The Power of Film: ‘Night of the Living Dead’

The Power of Film Focused on Night of the Living Dead

Films have the potential to be a powerful medium; they are able to reach mass audiences and can spread ideas or awareness on topics to whomever watches them. The numerous genres and the constantly changing societal values make the film industry able to produce incredible movies that can be culturally or historically important. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) stands as one of the most influential films in the history of motion pictures. The film popularized the independent film genre and has influenced numerous other films, television shows, video games and music videos; Night of the Living Dead started the zombie craze that is still in full effect today. Romero’s film created the idea of flesh eating zombies, shattered taboos about plot points, and terrified audiences in a way that set a new standard for horror films to come.

Audiences called this film the most terrifying film ever made and yet they flocked to midnight screenings of the movie night after night. Night of the Living Dead popularized midnight screenings of horror films for year round enjoyment instead of primarily around Halloween (Hervey 8). The motion picture proved that directors do not need big film companies to produce and distribute their movies; instead it showed that independent movies could become cult classics by themselves and without the funds. In 1967, George Romero and John Russo started their own company called ‘Image Ten’, they assembled a team of writers, producers, and music/sound engineers, most of which were old co-workers that they had known prior, and got to work making a new independent film (Hervey 9). Romero was inspired by the novel I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson, which is about a man left alone in a world full of vampires. Romero also borrowed elements from vampire movies produced in Italy and other parts of Europe and adapted them to a new horrifying epidemic for an American audience. Some ideas that became key in Romero’s film were, “…slow-moving hordes, hands grasping through boarded windows, an inflected child on her deathbed, mounds of burning corpses – plus the protagonist dies” (Hervey 10). These aspects became signature attributes of zombies in horror films and television shows; it is what made this film stand out from other independent movies and catch the attention of audience members everywhere. Image Ten was a company that created this film without any deadlines or a professional cast, most of the actors were friends or family members and all of the special effects were DIY. The film and its team had no studio help, it was completed with a mere budget of $114,000 from private investors, and it became an international sensation (Hervey 11-13). This minuscule budget should have been a disadvantage and could have severely damaged the overall quality of the film produced, however Romero was able to turn this disadvantage into something that actually helped the movie. Audiences loved the way the film was edited a bit roughly, it added to the authenticity of his independent production. Night was able to become a disturbance to the overwhelming Hollywood supremacy and inspire independent directors to make their masterpieces without the help of major movie studios (Hervey 13).

It is important to understand why Night of the Living Dead had such a powerful impact on the film industry; it was not merely because it was shockingly violent and full of gore. Instead, “The film’s power to disturb is rooted in the threat of communicability and the ghouls’ power to turn us into them with as little as a nip or scratch. The fragility of identity remains an abiding concern in contemporary horror films, which cling with almost religious fidelity to certain aspects of the Romero-Russo paradigm (the barricading of a make-do shelter, the infighting of those barricaded) while tailoring the specifics of the infection in question to the tenor of the times” (Smith 43). The threat of humans being forced to lose their identity only to instead become a mindless decaying vessel in which their only emotions or feelings would be an intense hunger for flesh is mind-boggling. It is a scenario that never fails to distress audiences and have them fearing that this situation could become a reality. Like Smith points out, all that contemporary writers have to do is change the specifics of how the infection came to be, to fit present day concerns, and suddenly a new horrific story has been written.

The zombies that Romero created shaped the general idea of these undead creatures for years to come and are still influencing writers today. “…Night of the Living Dead not only introduced the flesh-eating zombie, it also initiated what has become an iconic image of zombies beating at the walls of houses and barns, their hands groping blindly and remorselessly at the humans who are trying desperately to keep them out” (Keetley 298). These newly introduced zombies are what most modern zombie entertainment is based off of, media such as films, television shows, video games, and music videos are all under the influence of this iconic motion picture. Movies such as 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead, along with televisions shows like The Walking Dead and video games such as Resident Evil and Doom all feature zombies inspired by Romero’s creation (“Dead Man Still Walking” 17). The Walking Dead can be split into two categories as well; it is originally a collection graphic of novels that has now developed into an extremely popular television show. Even Michael Jackson’s music video for “Thriller” was a result of the uncontrollable zombie craze from the 1970’s through the mid that Night had stirred up. It was the first zombie film that was unbelievably savage and gruesome because it showed zombies consuming human flesh onscreen. From then on horror motion pictures were able to depict truly horrific scenes of these undead creatures devouring their victims. Bishop argues that the increase of zombie movies in recent years has created somewhat of a “zombie renaissance” that was all started from the developmental peak, which was the release of Night of the Living Dead, in the late 1960’s. He also argues that with all the remakes of Romero’s “Dead Trilogy” that this zombie renaissance is at its peak in the most recent years because of all this heavy zombie saturation across all different types of entertainment media (American Zombie Gothic 12-14).

The full academic paper will soon be available online. Full copyright claims to this text reserved for the author (myself, Lauren Tavella).

*All photo and show credits go to the respective parties (ie, George Romero, Universal Pictures, Victor Halperin, United Artists, and AMC.)

References: (Noted in text)

Bishop, Kyle. “Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining The Zombie Renaissance.” Journal Of Popular Film & Television 37.1 (2009): 16-25. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

Bishop, Kyle William. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. United States: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2010. Print.

Hervey, Benjamin. Night of the Living Dead. N.p.: British Film Institute, 2008. Print.

Keetley, Dawn. “Zombie Republic: Property And The Propertyless Multitude In Romero’s Dead Films And Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.” Journal Of The Fantastic In The Arts 25.2/3 (2014): 295-313. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

Nelmes, Jill. Introduction to Film Studies. Fifth ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print. Smith, Richard Harland. “The Battle Inside: Infection And The Modern Horror Film.” Cineaste 35.1 (2009): 42-45. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

Watson, Glenn. “The Sermon In Three Acts: The Rhetoric Of Cinema And The Art Of Narrative Biblical Exposition.” Revista Batista Pioneira 3.1 (2014): 191-210. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

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