respected at the time. Was there a moment when you realized that this movie was going to be something special?
George A. Romero: Long after! [Laughs.] Long after it was released. I was actually shooting my third film [The Crazies]. What happened was, initially, well, long story. First there was the whole copyright debacle but before that Walter Reade, the distributor, actually returned money to us! I have to tell you, it’s the only time that I’ve ever gotten money back from a distributor on the profit side. It cost us, after we had paid off all our debts, it had cost us about $114,000 and it returned like six or seven hundred [thousand dollars]. So we thought, “Wow! Easy money!”
And it went out in neighborhood theaters and it went pretty well undiscussed until the French discovered it, and I was already shooting my third film when Rex Reed actually showed up at my house. I was shooting it at my house and Rex Reed showed up there with a local film critic and said, “Do you know what’s happening to your movie?” And I said, “No!” and that’s when I found out. It was like two years later. And shortly after that The Museum of Modern Art actually invited it into its collection.
So my first ever appearance in front of the public and an audience, anywhere, was at MOMA, and here we are again. [Laughs.] It’s like deja vu all over again!
Did it feel like you were making an art film? Or were you thinking in terms of genre, and just trying to find an audience?
We were focused mostly on genre but we did talk about all of the values in the film. We missed the obvious thing, which I think is what made it so popular or famous, the racial thing. Because Duane Jones happened to be an African-American and we cast him in the lead. When John [A. Russo] and I wrote the screenplay we wrote it for a white guy. He talked rough. He talked like a tough driver, bad grammar and everything. The only thing Duane did was correct some of the grammar. And we missed completely the importance of the lead actor being black.
This is a true story. When Russ [Streiner] and I were driving the very first print of Night of the Living Dead to New York to show it to potential distributors, that night on the car radio we heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and all of a sudden we realized. That was the first moment that we realized that this film was going to be perceived as a racial statement. It’s never mentioned in the film. It’s not even there. But that’s what it became.
Do you think it works that way? Do you think it’s an undercurrent?
No, I think if we had thought about it I think we would have made a point about it. Because he’s wrong! He winds up being wrong, and I think that his defense… if we had really explored that issue, I think that sometimes a minority person in among a bunch of the majority is going to get very defensive. I think that would have been an interesting point to explore, his defensiveness, that made him argue to stay upstairs instead of the basement. In fact it turns out that the basement was a better place!
I think that maybe, we would have had to do it so delicately. We thought we were being hip and cool just by not changing the script. But now I wonder if maybe we should have explored a little more, done a little more with that.
I think it came out pretty damned good. The first scare in the movie has always struck me as really as unusual because it’s a coincidence. Johnny jokes to Barbara that the dead are coming back to life but it turns out they just happened to actually be doing that. Can you tell me about the idea behind that scene? I don’t think most writers would be able to get away with that concept.
Oh, I don’t know. He’s not really talking about the dead, right? He’s talking about “They’re coming to get you,” we don’t know who’s coming to get her. He’s talking about, she was always scared at the cemetery, of something. I don’t know, it seemed like the way to go, that exactly what he’s talking about comes true. I just thought it was, again, one of those ironies. I like to use those. [Laughs.] But he’s not really talking about the dead coming back. He’s talking about how afraid she was to be in the cemetery.
One of the other questions I have about the original Night of the Living Dead is that it blames the zombie uprising, at least in theory, on a virus from outer space. But your other films in the series downplayed that angle. Can you tell me about why you included that in the first place and why you decided to move away from it?
Well, there were a couple of other theories represented on the radio. In fact when you look at that scene, when you look at the scene with the officials talking about the returning satellite, they’re arguing about it. One of them says, “I don’t think that’s been proven.” They’re arguing about it. And I never wanted it to be blamed on that. But that’s the way it came to be recognized. In fact the TV Guide blurbs say, “A returning Venus probe causes the dead to come back to life.”
So all I wanted to do in later films… I didn’t think these were zombies. In fact I thought I was doing something new because zombies, in a traditional Serpent and the Rainbow sense, are not dead. They drank the Kool-Aid or the blowfish powder or whatever it was and became slaves to somebody but they weren’t suspended animation. They’re not dead.
What I was pushing for was to have something absolutely extraordinary happening out in the world and to have our characters being so self-involved that they couldn’t… in fact, they deceive themselves by arguing among themselves about stupid things, instead of addressing the real problem and finding a way to solve it. That’s really what I thought the film was about, the destruction of the family unit, the destruction of faith in each other, and the inability to communicate. I thought that’s what the film was about, nothing to do with race.
I think that’s one of the reasons you created a genre that really connected with people, the idea of this fragile society that we’ve created for ourselves collapsing, and watching people try to hang on to things that maybe were never important to begin with, and ignoring what really mattered.
That’s the whole thing! That’s actually, if you look at all of my zombie films that’s there. That’s exactly what the real… that’s the underlying theme in all of it. There are subtexts. Like Dawn of the Dead, there’s consumerism. There are other themes that are in there but basically it’s the inability of people to pull together to unite, even faced with an external threat. So anyway, that’s what I’ve been trying to do! [Laughs.] Thank you for seeing it.
I think that’s what makes them scary. I think that’s what makes it feel like an apocalypse, not just an attack.
You know, I never thought of them as zombies. I never thought they were. Finally when people started to write about the film and call them zombies, that’s when I said, “Oh, maybe they’re a new kind of zombie.” Instead of voodoo they’re just the neighbors. So I think that all I did was turn the neighbors into zombies. Neighbors are scary enough!
This film, and your other films in the Living Dead series, have been hugely influential. It seems like every month there’s another film that wouldn’t exist without Night of the Living Dead. Do you have a particular favorite? Are there other films in the quote-unquote “zombie” genre that you’re a fan of, or that you admire?
Let me tell you, there were a couple of [Lucio] Fulci scenes I thought were really hilarious. The one that I love the most is of course Shaun of the Dead, I just thought that was tremendous. It remained true to my kind of feeling about it, my mythology. The remake of Dawn [of the Dead], I didn’t… you know, there was nothing about consumerism. There was nothing underlying it and so that’s it. And I thought Zombieland was really funny. [Laughs.] Actually what I’ve tried to do is inject a lot of humor into these things to sort of, I don’t know, balance out the gore sequence.
But I don’t know. I liked the 28 Days Later films but they’re not zombies, they’re not dead. They’re not using it in the same way. My whole idea is that if this extraordinary thing was happening, why can’t people just ADDRESS IT instead of holing up and trying to keep their old society alive? That’s my whole thing, and I think that’s what’s going today with the political circus.
We’re scared of change, and we don’t realize that our inability to adapt is holding us back.
Oh, but everybody’s scrambling for change! That’s what’s going on. That’s what Trump is banking on. [Laughs.]
What do you think the next great movie monster will be? Or at least, what would a new monster need to do to capture the popular imagination the way your films have?
You know, man, I think it always goes back. If you look to the few films that have been really successful, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, it’s all basically the old monsters. There aren’t that many monsters. It’s very hard to create a new monster.
It’s ghosts [for example]. And it’s just all in the way that it’s handled. It’s completely all in the way it’s handled. You know, all of a sudden here comes The Innocents and it’s a wonderful ghost story, and then The Haunting, and it’s a wonderful ghost story. I think first of all you have to have something that people have already suspended a bit of belief [about], the devil, or ghosts, or something that people are maybe inclined to believe. I think that if you push it you maybe can convince an audience to be afraid.
I thought that I was doing it with a completely ridiculous, extraordinary premise, and yet it turned out to catch on. [Laughs.] So I’m arguing against myself here, but I don’t what might come next. Unfortunately it’s gone back to zombies, and it’s hard for me to even finance a low budget zombie film now because Hollywood has noticed that there’s money in it. So I can’t stay in my little sheltered little area and do what I want to do.
That’s very ironic.
I can’t tell you what’s going to be next. In the days of Marvel films? I mean, my god. I don’t think anybody is ever frightened by these things, the extraordinary creatures they create. It doesn’t really get into your soul. It’s the little films, the Paranormal Activity, there’s a couple of scenes in there that get under your skin. I think really that’s what it is with Night of the Living Dead.
Actually I’ve never been able to get back to that, because I started to rely on music stings and fast-motion, and fast-motion synchronized with loud sounds, and I started to rely on that because I don’t know. It requires… I don’t know what, a kind of innocence to get back to something that really gets into your soul in a certain way.
You’ve made so many stories in this genre. I imagine you’re trying to keep yourself interested and just experiment and play.
Well, you know I think about it often. […] I’m of an age where I certainly don’t want to go out and have to do pitches. I can’t afford at my age to go spend a year pitching a project just to get it to be underfinanced. So I’m happy to be hanging out where I am. I’m writing a couple of things for other directors, and unless somebody comes to me and says, “Hey, would you like to make another zombie film…?”
I happen to have a script, which in fact I do have, which was one that I wanted to do after Survival of the Dead. I thought it was going to be a three-picture deal and it turned out, because Survival didn’t make enough money, it turned out to be a two-picture deal. I have a script but man, I’d rather go to Cabo and fish.
I have to ask, what’s the name of that script that was supposed to come out after Survival of the Dead?
Oh, you know it doesn’t have a title. Neither did Survival of the Dead have a title. In fact what it’s called, on the page, is Enough of the Dead! [Laughs.] We didn’t have a title for Survival and it actually went up for grabs in the end. We actually did a little ballot and had all the production people talk about it, because I didn’t know what the hell to call it. I don’t know what to call this one. How many “of the Deads” can there be?
I need a new title for “Something of the Dead.” It’s a noir, what it is. Survival was a western and this one was meant to be a noir.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.