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Night of the Living Dead

1968 film [[1]]They Won't Stay Dead!

Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a seminal horror film directed by George A. Romero which transformed the horror-movie genre.

The plot is simple and familiar to viewers even casually acquainted with the genre: the dead come to life and attack the living in order to feed upon their flesh. It was filmed in Evans City, Pennsylvania.

Although a low budget film (it cost around $114,000 to produce) and helmed by a first-time director, the film is considered a horror classic by many film critics, and placed #93 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Thrills list.

Plot overview

Night of the Living Dead opens with bickering siblings Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea), who have driven out to a cemetery to put a wreath on their father's grave (note that Barbra's name, which is spelled out in the credits, is spelled differently from the normal Barbara). A pale-faced man (S. William Hinzman) lumbers toward the two. Johnny teases his sister by saying "they're coming to get you, Barbra! I'm getting out of here!" He jokingly runs off, but when the pale-faced man grabs Barbra, Johnny runs back to save her, and gets his head smashed against a gravestone by the man, who looks up, sees Barbra, and begins to move toward her. She runs in fear towards the car, but realizes that Johnny has the keys. When the man smashes the window, Barbra takes the brake lock off and the side of the car is smashed against a tree. The man continues to run after the car, so Barbra gets out of the car and runs away, arriving at an abandoned home with a corpse at the top of the stairs.

Soon, Ben (played by Duane Jones) shows up, and helps drive away several pale-faced men that have shown up. Through radio and television reports we learn that, for some reason, the dead have began to return to life and seek human victims, and they can only be killed by a shot to the head, or a heavy blow to the skull. In the basement of the house, a small family (Harry and Helen Cooper, and their daughter, who has been bitten by one of the flesh eaters), and teenage couple Tom and Judy have been hiding out from the invasion of the living dead.

At first, the group seems to be able to work together, but various disagreements lead to the group's downfall, primarily the control struggle between Ben and Harry. Later, Ben comes up with a plan to get everyone out with his truck. He and Tom go outside to the truck, Judy following suit. They head to the gas pump, but Tom's torch touches off spilled gasoline and sets the truck ablaze. Ben escapes while Tom and Judy stay in the truck, where they die. Their remains later become a buffet for the living dead, who are momentarily distracted from the house. Ben heads back to the house only to find Harry has locked it, but manages to get inside. Shortly before assisting Ben in blocking the dead out, Harry finds himself on the receiving end of a severe beating from Ben. Things are temporarily all right as the group seems to find some semblance of normality. But it proves shortlived when the dead have taken control of the situation by knocking out the electricity. The zombies finally begin their invasion as Ben, Helen and Barbra, who has awakened from her shock long enough to help the others, desperately try to block out the zombies. But blocking them out puts Ben at a disadvantage when Harry retains the rifle and tries to get Helen into the basement. Ben however, gets the upper hand and shoots Harry twice in the torso. This proves the downfall of the house as the zombies finally start making their way in.

Harry struggles to get downstairs and sees his daughter lying on the table. As he tries to reach her, Harry collapses on the ground and dies. As Barbra assists Ben in blocking the undead out, Helen escapes to the basement to find Harry, but gets a much bigger shock when she sees her now zombified daughter gnawing away at what's left of one of Harry's arms. The daughter takes a cement trowel and stabs Helen, killing her. As Barbra struggles, she sees her brother walking right before her, now a zombie. He drags her off, as she screams into a sea of the bloodthirsty living dead and Ben tries desperately to save her. But the undead overpower him and descend into the estate, taking over the upstairs portion of the house. Ben runs to the bottom of the cellar but not before battling the Coopers' daughter, just as he escapes to the basement, rifle in hand to hide out from the zombies. When the Coopers return to life as zombies, Ben kills them to prevent them from eating him. The sounds of the undead can be heard from outside, tearing away at the house, most of them fixated on trying to get into the basement, without success. After a night of fighting off various zombies, Ben, (having gone without sleep), hears gunfire from above, which is revealed to be a Sheriff's posse of zombie-hunting volunteers and law enforcement combing the area and shooting down the undead. Against an organized, armed group, the zombies are helpless, slow-moving targets. Ben climbs up the stairs, out of the basement and into the first floor of the house.

The chief hunter and one of his associates see Ben peering through a window. In a rather cruel twist of fate, the associate takes Ben for a zombie and fires his rifle, hitting Ben in the head and killing him. The film ends with Ben's corpse being subjected to meat hooks by the hunters. His body is laid out with several zombies, among them the pale-faced man. The hunters set the bodies on fire and depart from the site.

Critical response

The film is often seen as slyly commenting on racism in the United States. Perhaps the most sympathetic character is a young black man who takes refuge within a farm house. It must be noted, however, that Romero has denied choosing Duane Jones as a black actor specifically for the part, claiming that he merely gave the best audition. (Coincidentially, Romero and Russ Streiner were driving with the first print of the film to New York, hoping to sell its theatrical rights, on the evening of April 4, 1968, when news broke of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

However, the film's treatment of women is much less generous; one, Barbra, suffers such psychological damage after the loss of her brother that she is reduced to semi-psychotic gibbering for the remainder of the film. Judy spends the film in an extreme state of denial about the gravity of the situation, leading to her own death and that of her boyfriend, Tom. Helen Cooper's character, while initially strong-willed, also becomes immobilized late in the film, and dies as a result.

The horror elements of the film, especially during the gory "feasting" scene after the explosion at the gas pumps, graphic matricide by a young child, and a depressing conclusion was unheard of at the time the film was released. Horror films were usually shown as Saturday matinees to large groups of children, who had grown used to giant bugs and variations on classic horror icons like Dracula and Frankenstein, and they did not expect the violence that the film contains. As such, it is one of several films of the same period that intensified the MPAA's rating system. It is also seen as launching the concept of horror movies marketed to teenagers and young adults, making it a forerunner of splatter films. When only a young journalist, famed film critic Roger Ebert details such a matinee screening in his January 1967 review of the film in which he criticises the distributors for scheduling it in children's matinees, although he praises the film itself today, giving it 3.5 out of 4 stars.

It was followed by three sequels: Dawn of the Dead (1978) which was remade and released under the same title in early 2004 (Dawn of the Dead), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005) and a remake (Night of the Living Dead, released in 1990). In 1999 the original film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


  • Barbra was originally supposed to survive the night in the original script.
  • Romero and his crew originally began shooting the film in color, but switched to black and white for economic reasons. Color photos from the production of the film can be seen in the documentary Something to Scream About.
  • At no point this film is the word "zombie" used. Romero states in the DVD commentary for Land of the Dead that he didn't even think of them as zombies but as "ghouls". The most common term used by the film's characters is "those things." Romero's attitude towards the term "zombie" is parodied in Shaun of the Dead, by Shaun's taboo against saying the "Zed-word" during the film.
  • The film's first world premiere at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia had a standing ovation.
  • In the original script, Ben was to have been a crude but resourceful truck driver who speaks in a thick Southern accent. The role was re-written by Romero himself after being so impressed with Duane Jones' audition.
  • This film started William Hinzman's, Zombie #1, career in film.
  • The cemetery scene was filmed at Charles Evans Cemetery in Pennsylvania.
  • Night of the Living Dead was remade in 1990 by director Tom Savini. In the later version, the "hero" of the piece is Barbra, who alone of all the characters realizes that the dead are so slow as to be readily avoided. Although the character of the African American male is included, he is not the centerpiece of the plot. There are some other modifications including a more weasally Harry surviving the night, only to end up being shot in the head by Barbra, and Ben dying in the celler and becoming one of the living dead.
  • The zombie plague's origins remain ambiguous throughout the film, with some reference to a spacecraft harboring unknown radiation from Venus. No mention of this is made in any of the sequels. Romero has stated in his audio commentary for the film that he never intended for the viewer to believe that the radiation was the cause of the plague.
  • Punk band the Misfits have a song titled "Night of the Living Dead."

Copyright status

The film lapsed into public domain because of the neglect by the original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, to put a proper copyright notice on the prints it distributed. At the time a proper notice was required to maintain copyright. Image Ten had intended to put such a statement on the title frames under the original title, Night of the Flesh Eaters, but Reade had removed the statement when it removed that title and replaced it with Night of the Living Dead. (That requirement was subsequently removed with the United States' Berne Convention Implementation Act and Copyright Term Extension Act, which together provided for automatic copyright on any work once it was put into a "fixed form," and automatic copyright term renewal on all copyrighted works).


Because the film is in the public domain, there are a number of different revised versions being released. Listed below are the revised versions with the most significant changes.

  • The first colorized version was released by Hal Roach Studios during the 1980s. This version features green zombies.
  • A second colorized version was released in 1997 by Anchor Bay Entertainment, but the zombies in that version have the same skin color as the film's non-zombified characters.
  • In 1998, a modified "30th Anniversary Edition" was released. It had new scenes inserted, which were directed by the movie's Producer/Co-writer, John A. Russo. It also had a new soundtrack, written by Scott Vladimir Licina, whose character (a mentally unstable priest) was the focus of many of the new scenes. The new edition was generally hated by fans and non-fans alike, the general criticisms being that the new scenes did not fit into the movie, and that the soundtrack damaged the film's overall mood. The new edition had a relatively short sales-life, and quickly vanished. Harry Knowles famously promised that if anyone said anything positive about it, they would be permanently banned from the talkback section of Ain't It Cool News. [2]. Children of the Living Dead is a 2001 sequel to this movie.
  • The third colorized version was released in 2004 by 20th Century Fox--the copyright to that version is owned by Legend Films. Comedian Mike Nelson provided a humorous audio commentary track, "riffing" on the film in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
  • The latest revision of the film is called Night of the Living Dead: Survivor's Cut, produced and edited by Dean Lachiusa, who added a new beginning, a flashback, and some color effects (certain scenes being tinted), in addition to altering certain scenes to make it seem as if the film had used more expensive cinematography. As with the 30th Anniversary Edition, this version is extremely controversial among NOTLD fans.


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