“The Walking Dead” didn’t become television’s biggest show by stumbling around like one of its brain dead zombies.
Night of the Living Dead
…because this minimalist nightmare unleashed a zombie plague on popular culture. George Romero’s "Night of the Living Dead" transformed the zombie from a voodoo curse into the flesh-hungry viral villain – or slow moving extra – we all know and love. The film took advantage of budget limitations like one main location, a supply of local extras and black-and-white film stock to create an atmosphere of invasive terror. In addition to its towering influence on the zombie genre, "Night of the Living Dead" made a powerful social statement by casting a black actor, Duane Jones, as the pragmatic, non-stereotypical hero against a horde of mindless white zombies.
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Everyone knows that zombies are mindless, plodding corpses motivated by a hunger for human flesh that also spreads their condition like a plague across mankind. Of course, none of this was true before "Night of the Living Dead." While there were influential zombie horror films like "White Zombie" and "I Walked with a Zombie," these used the technical definition of the zombie (ugh, details) derived from voodoo religious mythology – or real life stuff that can definitely happen, for any practitioners out there. Because of this distinction, Romero never actually set out to make a zombie movie. The original script referred to his walking dead as ghouls, a term Romero borrowed from the even lower budget horror cult classic "Carnival of Souls," which he acknowledges as one of the main inspirations for "Night of the Living Dead." Yet due to the fact that we didn’t have a better single word for reanimated corpses that move around and do bad things to people, the zombie label has stuck…and then some. Our entire pop cultural conception of zombies largely derives from Romero’s original film and its sequels. Everything from the sharp parody "Shaun of the Dead" to the comic-book-turned-TV-megahit "The Walking Dead" to the writings of Max Brooks owes a huge debt to Romero’s reimagining of zombie-ism as a socially transmitted disease. Not bad for a low budget shocker that few people took seriously at the time.
If horror’s greatest asset as a genre is the ability to stretch a budget with incredible effect (see: Roger Corman), then "Night of the Living Dead" is the gold standard. Using Howard Hawks’s "Rio Bravo" as an inspiration, Romero set most of the film in one location. The script takes advantage of this to create tension through the character dynamics of the human survivors trapped within, while the direction builds on this by adding an element of dread from the outside. With little money to spend on effects, Romero tapped into a local resource, asking nearby residents to appear as zombie extras in shabby clothes and minimal gory makeup. Sure, the allure of movie magic might not have the same draw as it did back in 1968, but Romero’s solution of having the town where his production was based work for the film is pretty ingenious. While films were still somewhat in a transition stage from black and white to full color, Romero’s decision to use black and white stock meant that his simple effects and makeup didn’t have to be truly convincing or up to full professional standards. From an artistic standpoint, the black and white look also fit the bleakness of the story, instantly adding to the desired atmosphere. Indeed, when Romero upgraded to color for the first sequel, "Dawn of the Dead," he also added a more playful element to the story by setting it in a shopping mall overrun by zombies.
In 1968, it was next to impossible to cast a black actor not named Sidney Poitier as the lead in a movie. In fact, no film in the horror genre had even tried to do this, making Romero’s decision to cast Duane Jones as Ben, the de facto leader of the survivors in the farmhouse, even more impressive. What’s more, "Night of the Living Dead" doesn’t make a huge deal about the fact that Ben is black – the film kind of treats him like, you know, a regular human being. Even Poitier’s characters generally had to acknowledge that they weren’t supposed to be there, with race being a thematic device. "Night of the Living Dead," on the other hand, makes a much more subtle – and perhaps even more powerful – statement by implicitly referring to Ben’s race by contrasting him with the white zombies trying to overrun the planet, as well as the other less intelligent and less practical survivors he’s forced to protect. By doing this, Romero turned his low budget scare-fest into a pretty effective allegory for the effects of racism on humanity. The senseless tragedy in the film’s final scene only serves to reinforce this idea. Romero also demonstrated in the sequels that he was pretty aware his films weren’t just about zombies threatening to overrun the planet, but could also make a pretty insightful observation about contemporary society. The horror genre actually has a pretty strong track record when it comes to social issues. So long as you provide the requisite scares, there’s a lot of room to make some bold statements.
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