Night of the Cult Classic
Zombies were big last decade, thanks to Danny Boyle’s nail-biting thriller 28 Days Later. Writer Joe Kane reminds us of that the recent breed of undead were born in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), a movie routinely described as a “cult classic.” And rightfully so, because Romero’s movie not only fits any definition for that term but helped shape the whole notion of the midnight movie well before Eraserhead and Rocky Horror. The zombies led the way.
Kane’s book Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever (Citadel Press) is a reminder that the zombie traveled from Haiti into pop culture began with travel writer William Seabrook’s account of voodoo, The Magic Island (1929), and reached Hollywood with the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie (1932). With such worthwhile exceptions as Jacques Tourneur’s subtle classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), most undead flicks were D pictures, bargain basement filler for grindhouses and drive-ins. Somehow, Romero’s reluctant venture into the disreputable genre struck a louder chord. Night of the Living Dead had all the garish gore of the grindhouse but also seemed to reflect on large issues through its bloodstained mirror.
As Kane writes, it was a ‘60s movie with a then unusual African-American hero pitted against know-nothing rednecks as well as their undead cousins. The zombies existed to consume; they were in that sense ideal Americans, insatiably gorging themselves on whatever they saw. And there is also another level: the unsettling sense that the zombies were no worse than the forces of order arrayed against them.
The production of Living Dead was a template for indie films to come. Romero and is partners operated a firm that made commercials and were able to shoot their movie with miniscule investment and the help of friends, family and neighbors who played roles behind and before the camera. With more time and money, Night of the Living Dead would have been more polished, yet the rawness may well have enhanced the intended effect of watching an inexplicable event unfolding on the fly.