Hey, You’re Still Afraid- Night Of The Living Dead

It was something hybrid that mixed terror and laughter and social comment into one heady, totally unpredictable witches’ brew of entertainment unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Wes Craven

We might as well start at the very beginning. George Andrew Romero was born on February 4, 1940, in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City. He later moved to Pittsburgh and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) to study film. Romero and a few aspiring filmmaking friends started Image Tens Productions, since they figured they needed an “official name”.

After writing Night Of The Living Dead, Romero reflected, ”I had written a short story, which I had basically ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.” Matheson’s novel follows a protagonist who is left the sole human survivor of a world-wide outbreak of vampires. Romero changed his monsters to “ghouls”, as he called them. In a 2010 interview with critic Peter Keough, Romero said, “I never thought about them as zombies…People started to write about Night Of The Living Dead and called them zombies. I said, ‘Wow, maybe they are.’ To me, they were dead neighbors.” The monsters are not even referred to as zombies in Night Of The Living Dead. It’s not until his sequel Dawn Of The Dead in 1978 that they’re actually referred to as zombies on-screen. Breaking from the more voodoo-definition of zombies, like with White Zombie, Romero it more of a contagious condition, more similar to vampirism like in I Am Legend. 

Judith O’Dea, who played Barabara on the zombies in Night, “I think because before they became zombies, those were feeling, caring, loving human beings- for the most part. And to all of sudden turn on their families, their fellow man, without any care and become so vicious is a frightening concept.”

We open the film seeing two siblings, Johnny and Barbara, driving to the cemetery to place a memorial wreath at the grave of their deceased father. Originally, for the role of Barbara they wanted Betty Aberlin, “Lady Aberlin” on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The role went to Judith O’Dea, a twenty-three year old actress who had recently returned to Pennsylvania from Hollywood after an attempt to “make it” out there. Russ Streiner, who plays Johnny, was also a producer on Night Of The Living Dead and a regular actor at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. John Russo, a writer on the movie, said, “Russ kind of got pressured into service because we could save money by casting ourselves in various roles.” 

As Johnny picks on Barbara, jousting as siblings do, she’s attacked by a ghoulish man. Johnny intervenes and when the two wrestle to the ground, Johnny’s head hits the corner of a headstone and he stops moving. The ghoul returns his attention to Barbara and a chase ensues. Baraba, heels aside, outruns him and seeks shelter at a seemingly empty farmhouse. A truck pulls up driven by Ben, actor Duane Jones. Duane had auditioned for the movie after finding out about it from a mutual friend of him and Romero. While they were looking for actors to play Ben, they were not looking for specifically African-American actor because the role was not written as an African-American character. 

Hidden in the basement through all of this chaos was the Cooper family- husband Harry, wife Helen, and daughter Karen. Harry (referred to mostly as just “Cooper” in the movie) was played by Karl Hardman and Helen was played by Marilyn Eastman, both were popular radio actors in the Pittsburgh area. Kyra Schon was only nine at the time she acted in Night. Even though she only has one line of dialogue in the movie (“I hurt.”) her with dark circles around her eyes and hair down over her face has become the popular promotional image used for Night posters and other merchandise. On her role, even at such a young age, Schon said,  “I was already a horror-movie junkie at that point in my life, watching Chiller Theater every Saturday. The Crawling Eye and The Wasp Woman were my favorite movies. I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I was gonna get to play a little monster and kill people. What could be better?”

After Jones was cast as Ben, dialogue between him and the character of Cooper became even combative because it then had racial and bigoted undertones. It reflects general discords of the 1960s with flaring opinions on Vietnam War, racism, politics, etc. Ben and Cooper together are total opposites, representing “Old Right” and “New Left”. Ben ends up punching the shit out of him later on, knocking down the racist, bigoted asshole and the progressive youth taking charge. 

When it came to casting extras, Russo said, “We were worried that we did not have enough money to pay a sufficient number of extras. But we got plenty of volunteers, including people from in and around Evans City, who jumped at the chance to be in a movie…They gave the movie a ‘real people’ look that probably added to the believability.” Ella Mae Smith, a cabinet shop owner in Evans City, remembers her and her husband were “sitting in our yard and a car pulled up in front. A girl got out and she said, ‘Hi, we’re from the movie back there that we’re making. How would you and your husband like to be in it?’ “

The original ending of the movie has Ben pulling Barbara down into the cellar as zombies break into the house, and Barbara coming up out of the cellar at the end, but Ben was always set to die. “We figured it would shock people and they would hate it, but it would make them keep talking about the picture as they were leaving the theater,” Russo said.

Other ending ideas had zombified Karen standing in the foreground after the mob members burn the dead bodies and drive off because then “there would thus be one ghoul still left alive.” 

The ending that we get is everyone dying except for Ben, but when he comes to the window there’s a mob surrounding the house and them thinking that he’s a zombie pop he gets shot in the head and we hear the line, “there’s another one for the fire.” There’s then a montage of photos that resemble Southern lynch mobs, as it’s literally there in black and white, but it also resembles the images of US soldiers in body bags in Vietnam and other casualties of the Vietnam War that were being flashed on the news every night. 

The Vietnam War itself lasted from 1954 to 1979. North Vietnam (and it’s allies in the South “Viet Cong”) vs South Vietnam and their biggest ally- the U.S. The North wanted to unite them and be a communist regime (like Chinese and Soviet Russia) while the South Vietnamese government wanted to preserve a government more like the western world. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the U.S. was present in small numbers as military advisors. In 1965, the U.S. began sending over active combat units and by 1969 there were more than 500,000 active U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. In 1995, Vietnam released the estimated number of casualties of the war were 2 million civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese/Viet Cong soldiers, 200,000-250,000 South Korean soldiers, and an estimated 58,200 American and Candian soldiers either dead or missing. If you were to look at that number of lives lost today, it would be about the equivalent of the entire population of Los Angeles, California. 

The Bien Hoa Airport acted as a U.S. airbase during the Vietnam War, in Dong Nai Province, which neighbors Ho Chi Minh City. Years after the Vietnam War ended, a mass grave was discovered at the airport. The bodies of about 150 soldiers were found at the site that were killed during the Tet Offensive, which started January 31, 1968, Northern Vietnamese troops attacking over 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam while breaking a truce over a holiday. 

To this day, the Bien Hoa Airport remains a “hot spot” of dioxin contamination from the use of Agent Orange, according to Vietnam’s defense ministry. Agent Orange is an herbicide mixture that is a highly toxic organic pollutant and during the war, it was sprayed at twenty times the manufacturers recommended amount that’s used for killing plants. The half-life of dioxin in the human body is 11-20 years. In the environment, the half-life varies on the type of soil, the depth of the dioxin penetration, and the sun exposure of the area. On the surfaces of leaves and soil, the sun can cut the half-life of dioxin to 1-3 years. Dioxin that’s buried deep under the soil or deep in the sediment of rivers and other bodies of water can have a half-life of over 100 years. It affected millions of acres of forest and farmland during the war that are still unable to be used to this day. 

Human exposure to Agent Orange has been linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects, and other disabilities. Short-term exposure can consist of skin lesions and alter liver functions. Long-term exposure has been linked to impairments in the immune system, nervous system, and the endocrine system and has been linked to cancers and harm reproductive functions. 

And why did I go down this rabbit hole? Because of the TV reporter that Cooper sees where the idea comes up of radiation contamination in the atmosphere from a NASA space probe around Venus, which then sparks debate amongst them on TV and on the radio about the cause of the chaos of the attacks as  “an army of unidentified assassins”, “explosion of mass homicide”, “National Guard may be mobilized at any moment”, “President has called a meeting of his cabinet”, “they look like people but act like animals”, ”obscure kind of conspiracy…creatures from outer space”. Romero has a cameo as a reporter questioning three authority figures- two scientists and a military official. Showing scientists and military officials on television would become a running theme in Romero’s zombie movies. Romero has said, “As far as the people on television not really answering questions and making it more confusing, that’s been a conscious part of the zombie films. That’s generally what it’s about– ‘Ladies and gentleman there was just a plane crash that took out a small piece of Manhattan, more later.’ It’s never reassuring; it’s always alarming, and that’s been a kind of conscious through-line.”

The Tet Offensive was fought while Night was in post-production. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, which was the same day that Romero set out to try and find a distributor for Night. Riots erupted in Detroit (as well as 110 other U.S.cities) in a response to the assassination. Michigan Governor George W. Romney ordered the National Guard into Detroit. One person was killed and estimated three dozen fires set. Once Night was released, audiences would see the image of Ben being gunned down as a mirror to the recent military occupation in Detroit. 

In 2018, the Criterion Collection released a special edition Night Of The Living Dead on DVD and Blu-ray. Part of the special features is a booklet that has an essay entitled Mere Anarchy Is Loosed by critic Stuart Klawans. In his essay, Klawans points out

And that was a large part of what Romero captured in his snapshot of the era; the bafflement that accompanies violent disorder. It was a time when secret histories, conspiracy theories, and occult revelations flourished; the years when doubts about the Warren Report solidified into national myths (the grassy knoll, the magic bullet- JFK assassination), faith in an unknowable plan to end the Vietnam War became a foundation of Nixon’s presidency, the Apollo moon landing was reputed to be fake, and the Beatles were widely believed to have concealed Paul McCartney’s death. Events had become incomprehensible; official pronouncements, unbelievable; and so, for resarruance, many people turned to explanations that were as all-encompassing as they were unverifiable.

And that was just how conspiracies were with the common access to television. In a post-internet and post-9/11 world, these ideas form and travel even faster. You would hear jokes about how “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” and then learn about the ideas of things like false flag events. I woke up on October 2, 2017 to hear news about a mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas that happened the night before. A day later, I was already hearing about “holes in the story” and how people were filling them with their ideas.  The faster someone can get at their cellphone or laptop and break the news the faster the public gets the information (or a lack-of information, depending on who you ask).

Night Of The Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968, at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh. Night Of The Living Dead was called “Monster Flick” during production, then the working title was Night Of Anubis (referring to the Egyptian god of death), then Flesh Eaters. Since the first finished print was called Night Of The Flesh Eaters, they were threatened with a lawsuit from people who made a movie in 1964 called The Flesh Eaters.  So when it was put out the reprint with the Night Of The Living Dead title, the little circle with the C copyright logo was on the titles and not in the credits- where it was supposed to be. They won a copyright in 1983 in federal court, but they still made almost no money from the movie because of the copyright flub. This is why so many different variations of the film are available on DVD and Blu-ray and also why it is commonly seen on television screens in movies, particularly during scenes set on Halloween. Since this mistake occurred, copyright laws have changed so this doesn’t happen again, The United States’ Berne Convention Implementation Act and Copyright Term Extension Act gives an automatic copyright to anything in “fixed form ”and an automatic copyright renewal, whether or not the copyright logo appears or not”.

Evans City, Pennsylvania is by no means a big city but it does take big pride in being known for Night Of The Living Dead. There’s a library in the downtown area and behind it there is a sign proclaiming “Evans City- Home To Night Of The Living Dead”. There are several smaller metal signs circled at the base of this sign giving a history of Night Of The Living Dead and George Romero’s life and his other works. The Evans City Cemetery is down a hilly country road and the entrance drive is up the side of a steep hill. After driving up that road myself, I sympathize with Barbara after she accidentally backs Johnny’s car down the hill and crashes it.

Now, here’s what I’ll refer to as the Don’t Be A Dick Disclaimer. If you’re like me and enjoy traveling to locations where movies were filmed then be aware of where you’re going. Some places are open to the public, some are closed off, and some are private property. Evans City Cemetery is still just that- a cemetery. No one wants to see you running around like the ghoul attacking Barbara while they’re in the process of burying a loved one. When I visited it, it was November, snowy, cold, and the only other car we saw was a landscaping/maintenance truck that drove away over a hill and we didn’t see it again. The farmhouse that was used in the movie is still standing and it still lived in and there’s a low, white fence up by the road at the end of the property. So maybe wait and see if it goes up on a realty website and buy it yourself if you’re really curious. 

We made it a good film. The fans made it a classic. 

Russell Streuner, producer, Johnny

In 1990, Tom Savini was given the green light to remake Night Of The Living Dead. Savini was in part of the original crew back in 1968 however he was unable to work on the movie because he ended up going to Vietnam as a photographer. 

This time, Patricia Tallman was cast as Barbara (Army Of Darkness, Star Trek Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager; also did stunt double for those Star Trek series, Jurassic Park, Shocker, Creepshow 2, and Speed), Bill Moseley was cast as her brother, Johnny (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, House of 1,000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects, and 3 From Hell). Tom Towles plays Harry Cooper (Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, House of 1,000 Corpses

Tony Todd appears, in a pre-Candyman role as Ben (The Crow, Star Trek Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Final Destinations, Hatchet and Hatchet 2). Laurence Fisburne also auditioned for the role of Ben and Ving Rhames was considered (Rhames would later appear in the Dawn Of The Dead remake). 

The original Johnny Russell Streiner, makes a cameo in the remake as Sheriff McClelland, who makes the comment, “Yeah, they’re dead, they’re all messed up.”

Next to the updates special effects provided by Savini, we also get more “updated” characters, particularly Barbara. In 1968, she was more of a “damsel in distress” remaining either catatonic or hysterical through most of the movie. In 1990, Barbara does start out in hysterics (who wouldn’t at the start of the zombie apocalypse?) but she does not go into full catatonia and talks to Ben right away through her tears. 40 minutes into the movie, she notes how slow the zombies are and that they “could just walk right past them”, they’ve got the guns, looks at Ben to say,  “you told me to fight, so I’m fighting,” then she carries the flings the gun around on her shoulder, and changes from her skirt to some pants. In the end, Barbara does end up taking a couple of guns and walking out of the house and weaves her way through the hoard of slow zombies. Keeping in-touch with the original, Savini kept the zombies slow-moving, even with fast-zombies beginning to appear in movies. 

Stepping up along with Barbara are the characters of Judy and Harry’s wife, Helen. Judy yells at Ben and Cooper fighting because it’s their house that they’re in and what would they do if they kicked them out? Cooper, still being the asshole, still fights with Helen, he slaps her in the basement then when there’s chaos upstairs and he tries to drag her back downstairs she throws a jewelry box at him.

Keeping with Romero’s eye in showing scientists and military personal talking on televisions, we see a guy on TV  suggesting that “ozone layer and chemical weapons or voodoo mysticism, organisms from space”, and the Center for Disease Control says only “reasonable explanation” is a germ that alters the mind. 

At the end of this version, after Barbara walks out of the house and past the zombie hoard, we see her with the hunting mob that has made their way to the farmhouse. Ben turns into a zombie after he dies in the basement and is then shot in the head. Along with the hunting mob, there’s a food truck, all the redneck hunters like we see at the beginning of Dawn Of The Dead, and an area of fenced in zombies in a fighting ring. We see several zombies are lynched from a tree and shot at was in fact scripted in the original 1968 film, but was cut because of the racial tensions gripping the country at the time. The scene pays homage to the said cut scene. It’s after she sees all of this that Barbara comments, ”They’re us. We’re them and they’re us” and, by this point, she resembles Sarah, who we saw in 1985’s Day Of The Dead. 

Getting the final say in the remake is Barbara after Harry Cooper comes down from the attic, where he had locked himself in, and survived. Barbara looks directly at him, shoots him in the head, and says, “there’s another one for the fire.”

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