Night of the Living Dead is a hugely influential genre classic, but it also happens to be one of my favorite films. While Dawn of the Dead seems to get the most fan adoration, Night is my preference because it's so much simpler, tighter, and creepier. It has none of the humor that director George Romero, who died this summer at age 77, developed throughout his career. Instead, it tells its story of a disparate band of survivors holed up in a farmhouse, while flesh eating ghouls inexplicably roam the countryside, with a brutal and terrifying economy. And though it was written and filmed with little regard for sociopolitical subtext, unlike the five sequels Romero continued to make into the last decade, it is both a product of its turbulent time and a work that carries huge resonance to this day.
Night was released nearly 50 years ago, but the main reason the 4K restoration opening at Film Forum is so spectacular is that it fell almost immediately into the public domain. Accidentally printed sans copyright, the movie has been released by countless companies in editions of wildly varying standards; the "grainy quality" that critics sometimes noted always rankled Romero, who swore he'd photographed a crisp movie.
I've probably seen Night of the Living Dead close to a hundred times, but what I saw at the restoration press screening was something truly unique. The movie's stark, hauntingly beautiful black and white photography was crystal clear, and I heard sounds and dialogue I'd never discerned in any previous viewing. This felt like Night the Way It Was Meant to Be Seen.
Night of the Living Dead is a movie that's been seen in many different ways in the five decades since its premiere, and I'm not talking about the different transfers in this case. Romero and company claimed they intended no statement by casting handsome Black actor Duane Jones as the heroic Ben and merely chose the best actor for the job, but even that was pretty radical in the height of the Civil Rights era. (Romero used to recall how he and a co-producer drove the print to a distribution company "on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. got shot.") Jones is the only African American in the cast, and when he's (spoiler alert for 1968) shot dead by an all-white zombie-hunting mob at the end it’s impossible not to be reminded of the period’s racial violence. Today, of course, this senseless death jars us in an entirely different way.
The zombies themselves were seen as stand-ins for everything from hippies to the battle-scarred veterans of the Vietnam War, and Romero continued to mine their analogous potential in the follow-ups. He sometimes tried to distance himself from any additional meanings, claiming he was just making movies, but the reams of analysis inspired by the Dead franchise suggest that even if his intentions were simple, the movies themselves were rich with possible messages, or at the very least ripe for interpretation. As the "zombie apocalypse" has become an established trope in popular culture, so has the idea of a real-life apocalypse continued to evolve. Will we be wiped out by infected humans, a nuclear bomb, or a climate-fueled crisis? How will we react when faced with such a doomsday scenario? Will we band together, or turn on each other with hatred and prejudice?
Romero touched on this question when explaining the meaning of Night of the Living Dead to Fangoria Magazine’s Anthony Timpone in 1990. "Human communication has always been the movie's theme," he explained. "These people can't even talk to each other long enough to figure out how to escape. They could actually escape very easily, but because of their own problems and inability to communicate, they don't succeed." Ben is heroic, strong, and smart, but he fails to save the others from violent death at the hands of the zombies, and he himself is tossed upon a funeral pyre at the film's end. It's a bleak and unnerving message, but also a powerful warning, perhaps as much so in these frightening times than in others.
Or, if you'd rather not dwell on such heady implications, just focus on the screen and lose yourself in one of the most frightening movies ever made. Either way, as Romero used to sign his autograph, you'll "stay scared."
Night of the Living Dead plays October 13–26 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY, 10014.