In the mid-1960s, George Romero planned to make his feature debut with Whine of the Fawn, a drama about two teenagers in the Middle Ages. If he'd pitched a body-swap comedy about middle-aged teenagers, he'd perhaps have had more luck. As it was, his high-minded, "Bergman-esque" project failed to attract investors and the 27-year-old college dropout from the Bronx, now shooting commercials and industrials in Pittsburgh, turned his attention to horror.
A fan of the ghoulish EC Comics and monster movies of the 1950s, and heavily influenced by Richard Matheson's apocalyptic, home-invasion vampire novel I Am Legend, Romero scraped together $114,000 to shoot a DIY cannibal flick entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters. Set over a single night in a Pittsburgh farmhouse, it posited an America inexplicably overrun by resurrected corpses munching on human entrails, and threw together a band of scrabbling, squabbling survivors who hole up in a futile effort to keep the enemy out.
The movie's eventual distributor, Walter Reade Organisation, would change the title to Night of the Living Dead, and critics would identify Romero's cannibals as a new breed of zombie (the director himself never linked his intestines-ingesting ghouls to the mind-controlled slaves we'd previously seen shuffling around the West Indies). But these are details. What really matters is that this black-and-white grindhouse movie - featuring no stars, a black lead whose race is never commented on, appalling gore, unremitting bleakness, topsy-turvy morality and a vicious attack on science, family, government, police and military, with God nowhere to be seen - emerged to reinvent horror and smash down the door for independent filmmakers.
Night of the Living Dead opens with a brother and sister visiting their father's grave in a deserted cemetery at sundown. Seeing a lone man loom upon the horizon, Johnny (Russell Streiner) teases Barbra (Judith O'Dea) by imitating a lame horror-movie voice and wailing, "They're coming to get you, Barbra." It's a neat postmodern touch, 28 years before Scream, and just as Wes Craven's teens still get it despite their familiarity with the rules of the genre, Johnny is abruptly devoured by the stumbling stranger.
With our ostensible hero dead inside 10 minutes (recalling Janet Leigh's shocking demise in Psycho), we're left to follow a catatonic Barbra as she winds up at a desolate farmhouse in the company of a middle-aged couple and their bitten daughter, a pair of young lovers and the movie's all-action leading man, Ben (the classically trained Duane Jones).
The rest of Romero's suffocating debut takes place in and around the hideout, with the protagonists nailing boards over windows, pushing furniture in front of doors and arguing all the while whether it's better to stay on the ground floor to enable an emergency escape or retreat to the cellar for further protection. No matter: everyone dies, horribly, regardless of whether they do the right thing or the wrong thing, and the climax is a shocking jolt of nihilism even when viewed today. You can only pity the audiences who were assaulted by it at a time when horror movies concluded by overcoming the threat and reasserting balance...
Shot in grainy monochrome when colour was prevalent, Night of the Living Dead has the immediacy and authenticity of newsreel footage. With the zombies, mostly played by producers, technical staff and financiers, chowing down on slippery innards provided by a butcher who was an investor in the movie, the film both tapped into the splatter movie that had been birthed by Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast in 1963 and replicated the violence being beamed into American living rooms from the war in Vietnam. This latter link was reinforced by the news footage being watched on TV by the characters in the film, as a posse led by a redneck sheriff (George Kosana) scours the countryside killing and burning zombies.
Much, of course, has been made of having an African-American lead, but Romero freely admits he wrote the role without race in mind - Jones just happened to give the best reading. Yet his strong presence lends a crucial frisson to the film, with his striking of a white woman, albeit to shake her from a dangerous stupor, proving an incendiary moment as America bucked and heaved in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. Jones himself feared that the scene would spark riots, and Romero, a liberal who felt viewers should be ready to accept such an action, was given pause when Martin Luther King was assassinated at the very time he was driving the finished print to New York to secure distribution.
Columbia turned down the movie and American Independent Pictures, specialists in horror, wanted the ending re-shot, fearing it was too bleak (surviving the night, Jones's Ben is mistaken for a zombie by the posse and shot in the head, his body gathered up on meat hooks to be thrown to the fire). Romero refused, his film instead released on to the grindhouse circuit by Walter Reade, where it was met by negative reviews: "An unrelieved orgy of sadism... casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers," sniffed trade bible Variety.
The upswing began when Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and French film journal Positif declared Night of the Living Dead's significance, and with the British Film Institute's then-quarterly magazine Sight & Sound placing it in the Top 10 films of the year. It played at New York's Museum of Modern Art and became part of the permanent collection, and the 1970s saw a wave of nightmare movies - The Last House On The Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween, to name just three - inspired by what is now considered Patient Zero of the modern horror movie. "The first monster that the audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker," said Craven, talking of the brutal new breed. "They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency."
But the legacy of Romero's classic reaches far beyond these genre pictures. American '70s cinema as a whole became infused by bleakness and paranoia, with films like The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest picking up on the themes and moods of Romero's game changer, while the impeachment proceedings against a post-Watergate Nixon, and America's continued socio-political upheaval - which also, naturally, accounted for the national cinema - only bore out the director's vehement suspicion of authority.
Romero himself would go on to make five more zombie movies and to watch incredulous as his particular brand of ghouls spread through other movies, comic books, novels, TV shows and video games to become second only to the vampire as the genre's iconic monster. The boom is something that gives him pleasure but has also induced a certain degree of jaundice: not only has he turned down invitations to direct episodes of AMC's hugely popular The Walking Dead series, he happily admits to never viewing a single episode.
Birth of the Living Dead, a documentary about Romero's film, is available on DVD and VOD now.