Film / Night of the Living Dead (1968)

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/nightofthelivingdead1968.jpg

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

Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 horror film directed by George A. Romero, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Russo. It is the first film directed by Romero and the first entry in the Living Dead Series—oh, and it became one of the most influential horror films ever while inaugurating the Zombie Apocalypse genre in the process.

Before Living Dead, media had always depicted zombies as creatures of voodoo who obeyed their masters. Romero did something completely different: He offered no explanation for their existence besides a speculative hand wave about an exploded space probe and radioactive fallout, gave them no masters, and endowed them with an insatiable appetite for the flesh of living creatures. His Flesh-Eating Zombie creation has since become synonymous with the word "zombie" in popular culture. Romero also commented on the increasing tensions manifest in American society in The '60s—as the film demonstrated, people had as much to fear from each other as they did from zombies.

This film is in the Public Domain despite the relatively recent vintage because of a copyright mix-up. In 1968, United States copyright law required a proper copyright notice in order for a work to properly secure and maintain its copyright. While this film did display such a notice on the title frames of its original title—Night of the Flesh Eaters—The Walter Reade Organization, which originally distributed the film, neglected to place a copyright notice on the title card after it became Night of the Living Dead. By the time the filmmakers noticed the oversight, they could do nothing about it. Nowadays, anyone with the resources to distribute the film can do so without legal repercussions; this means you can legally view or download the film for free on Internet sites such as the Internet Archive and YouTube.

After Night of the Living Dead became an unexpected success, Romero and Russo discussed making a sequel; after disagreeing on the direction it should take, 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. Russo made his films more comedic with the The Return of the Living Dead pentalogy, which single-handedly introduced the concept of zombies eating brains. Both series have 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 the "comedic" angle to Gorn. Meanwhile, in 1999 John Russo re-released the original 1968 film for its 30th anniversary with new footage and a new soundtrack—and without Romero's involvement. This altered version received its own sequel, Children of the Living Dead, in 2001.

All three of the films in the original Living Dead trilogy have received remakes, each with varying degrees of success—Romero himself wrote and produced a faithful remake of Night in 1990, while close friend Tom Savini directed. Night also received a second remake, filmed in 3D, in 2006; Romero had no involvement with the latter remake, which departs fairly radically from the source material.

Night of the Living Dead remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Numerous movies, television shows, video games, books, and comic books owe their origin to this pioneer of zombie horror.


Night of the Living Dead contains the following tropes:

  • Anti-Hero: Ben isn't as sympathetic a character as you might expect: he makes several bad choices, is often confrontational and uncooperative, Would Hit a Girl and so on.
  • Asshole Victim: Harry Cooper.
  • Barrier-Busting Blow: In the climax, as a mob of zombies reach into the house to pull Barbra away.
  • Berserk Board Barricade: Ben throws up a whole bunch of them.
  • Beware the Living: Codified here with Ben's death at the hands of the redneck zombie-hunting posse.
    • In the later films of the series, the plot focuses on the disintegration of society as a result of the Zombie Apocalypse, rather than the zombies themselves. At times, the zombies even end up helping the protagonists by killing off the psychotic survivors who would otherwise pose more of a threat.
  • Bittersweet 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.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Averted. Or, rather, inverted; the black dude is actually the last man standing in the end... until he gets shot by the rednecks.
  • Bottle Episode: Made for a small budget, and almost the entire film takes place in or around a single house.
  • Break the Cutie: Barbra.
  • Burn the Undead: Fire is an effective means of dispatching the living dead and is recommended by the radio emergency broadcasts.
  • 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 in the final scene.
  • Damsel in Distress: 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. Trauma can do that to a person.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Romero has gone back and forth on whether the black-and-white photography was for artistic or purely budgetary reasons. It does give the film a kind of documentary feel.
  • Dramatic Thunder: The appearance of the first zombie in the cemetery is heralded by this.
  • 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, use simple tools and display basic life preservation skills (such as avoiding fire, though they don't think much about cars).
    • For that matter, unless you shove fire in their faces (which causes them to snarl), the zombies are completely silent. This is in stark contrast to the loud, ghostly moans they make in the sequels and other subsequent zombie fiction.
  • Emergency Refuelling: The film has a group of people trapped in The Siege with the zombies outside, who have a car that could help them escape. Unfortunately the car has no fuel and the gas pump on the outside of the house is locked with key, so a significant side-plot is the frantic search for the keys to the pump's lock all over the house. Once a set of keys that may be the pump's have been found, the survivors implement a plan to refuel the car. Except the driver discovers the keys are NOT for the pump.
  • Event Title
  • 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... but then again, she's undead.
  • 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.
  • 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: In part because of its public domain status, this film has been a popular choice for computer colorization. There are actually three known colorized versions, all radically different from each other, and each tending to be inaccurate in different ways. For instance the version Hal Roach produced in 1985 colored Barbra and Johnny's car yellow, the Anchor Bay version in 1997 colored it blue, and the 2005 version from Legend Films colored it red. The real color of the car? Green. The 1985 and 2005 versions also featured green-skinned zombies while the 1997 version went with regular flesh tones.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The zombie attacking Barbra in the cemetery also counts. The first few minutes of the film are just a brother and sister bickering. We know it's a horror film, but we just assume that the shocks will come later on and this opening scene is going to be Played for Laughs...except, no. That creepy guy really is a murderous zombie. Even if you've seen it multiple times, it's still very jarring.
  • The Hero Dies: Ben is mistakenly shot by zombie hunters.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Barbra. In the 1990 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.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: The film takes place the night after the dreaded switch to *gasp* daylight savings time.note 
  • Humans Are Bastards: Just watch that ending.
  • Hysterical Woman: Barbra spends half of her time being hysterical until she is knocked out by Ben. She then spends rest of her time in quiet near-catatonia.
  • Ignored Vital News Reports: Just before Johnny gets out of the car, the radio comes back on after having been off the air due to "technical difficulties". He immediately switches it off before learning anything more.
  • Incongruously Dressed Zombie: Undressed, rather: Romero had a nude model wandering around with a morgue ID tag tied to her wrist.
  • Infant Immortality: See Undead Child below.
  • Irony: 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.
  • It Can Think: Unlike the generally accepted belief about Romero!zombies, perpetuated mostly by the sequels, the ghouls here actually show a fair amount of animalistic intelligence. They understand simple tools (one grabs a rock to smash the window on Barbara's car, others use rocks to clumsily smash the lights on Ben's car, zombie!Karen uses a trowel to stab her mom to death) and have the ability to move quickly to pursue food. They don't feel pain, as shown when several zombie hands are cut to pieces by the defenders during one attack, but they clearly recognize obvious dangers and have some limited degree of self-preservation, recoiling from bright lights and especially from fire.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Barbra's brother teases her mercilessly, but when they are attacked by the first zombie he immediately springs to her defense.
  • Jerkass: Cooper, in this film and the 1990 remake. 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 1990 remake, Barbara manages to survive.
  • Kill It with Fire: Fire is one of the only things zombies are afraid of.
  • The Load: Barbra, Judy Rose and Helen are generally useless in the original. In the 1990 remake, they don't stay useless for very long, specially Barbra.
  • 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.
  • Negated Moment of Awesome: Barbara finally snaps out of her catatonia and runs to save Mrs. Cooper from the zombie horde breaking into the house, but is dragged outside to her death almost immediately afterward. It's an even greater shock if you've seen the remake first.
  • 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: The first zombie we see in the film is supposed to look like just some random person wandering around the cemetery, until he attacks Barbra.
  • Not Quite Saved Enough: This film is perhaps the prototypal example. In a movie filled with groundbreaking departures from tradition, this trope was perhaps the most significant. After a heroic struggle, Ben is left the only survivor of a night of mayhem and horror in the farmhouse. The next morning he awakes to the sound of a rescue party approaching the house, but as he peers through the boarded-up windows for a glimpse of his potential saviors, they mistake him for just another zombie and perfunctorily shoot him in the head. The movie ends with a sequence of still images of Ben's lifeless, anonymous corpse impaled on a meat hook and dragged to a human bonfire. No one ever knows who he was or what he went through to survive the night . . . of the living dead.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: The undead cannibals are referred to as "ghouls" or "flesh-eaters" 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, 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.
  • Only Sane Man: Ben is the only remotely competent character in the 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.
    • On the other hand, he's also wrong about what to do.
  • 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 is see when Barbra finds the chewed corpse upstairs, 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 believes that Dawn of the Dead (1978) 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.
    • As annoying as poor Barbra's state of frozen shock for most of the film is to people expecting a proper Action Girl, it's a painfully realistic and perfectly understandable reaction to being attacked by an animated corpse, watching your brother get killed defending you, unexpectedly finding the bloody, mangled remains of a woman in an abandoned house, and spending hours besieged by an army of hungry, moaning zombies. Not everybody would be able to function well under such circumstances.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: The original film's score consisted of stock music from Capitol Records' "Hi-Q" production library, much of which had previously been used in other 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: 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.
  • 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 keynote .
  • Shout-Out:
    • Johnny imitates Boris Karloff for his "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" line.
    • Bill Hinzman, who played the cemetery zombie, based his shambling gait on Karloff's portrayal of Frankenstein's monster.
  • The Siege: The characters board themselves inside from the zombies outside.
  • Sole Survivor: Probably the best-known subversion in film history.
  • Splatter Horror: Romero's efforts to replicate the violence and atmosphere of EC Comics on the big screen shocked audiences of the day and popularized the splatter subgenre.
  • The Stinger: A shot of a burning pile of bodies follows the end credits.
  • 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!
    • Everyone, in a sense. The zombies are slow and could be easily outrun, instead of doing the smart thing and running away, they decide to board the entire house up and let the zombies pile up. Did they ever think about the possibility of the zombies breaking in and having no way out, other than isolating themselves somewhere until there's no place left to run? Thankfully, this is averted in the 1990 remake, where Barbara suggests running away on foot while there's still time. No one listens to her, and when the zombies break in, she runs away and survives on her own..
      • On the other hand, Barbara walking through a sea of zombies without even getting attacked strains credibility, and they had nowhere to go on foot, with no way of knowing there weren't even more zombies just out of sight.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Barbra gets over her catatonic state and saves Mrs. Cooper from the zombies that grabbed at her. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of her own life.
  • 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.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The zombies are never once referred to as zombie and instead as either "ghouls", "flesh-eaters", and so on. They are also somewhat more intelligent than the norm. Also, if taken as it's own separate work instead of part of a series, 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 this film, 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 arguable whether the bite is actually 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.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: All we know from the film itself about the setting is that it's a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh and you can still receive Pittsburgh TV stations pretty well over-the-air. The cemetery and farmhouse were both actually in Evans City, about a half-hour north of Pittsburgh in real life.
  • 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.)note 
  • The X of Y
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Averted, actually. Atypically for a zombie infection movie, the ending shows that the living win the day, and emerge unchanged. Well, until the sequel, anyway...
  • Zombie Infectee: Karen Cooper was bitten by a zombie before she was taken to the basement. After taking long time dying, she rises up, eats her father's corpse and kills her mother.
  • Zombie Gait: Interestingly averted with the very first zombie that Barbra and Johnny encounter.


Additional examples from the 30th Anniversary Edition:

  • Bloodier and Gorier: While the gore effects in the original film were quite limited, this version includes a bunch of newly-shot scenes with more explicit gore.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The re-edit seemingly tries to shut Dawn and Day out of the continuity by adding an extra segment to the ending that indicates the zombie plague has been restricted to small, periodic outbreaks, instead of the outright zombie pandemic that wipes out 99.999975% of the world's population by the time of Day. Supposedly this was meant as a lead-in to the subsequent Children of the Living Dead, though neither the events of the theatrical or 30th Anniversary cut are ever referenced in that one, beyond some vague similarities between the cemetery zombie's new backstory and that of Abbot Hayes, the Big Bad of Children.
  • 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...
  • Dull Surprise: In a new scene added to the film's ending, a reporter interviews Reverend Hicks as a posse goes around shooting zombies in the cemetery, but she does so in a manner that you might expect someone to report on a country fair, not the possible End of the World as We Know It.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Producer and co-writer John A. Russo oversaw this new version, 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.
  • Insane Troll Logic: In his rant at the end of the film, Reverend Hicks says that the dead should be spiked through their hands and feet, as was done to Jesus on the cross, to prevent them from coming back to life. Even though it's clearly meant to be a crazy rant, you'd think Hicks would remember that one of the most famous things about Jesus is the Resurrection, in which he came back to life.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: The first zombie seen in the film is revealed to have been a child killer, with the parents of the girl he killed actually volunteering to pay for his burial (instead of having the state cremate him) just so that they could spit on his corpse before it's buried.
  • Shovel Strike: Rev. Hicks is rescued from the first zombie when it gets whacked on the back with a shovel.
  • Too Dumb to Live: 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.


Examples from the 2006 3D remake:


Alternative Title(s): Night Of The Living Dead 3 D

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/NightoftheLivingDead1968