Birth of a Genre: Night of the Living Dead Invented the Modern Zombie

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In the beginning, George Romero said, “Let there be ambulatory corpses hungry for the flesh of the living!” And there were, and it was good. No, forget that. It was fucking great. When Romero dropped Night of the Living Dead on audiences back in 1968, he didn’t know he was single-handedly revolutionizing horror movies and creating a whole new genre, almost from scratch, but here we are almost forty years later and both of those facts are abundantly clear. Night of the Living Dead was the kind of game-changer that most filmmakers can only dream of, and he did it in his directorial debut.

Without NotLD, the modern pop-culture landscape would be vastly different. No The Walking Dead, in either television or comic-book form. No Zombie Survival Guide and no World War Z, in either great book or mediocre action-movie form. No 28 Days Later. No Dead Alive, and maybe no Lord of the Rings movies, since there’s a chance of no Peter Jackson career without Dead Alive. No Shaun of the Dead! Can you imagine a world without Shaun of the Dead? I can, but I really don’t want to.

Those are just some of the big names, of course. There are countless other films, books, TV shows and activities spawned from this one film, and lots of them are even pretty damn good. That kind of impact is damn near unique: Can you name another film or director that’s done it?

The key to this success is found in his invention of the modern zombie. Let’s be clear, Night of the Living Dead was not the first zombie movie (that’d be White Zombie, released in 1932). In fact, it wasn’t really a zombie movie at all. No one ever utters the word zombie, and Romero is on record as saying he never thought of them as “zombies.” But the fans did, and he wisely accepted what they realized: Without intending to, he had reinvented the zombie as a whole new beast.

In pre-Romero zombie films, the scary thing about the zombie wasn’t that it was going to get you, it was that you might become a zombie if you ran afoul of the zombie master. Romero’s zombies added the twist of making the zombies themselves fucking terrifying. They weren’t going to just “get” you, they were going to eat you. Probably while you were still more or less alive and screaming about it. Oh, and as a bonus? You get to become a zombie, too! Inadvertent as it may have been, he took everything that was scary about the old zombie — becoming a lifeless, soulless, ambulatory corpse — and added a whole new layer of terror. Now you didn’t become a zombie by antagonizing some Voodoo priest; you became a zombie by getting eaten. You didn't need to go to some exotic locale to find these zombies, either — the movie takes place not on some unnamed Caribbean island, but in a mundane farmhouse in Anytown, USA.

These creatures he created just so happened to be the ideal delivery mechanism for pretty much any theme a filmmaker wanted to project on them. That’s because they were, at their core, just people. Deadish people who were still walking around, yes, but just people nonetheless. No supernatural cause or cure was offered; the power of Christ didn’t compel these ghouls to do shit. This film used them to comment on humanity’s inability to come together to overcome existential threats, mostly. Romero's later zombie films tackled everything from rampant consumerism to the War on Terror, all using the same undead antagonists. Other filmmakers have tackled their own themes, whether it be the vapidity and emptiness of modern life, or just an excuse to use several hundred gallons of fake blood. And the original movie? It still holds up today, a testament not just to its considerable influence but to its quality as a film. It’s not every movie that can create an entire horror subgenre, revolutionize horror as a whole and include a scene where a creepy undead girl eats both her parents. That’s why it’s vitally important that we appreciate the one that does.

See Night of the Living Dead at 9:20 p.m. Saturday, August 8 at the Alamo Drafthouse. For tickets and more information, visit the Night of the Living Dead event page.

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