Roger Ebert endured much mockery for his genuinely shocked assessment of George A. Romero's 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. “The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying,” he wrote. “There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up—and you could actually see what they were eating.” What he was arguing against, if anything, was the cavalier distribution of the film as just another genre double-feature flick suitable for rambunctious children, when the film on display was radically more powerful than that. But his temperature read failed in that moment to catalog Night of the Living Dead's surfeit of political metaphors and racial statements, to assess its bona fides as an example of what Fangoria would later sarcastically snipe at with “It's NOT a horror film!”
That Night of the Living Dead is indeed more than a horror movie doesn't eclipse that it's also one hell of a horror movie. As square as Ebert came off, he's in the minority of critics who've accurately described the effect that the film's content and structure have on audiences, instead of fervently un-subbing its subtexts. The film's function as a key cultural touchstone admittedly keeps it as fresh and urgent as the day it was released, or at least since it went from flash-in-the-pan drive-in fare to Museum of Modern Art-worthy cult sensation. But it sinks its hooks in that very first viewing, just as the mob does to dead bodies underneath those desolate end credits.
My first exposure to the film came via cable TV one October evening, at an age even younger than the girl who was sitting across the aisle from Ebert, just as I was negotiating my own fascination with the genre against the awareness that I both loved and hated being scared. As Ebert described, I thrilled to the “delightfully scary” opening act: an approaching thunderstorm, a rural graveyard, a bickering pair of siblings paying their respects, a distant stranger ambling between rows of crumbling headstones. These elements I already knew would be present in the home movies I'd later shoot with my friends.
Even as Night of the Living Dead ups the stakes when the stranger brutally kills Barbara's (Judith O'Dea) brother, Johnny (a magnificently oily Russell W. Streiner, also one of the film's producers), and chases her across the flat, dusky countryside, it's still playful in a Perils of Pauline sense. Even when Barbara achieves refuge in a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and, along with the audience, catches the film's first glimpse of dripping viscera, it comes in the form of a gloppy-looking skull with a wonky eyeball, admittedly shocking for its era but resonating nothing so serious as the joy-buzzer effect of a haunted carnival funhouse. And even when Ben (Duane Jones) drives up to the farmhouse with more of the dazed, wandering figures in tow, one of which he dispatches by thrusting the sharp end of a tire iron into its forehead, the situation is alarming but the pacing still properly calibrated.
The creators of Night of the Living Dead, like the ones behind Carnival of Souls, refined their craftsmanship in middle America many miles away from New York or Los Angeles, shooting among other things television commercials and industrial films until they realized that it would probably be a lot more lucrative for them to make a low-budget shocker. In both cases, they brought to their side projects the professionalism of their trade (though the Latent Image crew were forced to spread their shoot across the better part of a year, to avoid jeopardizing their day gigs) along with a termite artist's ability to get the most for their buck. In Night of the Living Dead's case, virtually every person working on the film performed as a multi-hyphenate, and almost everyone in front of the camera also served some crucial function behind it as well. One of the great paradoxes of the irony-drenched product is that, while it depicts a small enclave of petrified survivors shredding their chances for survival over petty squabbles, the film itself stands as a testament to the viability of American ingenuity and democratic collaboration.
As Ben and Barbara learn only after the former has boarded up every window and the latter has slipped into numbed catatonia, the farmhouse's cellar has been housing five others. They have barely enough time to compare notes and put together that the slow-moving murderers aren't an isolated incident but are literally everywhere before a radio and then a TV set are discovered. It's really only at this point that the chasm between Night of the Living Dead's form and content becomes pronounced enough to usher in all manner of subtextual readings. Just as the film's presentation flattens out—the canted comic-book angles squaring up, the shadows recalling German expressionism becoming bleached away by the living room lights—the implications of the characters' collective nightmare become gruesomely mapped out, only through the anesthetized form of news reports that the murderers are reanimated corpses, and that those corpses are devouring the flesh of the living. How many times did black men like Ben see images of cigar-chomping white vigilantes toting rifles and feel less assured by the sight? How many images from Vietnam were consumed in tandem with Swanson TV dinners?
A significant chunk of screen time is taken up by the characters not doing much other than passively receiving clear information and then arguing about what they should do about it. And in the meantime, Romero cycles through a number of side genres—kitchen-sink melodrama, teeny-bopper romance, even conspiracy theory-tinged sci-fi—with the confidence of a true shell-game huckster, only to utterly pull the rug out from under everyone in a scorched-earth final reel. Mistakes and miscalculations mount, and mortal consequences are cruelly meted to everyone in a bacchanal of violence, madness, and death, and not entirely at the living dead's hands.
Watching the film in my childhood, it was upsetting enough to see ghouls sinking their teeth into entrails after the group's escape truck explodes, torching a pair of young lovers. Worse still to watch Ben, the presumed hero, shoot dead by one of the other survivors, Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman, another of the film's producers). But nothing in my young viewing experience threw the gravitational axis of the Earth itself askew as powerfully as Harry's wife, Helen (Marilyn Eastman), rushing to the cellar to find her husband's body being devoured by their now dead-and-reanimated daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon), who then in turn grabs a garden trowel and repeatedly buries it in her mother's chest over, and over, and over, and over again.
My father, who was sitting next to me on the couch, covered my eyes, but that did nothing to drown out Helen's densely reverbed, hysterical shrieks or the chunky sound of that tool plunging deeper through her rib cage. In his excellent BFI monograph on the film, Ben Hervey notes that Karen pulps the breasts that nurtured her, which is a graphic but perceptive read on the metaphorical implications of the matricidal set piece. Certainly that reading helps explain why the film's contemporary, countercultural audiences turned Schon into the film's poster child. But that excruciating scene's power lies beyond mere metaphor and in the realm of subconscious dread; in that moment, Romero destroys every single sacred facet of what the American nuclear family presumes as a given. I ran from the room the moment that scene finished and into my mother's bedroom, where she was watching an episode of Knots Landing, knowing that because I was recording Romero's film on tape, I could return to it when I was ready. I didn't find out until years later that my father, having fled from a screening of the film with friends back in its theatrical run, had more or less done the same thing. Night of the Living Dead is a masterpiece that time and accrued perspective fill in with meaning, but only after it first utterly hollows you out.
The Elite DVD release of Night of the Living Dead from 1999 was the first time that new audiences were shown the full potential of the film, following decades of poor dubs and public-domain chicanery. Sourced closer to the original master than had been seen in decades, that release unwittingly gave lie to the notion that George A. Romero's purportedly grainy, shaky, documentary-like presentation gave the film extra value as a metaphor for late-'60s America. Criterion's 4K remaster isn't quite as impactful as that Elite disc's leap forward, but nonetheless, it's as good as the film has ever looked on home video, and even more proof that Romero and the Latent Image group were master filmmakers, cinematographers, and editors. The sections of the film dominated by those slashing shadows are nerve-wracking in their darkness, and moments like Barbara's desperate, barreling run toward the camera in the opening act teem with anxious energy. The monaural sound mix is similarly better than anyone would believe the film could ever sound. Crisp, clean, and minimally shrill. A basically perfect presentation on every level.
Criterion's knack for netting existing commentary tracks if what they could come up with themselves wouldn't be markedly better works once again in their favor. Because it's hard to imagine besting the two existing cast-and-crew tracks with Romero, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, John Russo, Russell Streiner, Vincent Survinski, Judith O'Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. They're convivial and informative, and worth the price of admission alone for the running joke that Eastman absconded with every piece of furniture and every prop she could get away with once the shoot was finished. The other meatiest supplement is the original 16 mm work print of the film, then under its original title Night of Anubis. While mostly of historical interest, it also is reportedly missing the scenes that Romero excised before the final edit and were later destroyed in a flood. That being said, there's a reel's worth of dailies that feature some of that extra footage that fans are likely to be craving. Elsewhere, Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont pay tribute to the film's impact and legacy, and cast and crew members are featured in interview excerpts both new and old. In short, only fans of the short spoof Night of the Living Bread are likely to be disappointed.
Night of the Living Dead is the most original and uniquely American of all horror movies, and without question one of the most important Criterion releases of this or any year.