Plot Summary: A group of people hide from bloodthirsty zombies in a farmhouse.
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo (screenplay), Romero (screenplay)
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
Serious Jest: (Must See) It’s black and white, and the special effects are primitive, but this is THE seminal zombie film. Like all good horror flicks of its era, it stays compelling through suspenseful storytelling and making its viewers think they saw more gore than they actually did…although some of the cannibalism scenes were more gory than I would have expected for a film of its time.
This movie, Romero’s feature debut, was made in the true spirit of an independent film. The line between cast, crew, and producers was virtually non-existent, with actors serving as screenwriters, producers, stuntmen, makeup artists, electronic sound engineers, and still photographers. Romero manned the camera himself for some scenes, as well. According to IMDB, Romero borrowed the house in which most of the movie was filmed from an owner who was going to have it demolished anyway. However, the house did not have a true basement, so the basement scenes were filmed in the editing studio’s cellar. Romero also borrowed the car featured in the film. To simulate blood, he used…Bosco chocolate syrup.
Romero was a Carnegie-Mellon Institute graduate, and, also according to IMDB, this was the first movie filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittburgh police even provided personnel and equipment. The day that the final editing and voice-over dubbing was completed in Pittsburgh, Romero and Russo put the reels into the cans, threw them into the trunk of the car, and drove straight to New York City that night in hopes of having it screen at any willing theater. However, the film’s world premiere ended up taking place at the Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh on October 1, 1968 (At 8PM, admission by invitation only). The movie was met with a standing ovation.
Per IMDB, this film became one of the most successful independent films ever made, one of the last big hits of the drive-in era, and one of the first movies added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Nonetheless, Romero saw very little profit from the film since, thanks to his lack of knowledge regarding distribution deals, the distributors walked away with practically all of the profits. Since the film makers forgot to include a then-required copyright notice in the movie, it slipped into the public domain.
This flick is also a great example for discussions concerning African Americans in film. Film historian Donald Bogle believes that most black people in 20th-century American films can be classified into one of five categories: Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. However, according to IMDB, the character of Ben was originally supposed to be a crude-but-resourceful truck driver, with no specification to race. After Jones, in real-life a self-serious, erudite academic, auditioned for the part, Romero re-wrote the part to fit his performance.
Furthermore, the character of Ben was originally written as an angry person, and, upon receiving the role, Jones expressed concern that the character be rewritten to remove some of the anger – such as the scene where Ben hits Barbara – afraid of how it would be widely perceived in the United States at the time to see a black man acting in this way. The nation was plagued with high racial tensions during the late sixties, and the film was released to theaters shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonetheless, Romero and most of the rest of the predominantly white crew decided against it, thinking they were being “hip” by not changing it. Years later, Romero lamented that he had not taken Jones’ concerns more into consideration, and thought that he was probably correct. Romero expressed that he wishes he could speak with the late Jones again, asking him how he felt about the film’s legendary status, and believes Jones would just say “Who knew?” and laugh.
For my part, it was pretty cool to see a black man in a 1960s film play such a confident leadership role amongst a white cast. It seemed to me that the part of Ben could have been played by an actor of any race, as long as he was good, and Jones performed very well.