|Scene from Night of the Living Dead|
What does it take to make a film? Does it take money and access to great sets and costumes? It sure does if you want to make a soaring epic. However, the very basis of cinema can be summed up in a more juvenile sense: point and shoot. For every Hitchcock or Spielberg, there is a filmmaker with no more than an idea. For the late, great George A. Romero, that idea lead to a revolution in horror cinema. With only $114,000, he managed to create one of the most influential yet controversial movies in history. With the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Romero molded the zombie archetype into how it would be perceived for the next 50 years. It didn't take much money, but it took a lot of creative loopholes. For that reason, and many more, Romero's debut isn't just one of the greatest zombie movies ever, it's also one of the finest examples of how to make an indie movie.
In theory, Romero didn't invent the idea of a zombie. Films like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie had existed for decades by the time that he released his directorial debut. It's a fact made more peculiar by the fact that he never once utters the Z-word in the entire film. Before 1968, a "zombie" was seen more as a person possessed by a witch doctor. They weren't brought back to life like a vampire or mummy. Instead, the idea for Night of the Living Dead came from reading Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," which focused on social themes through the rise of vampire-like monsters. It inspired Romero to make his own story, but with a different beast - one whose roots were so primitive that they didn't need a back story. Thus came the birth of "ghouls," or zombies.
What's incredible to note about the 96 minute film is that it didn't require a lot to be downright terrifying. Audiences at the Fulton Theater premiere in Pittsburgh became scared by the convincing gore (which was actually chocolate syrup). They could feel a raw and realistic energy on screen. It has a large part to do with Romero's limitations. This wasn't a grand production. It was shot in a secluded area, predominantly indoors, and featured actors playing zombies that were a far cry from the rotting flesh that even Romero's sequel Dawn of the Dead would possess. In a lot of ways, Night of the Living Dead was a film that could be shot by anyone that had a home and a dozen or so friends. All that was needed was a strong sense of tension through claustrophobic sets.
It's a film that has the heart of the indie film movement down to the somewhat controversial idea of reviving the 50's schlock genre with stagnant camera techniques and a perverse joy in being voyeurs to traumatic events. It also escaped having the ideal white masculine lead in favor of a woman and a black man, which of course added rich subtext to then current social issues. It was exciting to see the humans survive against the living dead. It was in large part because it felt real. Zombies were once like us, but have no basis in logic besides killing. Even when the film gives a somewhat optimistic ending, the closing credits feature an even more shocking twist that feels inspired by the Civil Rights movements of the 1960's. For a film about mindless deaths, Romero knew how to pack subtext into a small group of actors panicking as a door gets barged in. It's something that he brought to all of his films, showing that there's more to horror than shock. It can provide deeper thought.
In that way, Romero's new take on zombies started out as one of the most secretly smart horror archetypes in existence. Like every indie darling story, it grossed an impressive $30 million against its pittance of a budget. It was like Carnival of Souls: a film that could be terrifying without providing more than clever location shooting, an eerie soundtrack, and horrors that resembled humanity a bit too much. It didn't need much to impress, and in the process showed that anyone can make a zombie movie. To some extent, that dare became a reality that stuck with pop culture for the next 50 years. Suddenly the living dead were a field of horror in which anyone could put on garish make-up and gargle their way through the street. There's been zombie walks every Halloween, and the amount of films inspired by Romero are still growing. There's even satires that play on his debut (Return of the Living Dead) and the sequel Dawn of the Dead's name (Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead).
With six films in his personal Dead franchise, Romero was the godfather of zombies as they are seen today. He may have not originated the word, but he saw a way to take the recently deceased and turn them into the stuff of nightmares and inspiration. He directed a lot of other horror films and collaborated on several other major projects, but there's a reason his original film was so inspiring. It was an indie film that was scary and innovative without having to cost a ton of money. It needed a field and a house to become iconic, and in the process showed the bare elements of what it took to make a movie of any kind. In a lot of ways, Romero was an inspiration to those who simply wanted to get out there and make something that mattered for not very much. He just so happened to reinvent zombie culture into what it is today in the process. Even if you prefer Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, or another zombie movie entirely, you can't argue about how impressive a film made for $114,000 that changed the landscape of cinema actually is. It's what cinema strives to often be, and Romero did it best.