Night of the Living Dead (1968) proves that you don’t have to follow the rules to win the game. In fact with this $114,000 budget, nontraditional plot and characters and twisted climax Night of the Living Dead (1968) should have been a box office flop. Instead it is not only one of the most successful horror films ever made, it is also one of the most influential films of any genre.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) revolutionized the horror film genre. According to Almar Haflidason of the BBC, the film represented "a new dawn in horror film-making".
The film also redefined the definition of zombie. Despite the fact that the word zombie is never used in the film. In previous films, zombies was more of a victim than a villain. In Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) the zombies were living human beings who had been enslaved by an evil witch doctor or mad scientist. With Night of the Living Dead (1968), the zombies became reanimated dead bodies with a voracious appetite for human flesh.
George Romero, who produced, directed and co-wrote Night of the Living Dead (1968), began his career in the film industry in the 1960s. He directed and produced television commercials and industrial films for The Latent Image, a company that he co-founded with John Russo and Russell Streiner. Tired of making commercials the three friends decided to try their hand at film making. They pull their money together and started their own production company Image Ten to produce the film. They also raised additional funds by selling shares into the production to friends and businesses at $300 a share.
Romero stated that Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) was a big influence on the film. The writers decided to make their zombies cannibals to provide more shock valve to the film. In fact Night of the Living Dead (1968)is noted for being one of the first films to depict graphic violence on screen.
One of the working titles for this film was "Night of the Flesh Eaters". Originally, the zombies were extraterrestrials feeding on humans, but it was later decided (most likely due to budget considerations) that the dead would rise and feed on the living.
With a limited budget of $114,000 the filmmakers were forced to think outside the box and to make adjustments in the storyline were necessary. For example, the filming of the cemetery scene was shot on two different days, an unexpected accident caused a fast change of script. The car driven by Barbara and Johnny into the cemetery was owned by the mother of co-producer Russell Streiner. Sometime between the two filming scenes, someone ran into the car and put a dent in it that would have been visible on camera. Romero rewrote the scene so the car would come to a stop by crashing into a tree.
The house in the film was scheduled to be demolished so the owner loaned the house to the
Like most low budget independent films cast and crew preformed several task during production. Actor/co-producer Karl Hardman who played Harry Cooper, the father in the basement, also served as makeup artist, electronic sound effects engineer, and took the photos used for the closing credits. S. William Hinzman and Karl Hardman, two of the original $300 investors were cast due to a shortage of talent. Another investor, who was actually a butcher, provided some blood and guts for the film. When the zombies are eating the bodies in the burnt-out truck they were actually eating roast ham covered in chocolate sauce. The joke on the set that it was so nauseating that it was a waste of time putting the makeup on the zombies, as they were looking pale and sick anyway after filming the scene.
Screenwriter John A. Russo who appears in the film as the zombie that gets his head smashed with a tire iron, also worked as a stuntman allowing himself to be set on fire since no one else was willing to do the stunt.
200 extras were cast in the parts of townspeople and zombies and the Pittsburgh police provided personnel and equipment. Bill 'Chilly Billy' Cardille, who played the television reporter, hosted a horror movie program and occasionally reported the news of a local Pittsburgh Television station. At least part of the Cooper family are played by real family members. Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper) is the real life father of Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper).
Racial tensions were at an all-time high in the late 1960s when this film was produced. Some sources claim that the part of Ben was actually a social commentary on racism. However according to the filmmakers Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the part and race had nothing to do with their choice in hiring him. Originally the character of Ben was to be a crude truck driver however after Jones auditioned for the part Romero decided to rewrite the script making Ben a more sophisticated character. Jones did have some misgivings about the character of Ben being portrayed as such an angry person. He went to Romero and asked to have some of the anger removed from his part, Romero refused to change the script. However years later Romero expressed regret that he had not changed the script.
After the final editing was completed on April 4, 1968 Romero and John A. Russo took the film and drove to New York to see if they could find a theater to show it in. According to Romero while driving to New York that night they heard the news over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. The film finally premiered at the Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 1, 1968, admission by invitation only and was met with a standing ovation.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) was George A. Romero's feature debut and became one of the most successful independent films ever made. The film had earned between $12 and $15 million at the American box office after a decade. It was translated into more than 25 languages and released across Europe, Canada and Australia. Night of the Living Dead (1968) grossed $30 million internationally, and the Wall Street Journal reported that it was the top grossing film in Europe in 1969. Despite its overwhelming financial success Romero saw very little profit from the film due to his lack of knowledge regarding distribution deals, the distributors took virtually all of the profits from the film.
Upon the film’s release critics savaged the film. Roger Ebert stated that it was a bad influence on children. Variety stated that Night of the Living Dead (1968) cast serious aspersions on the integrity of its makers. 1968 Readers Digest tried to warn people from watching the film, claiming if it's ever watched, it will inspire cannibalism.
Despite the negative reviews Night of the Living Dead (1968) was a runaway success, far exceeding the expectations of its makers and distributors. Since its release Night of the Living Dead (1968) has become a cult classic and was honored by being one of the first films added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.