I first saw Night of the Living Dead when I was 9 years old. One of my relatives bought me a DVD with a collection of campy public domain horror movies on it, and Night of the Living Dead happened to be one of them. At that time, the internet was still in its early form, so it was much more difficult to read about a movie’s history and context before viewing it. I chose to watch the film solely based on its title.
Up until that point, I had never experienced a movie so bleak. From the very beginning, I could tell that this was different than the horror media I had consumed at that age. Everything in NOTLD feels empty. The locations are barren of people, and for the first half of the movie you spend most of your time with Barbara, who is slowly losing her connection to reality. The low-budget look and desolate locations made me feel like I was watching a movie that had been lost and forgotten about. It was a very alienating viewing experience.
I remember turning the film off when it ended, and having a sensation I did not know how to describe. The claustrophobic and isolating tone gave me nightmares, and I could not comprehend why the characters behaved so coldly to each other. After that, I was terrified of zombie movies, and apocalypse movies in general. I would go through detailed scenarios and plans of what I would do if zombies attacked wherever I would go. It was the first time I had watched a horror film that upset me in a visceral and intellectual way, and I attribute that to hopelessness director George Romero imbues throughout. There is no real hero in NOTLD. Every character breaks down in their own way. The men fight for dominance, and the women are forced to deal with the impulsive mistakes these men make. NOTLD is like a Twilight Zone episode gone wrong.
Rewatching the movie now as a young struggling artist, I understand so much more how impactful it was and why. NOTLD feels like a film made by young adults who were dissatisfied at the current state of the world and had something to prove. You see this whenever they portray the government in the broadcast portions as being completely uncaring and unaffected by what is devastating the country. You also see this by how raw the violence is filmed. The zombies may look less gratuitous than zombies of today, but the scenes where they are eating peoples’ flesh hold up because of their simplicity. Shot like a documentary, the film presents the zombies in a very gruesome but realistic way, much like newsreels of the past. Romero balances this by also shooting the zombies in a dreamlike style, which is beautiful at times. Clearly, the creators wanted NOTLD to be seen as more than just an exploitation film, despite its graphic violence.
Rewatching NOTLD also revealed to me how intimate of a relationship the cast and crew had to the film’s production. Romero actually lit people on fire, threw molotov cocktails in front of actors, and crashed a car into a tree. Most of the cast/crew had multiple jobs, making the viewing experience feel that much more authentic and raw. As an artist, especially when you are trying to break into the industry or receive some recognition, you have a very intimate relationship with your work. You understand that sometimes you have to push your own limits in order to make a vision come to life. When you are independent, there is nobody else who is going to push you. I look back at filmmakers like George Romero, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper, and have so much respect for the ambition and audacity they had. Their work is unpleasant and controversial, but they managed to permanently change the medium of film by refusing to accept the standards of their time. They were labeled as morally questionable people by critics and audiences, but they did not let any of that deter their vision. Horror filmmakers have historically been scapegoats for larger issues in the world, so it is powerful to see artists who were not afraid to live with those unjustified labels in order to bring their work to life.
Achieving a unique vision as an independent artist, especially in horror, can be difficult at times. When you are interested in taboos and pushing ideas in the medium, it can feel like you are constantly fighting an uphill battle to communicate your vision. It is tempting to settle and create work that would blend in more with the times. However, watching a movie like Night of the Living Dead, made by a group of friends in their mid-20’s, and seeing the passion and ambition these artists had to show audiences something new and unsettling, makes achieving those goals seem very possible.