Archived Events, Film



When two girls were arrested earlier this year for stabbing their friend out of loyalty to cyber-boogeyman Slenderman, one of the most common reactions (outside of “Holy shit, did you hear about the Slenderman thing?” and “lol”) was to reflect on how remarkably fast the monster’s mythos had spread. First described on a SomethingAwful forum on June 8, 2009, as an explicit attempt to manufacture an urban legend, the story took on a life of its own, until, less than five years later, it was inspiring crimes in people who thought it was the real deal. Yet this sort of viral creep is not uncommon, particularly in the past century of accelerated pop culture. Indeed, one of the most popular myths of the modern era can also be traced back to a single date: October 1, 1968.


That date, of course, marked the premiere screening of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That film, made for $114,000 by a bunch of twentysomethings in an abandoned farmhouse outside of Pittsburgh, is the clear-cut starting point for the Zombie Apocalypse as we know it today. In less than fifty years, Romero’s vision of a world overrun by the shuffling, murderous undead has become an integral part of the American pop-cultural consciousness, inspiring an entire genre of fiction, as well as countless water cooler discussions about the best strongholds and who would get eaten first. Some legends are handed down through generations; this one started with a screenplay treatment.

Of course, Romero didn’t invent the zombie, per se. The basic concept comes from Haitian folklore, usually in reference to a dead or brain-dead individual whose motor functions are in control of a witch or voodoo priest (this breed of zombie had already been the subject of a number of classic films, including WHITE ZOMBIE and Val Lewton’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE). And Romero’s ravenous hordes have ancestors in both the mutants in Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND and the experiments of H.P. Lovecraft’s HERBERT WEST – RE-ANIMATOR (which, of course, would get its own adaptation some years later). Even vampires, on paper anyway, share most of the same core characteristics: convalescence, cannibalism, and contagion.


What Romero brought to the table, then, was the concept of zombie-as-plague. Where other movie monsters are problems that need to be stopped, Romero’s zombies are more of a fact that needs to be dealt with. There’s no cure, no leader, no hope of getting things back to normal; the best you can hope for is to find a way to survive, and not harm your loved ones when you inevitably die and turn into a zombie yourself. The horror in a zombie movie isn’t from the zombies themselves; the zombies are just a bunch of hungry stupid guys. The horror is the situation itself.

The peculiar result of this (and from the decades of films expanding upon this idea) is that “zombie apocalypse” is no longer a plot, but a setting, in the same way as “the wild west” or “outer space.” Thanks to the power and efficiency of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (and its possibly-even-better sequel, DAWN OF THE DEAD), filmmakers wishing to tell a zombie story don’t need to waste any time explaining why there are zombies, nor do they need to get rid of them in the end. Once the viewer sees zombies, they already know everything they need to know. Few films have had that kind of fundamental impact on the way we process fiction.


But here’s the final twist: that is probably not even the most groundbreaking thing about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It was one of the first truly independent films to make a national splash, and its graphic violence and brutal nihilism irrevocably shifted the trajectory of horror film history (to get a sense of how shocking NOTLD was to contemporary audiences, check out Roger Ebert’s infamous, later-recanted review). What’s more, Romero’s failure to adequately copyright the film made it one of the most frequently released movies of the home video era, ensuring that it would be seen by generation after generation of budding film fans. Its influence is like its monsters: unstoppable, and with no end in sight.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) dir. George A. Romero
Friday, 8/23 & Saturday, 8/24, 11:59 PM


Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard St.
Brookline, MA 02446


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019