Sounds of Cinema

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Commentaries

Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) Retrospective

Aired on October 14, 2018 (Episode #720)

Sounds of Cinema examined the themes and legacy of George A. Romero's landmark zombie films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1968). Reviews of each title can be found in the Review Archive.

Contents:

I. Politics of the Living Dead

II. Cult of the Living Dead

III. Legacy of the Living Dead

IV. Satire of the Living Dead

V. Tribute of the Living Dead

I. Politics of the Living Dead

Over the last fifty years, Night of the Living Dead has had tremendous traction in film criticism partly because of its socio-political themes. The movie was a product of a chaotic time in American history and Night of the Living Dead captured the zeitgeist of 1968 in a way that few films did. That context shaped the way the movie was made but also the way in which critics and viewers have understood it.

One of the best analytical pieces to be found on Night of the Living Dead is Ben Hervey’s book for the BFI Film Classics series. Hervey puts the film in its historical context and provides insight into the way viewers of 1968 would have seen it. Among Hervey’s contentions about Night of the Living Dead is that critics have overstated the filmmakers’ political intentions and he makes that case convincingly. George Romero himself frequently said that some aspects of the film that critics analyzed to death were in fact a result of circumstance. For example, African American actor Duane Jones was cast in one of the lead roles not for his ethnicity but because he was the best actor in Romero’s troupe. However, as Hervey points out, “even though [the filmmakers] did not intend Night as one big statement, politics was always on their minds” (26). Furthermore, artistic choices absent of political intent can still have political meanings. It would be disingenuous and naïve to suggest that a film in which a black man conflicts with white characters and was released in the midst of the civil rights movement had no political or social implications.

Night of the Living Dead was shot in black and white and presented in the 1.37:1 (or Academy) ratio. In 1968 color film was available and many features used widescreen compositions. The decision to use black and white was certainly motivated by economic factors but Romero has said that he hoped the film would have a documentary-like feel. At the time, television news was often presented on black and white film. For viewers in 1968, the black and white images of Night of the Living Dead gave it an immediacy and cultural currency similar to contemporary films that incorporate digital media. The black and white cinematography also had the effect of concealing some of the limitations of the film’s budget and very likely helped the movie to age as well as it has.

The era in which Night of the Living Dead was made invites a lot of speculation and interpretation about its regard for race and class issues. Romero often shared the anecdote of he and producer Russ Streiner driving from Pittsburgh to New York to show the film to potential distributors and hearing on the radio of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Even now, the presence of black actors in a movie is notable given the absence of people of color in feature films. To have an African American actor in 1968 cast in a principal role and then to have him conflict violently with his white male costar has political implications whether the filmmakers intended it or not. But Night of the Living Dead, thankfully, never spells this out for the audience. As Hervey points out, “If the film had been constructed as a vehicle for political rhetoric, it would have turned out flat, obvious, and inflexible: not just rooted in its era, but shackled to it” (27). By allowing the racial conflict to remain subtext, the audience is required to do the work of interpreting the material. That makes the movie more engaging than if the ideas were explained to us. It also liberates Night of the Living Dead from its specific historical moment and allows the movie and its racial implications to play decades later.

The racial subtext of Night of the Living Dead links to the film’s broader theme of society unraveling. While this plays regardless of the time period (it feels downright contemporary in 2018) this theme is particular to 1968. At this time, American society was subject to a series of shocks and the culture was undergoing a shift in values. The ongoing debate over the war in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, among others, created an atmosphere of disillusionment and anxiety. The angst of the period seeps through Night of the Living Dead and as the predicament of the survivors inside the house gets worse the film becomes increasingly chaotic. The inability of the people inside the farmhouse to cooperate was a microcosm of American culture in 1968 and the film captured the anxieties of the time and threw them back in the audience’s face.

Ultimately, the intended social and political meanings of Night of the Living Dead are subtle and complex and touch upon themes that are broader than the film’s particular historical moment. It is a movie about people stuck in a desperate situation and how they fail to survive because of their unwillingness to cooperate. That generality is why the movie still plays fifty years later. Like all art, Night of the Living Dead sprang out of a particular set of circumstances but it transcends those circumstances. Looking at the movie in 2018, the chaos and animosity of the characters and the cynicism and anxiety of the movie feel remarkably current.

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II. Cult of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead is not a film that would suggest itself as a cornerstone of American cinema. It’s a low budget, independently produced horror film that was intended to play on the drive-in circuit of the late 1960s. And indeed that’s the way Night of the Living Dead was originally received. It didn’t get particularly good reviews. Variety called Night of the Living Dead “amateurism of the first order.” But upon its original release, Night of the Living Dead was a financial success. The movie found its audience and the film played for years.

Night of the Living Dead was originally distributed by Continental, having been passed on by Columbia and American International Pictures. The original title was Night of the Anubis and later Night of the Flesh Eaters. Unfortunately, the copyright notice was located on the title card and when the name of the movie was changed to Night of the Living Dead that copyright notice was gone. By the time this was discovered, Night of the Living Dead no longer qualified for copyright protection and the film was now in the public domain. That cost the filmmakers a lot of money in lost revenues.

However, when Night of the Living Dead entered the public domain anyone could exhibit the film. That contributed to Night of the Living Dead becoming a fixture of drive-ins and second run theaters. The 1970s saw the phenomenon of cult cinema and midnight movies in which devotees of a film would attend late night screenings of unusual pictures like Pink Flamingos and Reefer Madness and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These movies appealed to an audience that wanted their films to be transgressive and independent. Night of the Living Dead had been made outside the Hollywood system and had been mostly written off by the mainstream press. It was embraced by the midnight audience and was a regular fixture of the midnight movie circuit.

In the 1980s the midnight movie fad ended with the arrival of home video. Being in the public domain, Night of the Living Dead could be duped onto VHS by any distributor looking for product. The film became ubiquitous and countless editions of Night of the Living Dead were merchandised, many of them with crummy picture and sound quality. Night of the Living Dead also found itself edited into a lot of other movies, usually playing on television in the background, and it appears in titles such as Halloween II, Sid and Nancy, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Big Sick. All this put the film in the public’s eye and spread its reach.

Night of the Living Dead’s staying power forced critics and academics to reevaluate it. As the film continued to play in theaters and drive-ins, academics started writing about it. Those pieces in turn shaped the way audiences thought about the movie. Night of the Living Dead gradually morphed in the public mind from a disreputable little feature that had been dismissed by the establishment and into an important cultural touchstone. In the decades to come, Night of the Living Dead was accepted into the collection at the Museum of Modern Art and added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

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III. Legacy of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential films in the horror genre and in American cinema. George Romero and company did not invent the zombie. These creatures had featured in movies before 1968 such as White Zombie and Voodoo Island. But in most of those films the zombies were mindless slaves controlled by a villain. Night of the Living Dead set the zombies loose and the movie created the template for a whole genre of films.

Romero would continue to follow up Night of the Living Dead throughout his career, starting with Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and then Day of the Dead in 1985. He returned to the genre in 2004 with Land of the Dead and followed it with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Romero’s later films failed to recapture the impact of his earlier work but Day of the Dead has enjoyed a reappraisal in recent years.

Night of the Living Dead producers John A. Russo and Russell Streiner also continued to work in the zombie genre, writing the story for 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, this film was a comic take on the zombie genre and has its own devoted fan following. Return of the Living Dead inspired four sequels.

John Russo also spearheaded one of the most unusual artifacts in the Living Dead pantheon. To coincide with Night of the Living Dead’s thirtieth anniversary, Russo oversaw a special edition of the film that included fifteen minutes of newly shot footage and a new music score. This version was—rightly—disparaged by the fans and has all but disappeared.

Night of the Living Dead was lauded for its black and white cinematography but the movie has had several colorized editions and a 3-D conversion. The movie has also been remade twice, both in color. The 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead was produced by George Romero and directed by Romero’s frequent special effects collaborator Tom Savini. It was a noble effort that both revisited and updated the material. A 3D remake of Night of the Living Dead starring Sid Haig was released in 2006.

Night of the Living Dead inspired a couple of animated projects as well. 2009’s Night of the Living Dead: Re-Animated is a mixed media remake that uses the audio from the 1968 film and recreates the visuals through various styles of animation. 2015’s Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn was a sort-of remake of the original story told through computer animation and featuring the voice talents of Tony Todd and Bill Moseley.

Aside from direct sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, Night of the Living Dead inspired a whole genre of zombie films whose entries are too numerous to count. Films such as the Resident Evil series, [REC], Night of the Creeps, Zombie, World War Z, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and the television show The Walking Dead all trace back to the 1968 film. The influence isn’t limited to the shuffling, undead cannibals. Night of the Living Dead created a boilerplate that filmmakers have followed for the past fifty years and most zombie films adhere to the siege formula originated in the 1968 movie. Night of the Living Dead also established a political framework and a set of socio-economic themes that have formed a baseline for most of the zombie films of the past half-a-century.

There are some signs that the zombie genre might finally move beyond Night of the Living Dead. The past few years have seen the release of some innovative titles. The Girl with All the Gifts and ParaNorman and Cargo and It Stains the Sands Red made a deliberate effort to move the zombie genre into new and interesting places. But whatever the future of this genre might be, the zombie film is inexorably tied to the efforts of  George A. Romero and his crew and the little horror movie they made in between beer commercials in rural Pennsylvania.

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IV. Satire of the Living Dead

Much has been made of the socio-political themes of Night of the Living Dead but Dawn of the Dead is an even more aggressively political film. The original picture was released in 1968 in the midst of a chaotic time in American history and Night of the Living Dead reflected that. The sequel came ten years later when the culture had calmed down considerably. And that is exactly what Dawn of the Dead explores.

Dawn of the Dead opens with chaotic scenes that are in keeping with the end of the 1968 film. A television news studio is in turmoil, passing outdated and inconsistent information to viewers while two blowhards yell at each other on camera. Meanwhile, a SWAT team evacuates an apartment building inhabited by minority tenants and overrun by zombies. The authorities kill with abandon, making little distinction between the living and the undead. The imagery of this sequence is of the previous era in which major cities were besieged by urban violence and racial unrest and the establishment seemed unable to deal with society’s problems.

The central characters flee the chaos and settle in a shopping mall where they seal themselves inside and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. This is a streamlined version of what happened in American culture. By the mid-1970s, mainstream American society had stepped away from political activism even though many of the most pressing issues hadn’t really been resolved. Whether exhausted by the turmoil or content with the progress that had been made, mainstream American culture turned away from the idealism of the counter culture and toward the comforts of materialism, so much so that President Jimmy Carter weighed in on the issue in a now infamous 1979 address

Most of Dawn of the Dead takes place within an indoor shopping mall. In 1978 this was a relatively new feature to the American landscape and throughout the 1980s and 90s the mall would be a hub of commerce and social life. Dawn of the Dead was among the first films to identify what the mall represented and it both sent up the materialism of its day and anticipated the role the mall would take in American culture.

Dawn of the Dead satirized American materialism. Its very scenario suggests the way in which people, then and now, hid from social problems instead of dealing with them. But Dawn of the Dead also suggests something far more pernicious. The consumerism of this film is more than just a distraction. It is a corrupting influence that erodes our personhood and makes us mindless beasts who consume without consideration.

Forty years after Dawn of the Dead, the mall no longer occupies a central place in American life. These shopping palaces appear to be headed the way of the drive-in movie theater. Dawn of the Dead captured the beginning of mall culture and it remains one of the defining films of that era. That makes Dawn of the Dead, if nothing else, a relevant time capsule of late twentieth century capitalism.

Beyond that, Dawn of the Dead is still relevant as a story about consumerism. The central issue of the film is the way its characters avoid their problems by cloaking themselves in stuff. It’s also about the extent to which people will dehumanize themselves and abuse others in pursuit of all that stuff. These will remain pertinent ideas long after the last shopping mall closes its doors.

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V. Tribute of the Living Dead

Dawn of the Dead exists in three different versions. George Romero’s preferred version is the 127 minute U.S. theatrical edition which includes library music cues and the Goblin score. There is also a 139 minute extended cut; this version is basically a polished work print. Dawn of the Dead was reedited by producer Dario Argento for exhibition in some European territories. Retitled Zombi, this version runs 118 minutes and excises most of the humor and some of the exposition and uses more of the Goblin score. The different versions make for a fascinating look at how the same material can be shaped into very different films.

Like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead was a major influence on movies that came after it. Night of the Living Dead established the framework for the zombie genre but many later filmmakers aspired to Dawn of the Dead. The apocalyptic setting of Dawn became a given in zombie films such as 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil series. Humor also became a regular part of the genre as seen in Dead Alive and Cooties and Zombieland. The comedy often went hand-in-hand with over-the-top gore with moviemakers and special effects teams inspired by Tom Savini’s work.

However, what was curiously ignored by many subsequent filmmakers was Dawn of the Dead’s socio-political themes. A lot of Romeo’s imitators never looked at the material deeper than the undead eating the living and no one ever tried to tackle the consumerist themes of Dawn of the Dead ever again. It may be that Romero’s film had done it so well that going over that subject again would be redundant.

Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004. The picture was the feature film debut of Zack Snyder, who went on to helm 300 and Man of Steel, and it was written by James Gunn, who would later write and direct Guardians of the Galaxy. The remake was more action oriented than Romeo’s film but it also dumbed down the ideas or discarded them entirely. Even the mall setting was incidental and the film was just another zombie picture.

Perhaps the most significant tribute to Dawn of the Dead was 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Like its inspiration, Shaun of the Dead managed a mix of bloody violence and broad comedy but it also had characters with depth and thoughtfully dealt with the themes of the zombie genre. It also made deliberate allusions to Romero’s zombie films, especially Dawn, and included music cues from the 1978 film. Romero said some very nice things about Shaun of the Dead and Wright credited Romero with launching his career.

Since 1978, Dawn of the Dead has attracted a ravenous following and among fans of George Romero and the zombie genre this is often identified as the favorite title. Although it is dated, Dawn of the Dead possesses a singular mix of goofy humor, outrageous gore, and the independent spirt of its creators. There is an intelligence and a humanity to this film that distinguishes Dawn of the Dead from so many of its imitators. That quality has caused it to connect with its fan base in a way that few motion pictures ever have and ensures that Dawn of the Dead will be watched and discussed for many years to come.

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