The Night of the Living Dead Experience
So far in my life, two motion pictures had a major impact in my life, those two being, Star Wars and Night of the Living Dead. When seeing Star Wars at the age of 4 in 1977 it gave me imagination. When seeing Night of the Living Dead ten years later, it gave me a love for horror films and the inspiration to decide what I wanted to do with my life, to write and make horror films. Here is a special Halloween tribute to one of my favorite films and my experience watching it for the first time and how it impacted me.
Halloween night, 1987, I was 14 years old and was out with one of my friends, Craig. At this point in our lives we were too old for trick or treating, but we wandered the streets spraying shaving cream all over the road for some stupid reason. I remember going back to a Craig’s house to hang out for a bit and watch some TV. We started to watch USA Saturday Nightmares, which was showing The Ray Bradbury Theater and the episode that was playing was The Screaming Woman, the one with Drew Barrymore. At that point in my life, I wasn’t into horror films. I only seen a few at that time and when I was a kid they scared the hell out of me so I stuck with sci-fi, fantasy, or comedy, but as I got older, my interested started to grow and wanted to find a good horror movie. I got that chance on that Halloween night.
When I got home later on, since it was Halloween, I was in the mood to watch a horror film. So, I turned on USA, figuring a good horror film would pop up on the channel. There was all ready a movie in progress, which was in black and white and had a woman with blonde hair wearing a raincoat, running down a road being chased by a man who was walking like the Frankenstein’s monster. I continued to watch and as the lead female character, Barbara (played by Judith O’Dea) was trying to figure out what was happening, so was I. What I discovered that night was an excellent horror film and started my obsession with this movie. As the lead male character, Ben (played by Duane Jones), entered the scene, the story started to come together. The dead were returning to life and seeking the flesh of their victims and the people inside this house were trying to stay safe and stay alive.
The movie was being shown on USA’s Night Flight, which showed movies, videos, and animation late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. During the commercial breaks they had a woman narrator for the show that would give some background about the movie. Mentioning how George A. Romero directed it on a low budget in Pittsburgh in the late 60’s. A name I didn’t know at the time but would soon find out more about his films and would ultimately become one of my favorite directors. They also mentioned other facts about Romero and the co-writer of the film, John Russo and others on the crew that they were part of a small company, Latent Image, that produced commercials and industrial films.
This film had a great impact on me when I first laid eyes on it. At first glance I thought it was just a plane old 60’s black and white monster movie, but I was so wrong. Seeing Harry Cooper (played by Karl Hardman, who was a producer on the film as well) yell “You Bastards!”, the nude backside of a female zombie (on TV no less!) and the living dead eating flesh in an old black and white horror film was so unreal for me at the time. As I watched on, not only did it have a classic monster movie feel, but also it had a great gritty realism to it. Especially during all the scenes of the news footage and toward the end where the posse are rounding up the zombies, made it look like a documentary. One crazy turn events came at the end, when Ben is the lone survivor of the chaotic night, you would think that when the posse came to the house they were there to rescue him, that was not the case. They end up shooting him thinking he was just one of the undead. I couldn’t believe it, the hero of the film dies? After all that they shoot him right in the head. I had very mixed emotions about the final scene, but later on I would understand its significance.
Once the movie was over I thought to myself, “I saw the greatest movie ever!” Then two things entered my mind, one, I have to go out and the rent the film to see it again and to see the very beginning that I had missed, and two, I have to see more movies like this one, meaning horror. So, I fell in love with the film and become a fanatic on Night of the Living Dead over night and it also opened the door for my horror movie watching and my love for the genre.
Probably less than a week later, I was in the video store looking to rent Night of the Living Dead or another horror film. I ended up getting another black and white horror classic, Psycho. After seeing that I was hooked and fell in love with another great picture and became a fan of Hitchcock as well. Soon after that I rented Night and watched it for a second time and I loved it even more. I finally got to see the opening scene and that became one of my favorite scenes of the film. When that music hits in the opening shot it sets the tone for the whole film. The car driving down the road and into the cemetery, Barbara and Johnny visiting their father’s grave, Johnny (played by Russell Streiner, who was also a producer) saying that famous line, “They’re coming to get you Barbara!”, and the cemetery zombie (played by Bill Hinzman), you first see him from a distance, then he gets closer and closer until he’s right there in front of you on the attack.
One thing that I really noticed when I watched it the second time was the music. It’s an excellent soundtrack that later on I found out that most or all of it was royalty free music or music they bought from a stock library. Also, with viewing it again I saw that this film made a statement and had plenty to say. Romero and Russo introduced us to the modern horror film sort of speak. A film that had a title and a look at first of a b-movie that played at drive-ins that usually was set in a dark castle with vampires, witches, or demons. The monsters in their vision were us and the problem wasn’t solved or stopped in ninety minutes. It ends with uncertainty and the horror is still out there.
I felt the film also represented the time when it was made, the late 1960’s and broke some taboos. Vietnam was happening, people hated the war and were rebelling. You could almost say the living dead outside are the Vietnam War and the people in the house were America, which makes sense because they were at each other’s throats and so was America with each other at that time. Other things that I caught that I felt were symbolic were representation of family values in the late 60’s. The scene where Karen (played by Kyra Schon) comes back to the dead and eats her father, Harry and stabs her mother Helen (played by Marilyn Eastman), such a great scene, in a way to me that represents kids rebelling against their parents in kind of a twisted way I guess. Also, casting a black man as the lead was not common back then, which was not the intention, they casted Jones because he was the best actor for the role not for his skin color.
Soon after that I got addicted to horror movies, watching them on TV and renting them from video stores. Watched the classics and the current films from that time. I also wanted to find out everything I could about Night of the Living Dead. Reading up on it, I found out there were two sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. I actually saw Day before I watched Dawn. Day was shown on USA’s Saturday Nightmares in the summer of ’88. Even though a lot was cut from the film due to its gore, I very much enjoyed the film. Then in October of that same year, I finally got to see Dawn. I liked it a lot better than Day and almost just as equally to Night. Throughout the years both Night and Dawn have become two of my favorite films of all time.
Around that time I started writing horror short stories and had dreams of making films. Lots of my inspiration comes from Night. If it was writing a story back then or making a film now, Night of the Living Dead and the works of Romero, has always been a huge part. I inspired to be a filmmaker like him. Just making great horror films on a small scale.
I also became a rabid collector of Night. I remember getting excited that it was being shown again on USA in the spring of ’88 and I made sure to tape it. At last, I had the film on tape where I could watch it over and over again. Years later I ended up buying a VHS copy of the film and the two sequels from a video store that were going out of business. Then I got a catalog that had a bunch of Night of the Living Dead items. I bought a couple of cool T-shirts and got a book that was written by John Russo about the making of the film and the impact it had after it was released, it was a very good read. A company called Fantco released I comic version of the film. It was a four issues series, plus a bonus comic that was a prelude to the film. I got my hands on the books in 1992 and they were very well done that had great black and white images and captured the movie perfectly.
In October of 1990, they released a remake of Night. This was a time when we weren’t plagued with horror remakes, plus the originals of Night, Romero, Russo, and Streiner were making this film with special effects maestro, Tom Savini directing, so I was looking forward to seeing it. It ended up being not bad, but not as good as the three other films. It was a good watch and was almost like a ‘what if’ scenario of the original film.
Throughout the 90’s and into the 2000’s, I still looked at Night as my #1 favorite horror film and one of my favorite films of all time and I still do today. In 2005, Romero came out with the fourth installment of the Dead series, Land of the Dead. The movie didn’t have the same magic as the others, but it was good to see Romero make another zombie film. Also in that same year I had the pleasure of working for the short-lived Horror Channel, which was only web based. I had edited some bumps and promos of Night for the channel, which was going to broadcast the movie on that Halloween. I also got to edit an interview of Romero and video of footage from the Pittsburgh premiere of Land of the Dead, which was a real treat. In 2008, Romero released his fifth installment of the Dead series, Diary of the Dead, which I felt was not as good as Land or any of the previous films.
Another treat is going to horror conventions and trying to meet people from the film. I have meet many of the cast of Dawn of the Dead, but I only met a few cast members from Night. First I met Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie. I met him on three occasions at Spooky Empire in Orlando. He was really great and even dressed as his zombie character. This year in 2009, I met three other members of the film, John Russo, Johnny himself, Russ Streiner, and George Kosana who played Sheriff McClelland who said the famous line, “They’re dead, they’re all messed up.” I hope to someday meet other members of the cast and the ultimate is to meet Romero himself.
To this day I make it a tradition to watch Night of the Living Dead on Halloween night. I probably seen the film hundreds or thousands of times and own several copies of the film on VHS and DVD. I even got to see the film on the big screen, when the Beach Theater in St. Pete Beach was showing the film around Halloween time in 2008. I believe they show the film every year. I am glad I got to tell you my Night of the Living Dead experience. This film is an important part of my life and will always cherish it.