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Fifty years after its pre­miere, Night of the Liv­ing Dead is still ter­ri­fy­ing au­di­ences and in­flu­enc­ing cul­ture

Newsweek - - Contents - NEWS­GEEK BY AN­DREW WHALEN @and­whalen

Night of the Liv­ing Dead Turns 50

thun­der rolls over the ceme­tery. As Johnny and his sis­ter walk through a grave­yard, he taunts her with the now-fa­mous line: “They’re com­ing to get you, Barbra!” A strange man in a tat­tered suit is walk­ing to­ward them. He comes awk­wardly close, his ex­pres­sion va­cant. Barbra bows her head and starts to walk away—and then he grabs her.

Who is this man? What is the na­ture of this at­tack? In 2018, the an­swers are ob­vi­ous: He is the un­dead, and he craves the flesh of the liv­ing. But when Night of the Liv­ing Dead pre­miered at the Ful­ton The­ater in Pitts­burgh on Oc­to­ber 1,

1968, there was no prece­dent. Zom­bies, at least as we know them to­day, had yet to be in­vented.

That task fell to Ge­orge Romero, a 27-year-old film buff from the Bronx, and his col­lege friend Rus­sell Streiner. In the early 1960s, they started a com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion firm, La­tent Im­age, to do lo­cal beer com­mer­cials in Pitts­burgh but soon landed big cor­po­rate clients; they shot “Mr. Rogers Gets a Ton­sil­lec­tomy” and other seg­ments for Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood. What they re­ally wanted to do, though, was make a movie.

In 1967, John Russo joined Romero and other La­tent Im­age reg­u­lars for some brain­storm­ing. “We would sit around, drink­ing wine and smok­ing dope prob­a­bly, and some­one came up with this idea about teenagers from outer space,” Russo tells Newsweek. On a $114,000 bud­get, how­ever, a horror movie seemed more prac­ti­cal. Romero wrote a few dozen pages of screen­play, which Russo used to work up a full draft. Mon­ster Flick, as they called it, starred flesh-eat­ing “ghouls,” usu­ally re­ferred to in the script as sim­ply “them.”

The char­ac­ter­is­tics of what we now call zom­bies (the word is never spo­ken in Night of the Liv­ing Dead) were fleshed out (so to speak) only after film­ing be­gan in June in Evans City, Penn­syl­va­nia, 30 miles north of Pitts­burgh. On set, the ac­tors would re­hearse, for Romero’s ap­proval, the zom­bie’s char­ac­ter­is­tic limp­ing, drag­ging, stum­bling shuf­fle. To come up with the hun­dreds of ghouls that be­sieged sur­vivors in a farm­house, much of the skele­ton pro­duc­tion crew had to dou­ble as ac­tors, some­times in mul­ti­ple roles, sup­ple­mented by a ros­ter of ex­tras.

Russo him­self played a zom­bie killed with a tire iron by Ben, a cool­headed truck driver who clashes with other sur­vivors for con­trol of the farm­house’s only ri­fle. “I would stretch my face out of shape as much as I could,” Russo says, to mimic the ef­fects of rigor mor­tis. “It gave me a headache after a while.”

Even though the team had only one pre­cious jar of 3M stage blood (stretched by also us­ing choco­late syrup, which reads as blood on black-and-white film), they left no stone un­turned in search of good gore. For a zom­bie feast, they used sheep or­gans, filled with wa­ter for a more life­like flop and squish. Makeup artists Karl Hard­man and Mar­i­lyn East­man (who played doomed mother Helen Coope) added hol­lowed-out eyes and skin mot­tled or scarred with mor­ti­cian’s Derma Wax, pi­o­neer­ing a look that spe­cial ef­fects artists like Tom Savini would re­fine for se­quels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Man­nequin arms, Silly Putty for chewed flesh and ex­plod­ing blood pack­ets, or squibs, rounded

out the grue­some reper­toire.

Russo even lit him­self on fire for a scene in­volv­ing Molo­tov cock­tails. “what­ever it took is what we were go­ing to do to get that movie made,” he says.

Night of the Liv­ing Dead was an in­stant hit, pack­ing drive-ins and de­fy­ing hor­ri­fied crit­ics, like the Va­ri­ety re­view be­moan­ing the “pornog­ra­phy of vi­o­lence” that threat­ened the “moral health of film­go­ers who cheer­fully opt for this un­re­lieved orgy of sadism.”

The movie came to be re­garded as a cri­tique on 1960s Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

Black ac­tor Duane Jones, cast as Ben, takes charge amid the zom­bie siege. He sur­vives the long night (spoiler alert!) only to be shot the next day by gun-happy hicks and po­lice.

Romero and Russo didn’t orig­i­nally in­tend to cre­ate a racial sub­text, but they were aware that they had—es­pe­cially after the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968. Romero re­calls hear­ing the news on the ra­dio while driv­ing to New York City, in search of a dis­trib­u­tor, with the film can­is­ters in the trunk. Jones was con­cerned with how au­di­ences would re­act; he ar­gued, un­suc­cess­fully, for more ac­knowl­edg­ment of the un­der­ly­ing racial ten­sion be­tween Ben and the other sur­vivors, par­tic­u­larly Harry Cooper (Hard­man), who chafes un­der Ben’s lead­er­ship.

Crit­ics in­ter­preted Night of the Liv­ing Dead in dif­fer­ent ways. Some saw a dark echo of the Viet­nam War, oth­ers a re­ac­tionary back­lash of an older gen­er­a­tion against the youth move­ment. In the past 50 years, the film has spawned five se­quels, in­clud­ing the con­sumerist-cri­tiquing Dawn of the Dead and the gore mas­ter­piece Day of the Dead (both by Romero). It in­vented an en­tire sub­genre of horror that has since inspired hun­dreds of movies and TV shows, in­clud­ing on­go­ing hits like The Walk­ing Dead.

At its cen­ter is the rad­i­cal empti­ness of the zom­bie, who lives and dies by spe­cific rules, but has no back­story and no in­ter­nal mo­ti­va­tion be­yond rav­en­ous con­sump­tion. The sim­ple horror of Night of the Liv­ing Dead is the re­al­iza­tion that so­ci­ety has gone dread­fully wrong, as fright­en­ing a con­cept to­day as it was in 1968.

“What­ever it took is what we were go­ing to do to get that movie made.”

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