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Film: Night of the Living Dead

"They're coming to get you, Barbra!"

Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 horror film directed by George A. Romero and written by Romero and John Russo, became one of the most influential horror films ever and inaugurated the Zombie Apocalypse genre. Before Living Dead, zombies had always been depicted as slavish creatures of voodoo who obeyed their masters, but Romero did something completely different: he gave no explanation for their existence (besides a speculative Hand Wave about a space probe and radioactive fallout), gave them no masters, and endowed them with an insatiable appetite for the flesh of the living. He also showed the increasing tensions in American society in The Sixties; people had more to fear than zombies, but zombies easily presented the most visible threat.

This film is, despite its relatively recent vintage, in the Public Domain as a result of its original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, neglecting to place a copyright indication on the prints. In 1968, United States copyright law required a proper copyright notice in order for a work to properly secure and maintain its copyright. While the film did display such a notice on the title frames of its original title (Night of the Flesh Eaters), the notice ended up removed when the film changed titles, and by the time the filmmakers noticed, they could do nothing about it. Anyone with the resources to distribute the film can do so without legal repercussions thanks to its Public Domain status; as of 2006, the Internet Movie Database lists 23 different releases of the film on DVD and 19 on VHS. You can legally view or download the film for free on Internet sites such as Google Video, the Internet Archive, and YouTube.

In 1999, Russo re-released the original 1968 film for its 30th anniversary (without Romero's involvement) with new footage and a new soundtrack. This altered version's continuity received a sequel in 2001 (Children of the Living Dead).

After Night of the Living Dead became an unexpected success, Romero and Russo discussed making a sequel, but after disagreeing on its direction, they each decided to do their own version. Romero made the equally-successful Dawn of the Dead (and not-quite-as-successful Day of the Dead), while Russo made his films more comedic with the Return of the Living Dead pentalogy (which single-handedly introduced the concept of zombies eating brains). Both series have had modern sequels; Romero directed the fourth film of his franchise (Land of the Dead) in 2005, then made a quasi-reboot (Diary of the Dead) and its sequel (Survival of the Dead), while Russo's Return of the Living Dead films strayed from 'comedic' to 'Gorn'. All three of the films of Romero's original trilogy have received remakes, each with varying degrees of success (Romero himself wrote and produced the first remake of Night, while close friend Tom Savini directed). Night also received a second remake (filmed in 3D) in 2006, Romero had no involvement with this remake, which — unlike Savini's more faithful adaptation — departs fairly radically from the source material.

Night of the Living Dead remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time, and numerous movies, television shows, video games, books, and comic books owe their origin to its gruesome black-and-white imagery.


Night of the Living Dead contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Ability over Appearance: Ben was not written to be black and Romero claims he only cast Duane Jones because he gave the best audition, rather than to make a point or be controversial.
    • Inverted with Judith Ridley who played Judy. Producers were so struck by her beauty that they wrote a part for her.
  • Action Girl: The most notable change in Tom Savini's remake was to upgrade Barbra from The Load.
  • Asshole Victim: Harry Cooper.
  • Berserk Board Barricade: Ben throws up a whole bunch of them.
  • Big Brother Bully: Johnny in the remake. He bullies Barbra in the car on the way to the cemetery and doesn't stop when they get there. In the original he is more whiny and teasing than actually malevolent.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the (first) remake by Tom Savini, Barbra survives, but Ben doesn't. Harry also survives, but Barbra immediately executes him. Barbra's faith in humanity has been completely destroyed, causing her to say in regards to the dead, "We're them. We're them, and they're us."
  • Black Dude Dies First: Inverted — the black dude becomes the last man standing in the end...well, until he gets shot by the rednecks.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Helen (brunette), Judy Rose (blonde) and Barbra (redhead) in the remake.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Barbra in the remake. What a coincidence - this is also the film where she becomes an Action Girl.
  • Brick Joke: The gas pump key is forgotten about after Tom and Judy get blown up. In the 1990 remake, it shows up in the cellar at the end as a final irony.
  • Burn The Undead: Fire is an effective means of dispatching the living dead and is recommended by the radio emergency broadcasts.
  • Canon Foreigner: Owen and Gerald Tovar, Jr in 3D version.
  • Creator Cameo: George Romero appears as one of the TV reporters interviewing the military spokesmen in Washington.
  • Creepy Basement: Subverted. The cellar is the one truly safe place... at least until Karen turns.
  • Creepy Cemetery: Site of the opening scene.
  • Cue the Sun: Subverted oh, so very hard in the final scene.
  • Daylight Horror: Despite the movie obviously taking place mostly at night, the first time we see a zombie attack is during the day. And Ben gets killed in the morning.
  • Death by Adaptation: Johnny and Barbra's mother in the remake. In the original it's their father's grave and their dialogue confirms that their mother is still alive. In the remake it's their mother's grave but no confirmation on whether or not their father is still alive.
  • Death by Sex: To Judy and Tom in the 3D version.
  • Decoy Protagonist: For the first quarter of the movie, it looks like Barbra's the protagonist. Then Ben shows up and she turns into The Load.
  • Digital Destruction: Many felt that the restoration job on the 30th Anniversary Edition was actually a little too effective and made the film's low budget painfully obvious, and that the murky public domain prints actually do a lot to enhance the film's mood. That's probably the least of the Anniversary Edition's problems...
  • Distressed Damsel: Barbra is often accused of being this, though she does succeed in running away from most of the zombies. It's just that when things calm down she goes slightly catatonic.
  • Downer Ending: Everyone dies to the zombies except Ben because of their idiocy. Ben himself is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead by the militia group sweeping up the last of the zombies. On the bright side, the zombie apocalypse got cleaned up pretty easily... until the sequels.
  • Dramatic Thunder: The appearance of the first zombie in the cemetery is heralded by this.
  • Dumb Blonde: Judy in the 3D version. Barbra also spends most of her time in the first film being catatonic and hysterical.
  • Dutch Angle: Effectively employed at various points throughout the film.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Unlike all of the following films, this one is in black and white, lacks the subtle humor of the sequels, and some of their action elements. However, the film works well without these elements. Most notably, there is an explanation given for the zombies (exotic radiation from an exploding space probe) and the first zombie seen (and several others afterwards) is also able to move fast (for a corpse), and the zombies are shown to think and display basic life preservation skills (such as avoiding fire, though they don't think much about cars).
  • Everybody Smokes
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's a movie about a single night during which the dead become alive.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The title is not using the word "night" in a figurative sense.
  • Fanservice Extra: There's a naked, undead woman shown prominently in two shots...
  • Final Girl: Barbra, in the Savini and 3D versions.
  • Fire Keeps It Dead: At the end, after the locals have gained control of the situation they burn the bodies of killed humans so they can't rise as zombies and "killed" zombies so they can't rise again.
  • Five-Man Band: Tom Savini's remake plays with the traditional roles:
    • The Leader: Ben takes charge but it's implied taking charge is all he can actually do to stop himself from going mad. He frequently dismisses other ideas and insists everyone stick to his plans. Which it turns out, weren't good ideas at all.
    • The Lancer: Cooper is equally as stubborn as Ben and, instead of offering reasonable alternatives, insists that his way is the right one. The two of them pick fights simply because their egos won't allow them not to and other characters call them out on it.
    • The Smart Guy: Barbra. Initially falls to pieces but is able to eventually think clearly. She remains solid-minded while everyone else slowly goes mad. She suggests a plan that, if they had followed it, they wouldn't have died. In this version it's her who is the sole survivor.
    • The Big Guy: Tom. He's probably the straightest example, being fleshed out as a local country boy who can handle a gun and is able to fix up the house. He ends up doubling as The Face, often mediating between Ben and Cooper's rows.
    • The Chick: Judy Rose takes over Barbra's original role as the Screaming Woman instead of being calm and reasonable simply because she's a woman. However she reacts realistically to what's going on and becomes a little more proactive (going outside to get the gas pump keys, insisting that she drive the truck).
    • Team Mom: Helen mostly mothers her own daughter but is dominated by her husband. However she eventually resists him in the name of doing what's best for her daughter.
  • From Bad to Worse: Things really start going to hell beginning with Tom and Judy's death.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: As shown in the poster, there's a brief scene of a naked female zombie among the horde that invade the house. It's shown from behind so you don't really see much.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: John A. Russo's "30th Anniversary Edition", adding a new score, new special effects, and scenes shot 30 years after the original was released. Harry Knowles threatened to ban anyone who complimented this version on his Ain't It Cool News site.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: At one point Barbra wigs out and tries to go out the front door to "get Johnny". When Ben stops her, she slaps his face, and he responds by punching hers. Subverted in that it actually sends her even further into shock and stupor.
  • The Glasses Gotta Go: In the remake when Barbra is attacked by the zombie, she loses her glasses. Strangely she doesn't seem affected by this for the rest of the film.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Sometimes used, sometimes averted. Especially in the original, this shocked audiences who weren't expecting to see so much gore.
  • Gut Punch: The Family Unfriendly Deaths of Tom and Judy provides the page quote for that trope.
  • Halfempty Twoshot: In the Savini remake, something does lunge into the frame, but from the wrong side.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Barbra in the remake.
  • Heroic BSOD: Barbra. In the remake, however, this is subverted when she becomes just as much a survivor as Ben and lives through the end.
  • Hollywood Darkness: When the TV reporter is interviewing Sheriff McClelland, they're in bright sunlight even though it's supposed to be the middle of the night. Less blatantly, the scene where Tom and Judy ride out to the gas pump with Ben was clearly shot either just after dawn or just before dusk.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Just watch that ending.
  • Incongruously Dressed Zombie: Undressed, rather: Romero had a nude model wandering around with a morgue ID tag tied to her wrist.The zombie with a heroin needle still in his arm in the remake.
  • Infant Immortality: See Undead Child below.
  • Irony: Ben spends the remake arguing why it's better to stay upstairs while Cooper does likewise with the cellar. Ben ends up fleeing to the cellar while Cooper goes to the attic. Ben dies and Cooper lives.
    • Also Cooper orders Helen to go back down into the cellar in the third act, wanting to keep her safe. At this point their daughter has become a zombie. The irony comes that if Helen had stayed upstairs she probably would have survived.
  • Jerkass: Cooper, in both versions. Johnny seems to be a bit of one as well.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Cooper was right about barricading the basement, as evidenced that Ben (the one most against it) survives the night that way.
  • Kill 'em All: None of the main characters make it through the film alive.
    • Subverted in the remake, Barbara manages to survive.
  • Kill It with Fire: Fire is one of the only things zombies are afraid of.
  • Kill the Cutie: And how.
  • Large Ham: Cooper was already one in the first film, and becomes an even bigger one in the remake. As Mike Nelson put it in his commentary, "It's an interesting acting choice to start with inexplicable rage and just build from there."
  • The Load: Barbra is generally useless in the original. In the 1990 remake, she doesn't stay useless for very long.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: Barbra loses both shoes while fleeing the cemetery zombie.
  • Madness Mantra: "You can't start the car, Johnny has the key."
    • "Oh, is it ten to three? We won't have long to wait, now, it's ten to three..."
  • Meaningful Background Event: The very first zombie in the movie can be seen shambling around the cemetery well before it attacks Barbra and Johnny.
  • Meaningful Name: The house in Tom Savini's remake has the name "M. Celeste", in reference to the famous Ghost Ship Mary Celeste, whose crew disappeared without explanation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Bill Cardille, a Pittsburgh TV personality best known as Horror Host "Chilly Billy", appears as the TV reporter interviewing Sheriff McClelland.
    • Charles Craig, who plays the primary newscaster in the film, had real-life experience reporting the news on a Cincinnati radio station.
  • Not a Zombie
  • Not His Sled:
    • Used twice in the Savini remake with the Downer Ending.
    • The first attack was changed to remain surprising. In the original, the man shambling in the background is a zombie that attacks Barbra (quite a shocker in 1968). In the remake the man is an alive but deeply confused hearse driver. Then a zombie appears out of nowhere to attack Johnny.
  • Not Using the Z Word: The undead cannibals are referred to as "ghouls" by the radio/TV people and "those things" by the main characters, but the word "zombie" is never used. In fact, Romero and Russo themselves never thought of the creatures as zombies, since the popular idea of zombie-as-cannibal had not yet been formed, making this a proto-Trope Maker.
  • Novelization: Written by John Russo. Russo also wrote a sequel novel titled Return of the Living Dead where the ghouls return following a catastrophic bus crash, which was later the (very loose) basis for the film of the same name.
  • Nuclear Nasty-Played straight or lampshaded, depending on how you look at the argument between the scientists in the original, after one of them mentions the satellite crash.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Ben's story of running down zombies with a truck, which would clearly have been far beyond the film's budget to actually show.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune
  • Only Sane Man: Ben is the only remotely competent character in the original movie that actually tries to fight back against the zombies and survive, in stark contrast to the raving idiocy and uselessness of the other characters.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: This film invented the modern perception of zombies as cannibalistic monsters - before it, they were voodoo slaves. A keen viewer will also notice that some of the zombies in the beginning don't perfectly fit the "slow, dumb shambler" model that is associated with Romero's zombies. Namely, they reach for a car's door handle, they pick up a rock to smash against a window, they deliberately smash a car's headlights, and oh yeah, one of them runs. The Coopers' zombified daughter also uses a garden shovel to kill her mother, and several zombies pick up tools, such as the aforementioned rock, and one uses Ben's discarded makeshift torch to break down the door.
  • Peek-A-Boo Corpse: One of the more frightening examples, considering how well it was done with 60s SFX.
  • Practical Voiceover: Radio and television broadcasts are used throughout the film to outline the contours and extent of the zombie outbreak.
  • Reality Ensues: While averted if one takes it as written that Dawn of the Dead directly follows this movie, the movie itself plays it straight. Near-mindless slow, clumsy shamblers who can easily be dispatched with a burning torch or a heavy blow to the skull and whose only real strength is in numbers might pose a threat to a dysfunctional, ill-equipped and just plain-out uncooperative group, like Ben's, but against a disciplined, organised, well-equipped group? They get taken down quickly and easily — the ending only works out the way it does because humans elsewhere easily mop up their zombies and are methodically sweeping out and terminating all roving zombies they find.
    • If you think about it, that's actually a subtle element of the horror; the television and radio reports make it clear that people are legitimately fighting off and containing their zombies elsewhere, yet these poor bastards are unlucky enough (and/or dumb enough) that they can't do the same and end up as zombie chow.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: The original film's score consisted of stock music from earlier film and TV soundtracks. The opening credits theme, for instance, was originally used in a Ben Casey episode; other cues were lifted from such earlier B-movies as Teenagers from Outer Space and The Hideous Sun Demon.
  • Red Herring: In the original, Barbra is near-catatonic and then spacey. She feels warm, says so and takes her jacket off. She flinches at the fire when Mrs. Cooper lights her cigarette. Despite all this, she doesn't turn into a zombie before getting dragged out of the house.
  • Scare Chord: A number of them are used throughout the film.
  • Screaming Woman: Barbra.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Zombie Karen eats her father, then kills and (presumably) eats her mother.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: Karen's murder of her mother features both this and Gory Discretion Shot.
  • The Sheriff: Sheriff McClelland, who heads the local zombie-hunting posse.
  • Shoot Out the Lock: Upon arrival at the gas pump, the key does not work. Ben simply shoots the lock. One must assume he was inwardly pondering why he didn't think about this sooner when griping about being unable to find the key.
  • Show Within a Show: In the 3D remake, various characters are shown watching the original 1968 film on television.
  • Shout-Out: Johnny imitates Boris Karloff for his "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" line.
    • The 1990 remake has a couple shout-outs to the original: when Karen eats her mother, we momentarily see a spade on the wall similar to the one in the original, and the reporter is also the same actor playing the same character from the original as well.
  • The Siege
  • Slasher Film: 3D version have Death by Sex , Dumb Blonde and The Stoner.
  • Sole Survivor: Probably the best-known subversion in film history.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Barbra in the original is dragged off and implied to be devoured by a horde of zombies (among which, her brother is included) during the final siege. In the 1990 remake, she becomes an Action Survivor.
  • The Stinger: A shot of a burning pile of bodies follows the end credits.
  • The Stoner: Everyone in 3D remake.
  • Taxidermy Terror: Barbra wanders into the house's trophy room, where the stuffed heads seriously freak her out. Although not as much as the corpse. Or the zombie. Or Ben.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: The houseful of strangers are forced to work together until conflict ultimately breaks them apart. This became a defining point of zombie movies, as the living's lack of ability to work together ultimately proves their downfall. Some have interpreted this aspect of the film's story as Romero's metaphor for the difficulties faced by America in the Vietnam War, or the West generally in the Cold War.
    • One powerful Fridge Brilliance interpretation has the film as a metaphor for the Civil Rights Movement. A black man taking the role of hero, variously opposed, aided, betrayed, or ignored in his struggle to survive against the zombie hordes by the white people around him.
  • Those Two Guys: Tom and Judy are pretty separated from the other characters and the story at large. They hardly interact with anyone else but each other, and the only thing very memorable about them is their fiery explosive death and the sloppy zombie clean-up crew.
  • Thematic Series: The sequels that spawned off this movie were all loosely connected.
  • Title of the Dead: While not the first example of the type, this was certainly the Trope Codifier, and countless zombie movies since have used some variant, either as a Shout-Out (Shaun of the Dead) or to Follow the Leader (The Return Of The Living Dead series).
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Jesus, Tom, how hard is it to work a damned gas pump? Admittedly the hose was too short, he jerked the nozzle towards the truck, the hose ran out, and his hand hit the trigger spraying the gas - but anyone who has been to an unfamiliar gas pump once knows to stop the car close enough that even a short hose can reach. He parks a good 20 feet away!
    • Granted, shooting a lock off a gas pump is something a sensible person would probably prefer to avoid if they have a choice.
    • That's nothing compared to Ben leaving a torch right next to the car where gas can easily be spilled on it rather than placing it further ahead of them in front of the zombies!
    • In the 30th Anniversary Edition, Reverend Hicks — who, by the way, is near a dozen or so guys shooting at the zombies with actual weapons — thinks that preaching at one of the zombies (the one that Barbra and Johnny encountered at the start of the film, in fact) will achieve something. Needless to say, it doesn't, and he gets bitten before the other guys take the zombie out. Subverted, as Hicks somehow proves immune to being bitten.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Barbra in the remake, in pointed contrast with her original incarnation. Judy Rose was heading this way too. She spent most of the film as a Screaming Woman before eventually getting ahold of herself, calling out Ben and Cooper for their stupid arguing and offering to drive the truck to the gas pump (as opposed to the original where she just wandered outside and had to come along).
    • The Original's Barbara was no slouch either. She saved Mrs. Cooper from the Zombies that grabbed at her. At the cost of her own life.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: While Cooper was an unlikable asshole in the original, he was still willing to help the others out after some grumbling, even if his fear and anger got the better of him towards the end, and he came across more as a scared, angry man out of his wits with fear and confusion. In the remake he is an utterly loathsome and useless slimeball.
  • Tragic Mistake: Ben, our hero, believes that they must defend the house from the zombies. Harry Cooper, our unsympathetic antagonist, insists that they should flee to the basement and barricade the basement door. Ben wins the argument, but Cooper was right. Ben's plan to defend the house leads to disaster, and after everyone else is killed he does in fact flee to the basement, where he survives the zombies.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The Coopers, in both versions.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The zombies are always called "ghouls", and are somewhat more intelligent than the norm. Also, if taken independently instead of as part of either of the two sequel franchises the problem seems to be quite quickly contained (going by the newscasts) instead of being a truly apocalyptic event. It's also pretty clear that the survivors wipe themselves out through their incompetence and refusal to work together rather than any extreme danger from the zombies.
  • The Unreveal: In the sequels and remakes, it's never explained why the dead are coming back to life. Even in the original, the radioactive satellite explanation gets little attention, and is actually cut short by one of the other scientists who clearly thinks the idea is ridiculous. Justified in that we're not dealing with people investigating the cause, just dealing with the effects.
  • The Virus: Ghoul bites spread a deadly infection that cause victims to rise again, but all of the recent dead have risen.
    • In fact, it's actually arguable if the bite is the cause. There's equal evidence to suggest that the bite merely kills because it's laden with lethal bacterianote  and it's the radiation that started the rise in the first place that causes the plague-killed body to then rise itself.
  • We've Been Experiencing Technical Difficulties: But Johnny foolishly turns off the radio before finding out why.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the remake Judy Rose calls Ben and Cooper out on their childish arguing. Barbara also does this when Ben tells her she is losing it.
  • Who Is This Guy Again?: Everyone but Barbra. People watching usually can only remember the characters as Black Guy, Bald Jackass, Mrs. Jackass, Kid, and almost everyone forgets there even were two teenagers in the movie.
  • Women Drivers: Barbra makes it all of about 100 feet in the car before crashing it into a tree. (She was just coasting after taking the emergency brake off. After all, Johnny has the key.) This scene was a Throw It In moment in the script, as the car had gotten a fender dented between shoots and an explanation had to be quickly contrived.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Averted, actually. Atypically for a zombie infection movie, the ending shows that the living win the day, and emerge unchanged. For now at least....
  • Zombie Infectee: Karen Cooper.
  • Zombie Gait: Interestingly averted with the very first zombie that Barbra and Johnny encounter.

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alternative title(s): Night Of The Living Dead; Night Of The Living Dead 3 D; Night Of The Living Dead 1990
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