Night of the Living Dead

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Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 horror film, directed by George A. Romero and written by Romero and John Russo; it is one of the most influential horror films ever, helping to make zombies the staple monster of the Zombie Apocalypse genre. Before Living Dead, zombies were creatures of voodoo who obeyed their master, but Romero's zombies were something completely different; for one, thing, no explanation was given for their existence (besides a speculative Hand Wave about a space probe and radioactive fallout), but more than that, the film showed the increasing tension in society—the zombies weren't the only enemies, they were only the most visible ones.

The film is part of the Public Domain because the original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, neglected to place a copyright indication on the prints. In 1968, United States copyright law required a proper copyright notice for a work in order to secure and maintain a copyright. While such a notice was displayed on the title frames of the film beneath its original title, Night of the Flesh Eaters, the notice was removed when the title was changed, and by the time the filmmakers noticed, it was too late. Because of the public domain status, the film can be sold on home video by anyone with the resources to distribute it; as of 2006, the Internet Movie Database lists 23 different releases of the film on DVD and 19 on VHS. The film is available to view or download free on Internet sites such as Internet Archive, YouTube and Vimeo. In 1999, the original 1968 film was re-released by Russo for its 30th anniversary without Romero's involvement, with new footage filmed and a new soundtrack composed. The altered version's continuity had a sequel in 2001 called Children of the Living Dead.

After Night of the Living Dead became an unexpected success, Romero and Russo discussed making a Sequel but disagreed on what direction the next film was to go in, so they decided to each do their own version: Romero's became 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 (Land of the Dead) in 2005 and then made a quasi-reboot (Diary of the Dead) which had its own POV Sequel (Survival of the Dead), while the Return of the Living Dead films became less comedic and more Gorn. All three of the films of Romero's trilogy have been remade, with varying degrees of success (the first remake of Night was actually written and produced by Romero himself and directed by close friend Tom Savini). Night was also remade for a second time in 2006, filmed in 3D; 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 many movies, television shows, video games, books, and comic books owe their origin to its gruesome black-and-white imagery.

Night of the Living Dead is the Trope Namer for:
Tropes used in Night of the Living Dead include:
  • Action Girl: The most notable change in Tom Savini's remake was to upgrade Barbra from The Load.
  • And I Must Scream: In the 2006 remake, the mortician says that the bodies who've resurrected after being buried aren't strong enough to dig their way out. Kind of subverted, as they're zombies, and therefore not really capable of much cognition.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Averted with Johnny in the remake. He torments Barbra but shows redemptive qualities by immediately seeing if the undertaker is all right and then fighting the first zombie encountered from attacking Barbra... resulting in him tackling the zombie and accidentally head kerplunking a tombstone which breaks his neck.
      • Even in the original, he immediately races to his sister's rescue and pretty bravely fights the zombie. Asshole though he may be, he has his priorities in order when the going gets tough.
    • Played straight with Harry Cooper.
  • Berserk Board Barricade: Ben throws up a whole bunch of them.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Inverted -- the black dude is the only one who survives... at least, until he gets shot by the rednecks.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Helen (brunette), Judy Rose (blonde) and Barbra (redhead) in the remake.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Barbara's the protagonist. Then Ben shows up and she turns into The Load.
  • Downer Ending: Ben, the last survivor, is mistaken for a zombie and shot after leaving the house.
  • Dramatic Thunder: The appearance of the first zombie in the cemetery is heralded by this.
  • 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.
  • Everybody Smokes
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Seriously, there no way that truck would've exploded that fast especially when the back of it was the only part that caught fire, which was nowhere near the gas tank.
  • 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: The female zombie with the naked behind. There's also a very grainy, blink-and-you'll-miss-it breast shot.
  • 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. Of course, it's shown from behind so you don't really see much.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Woman!: 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: Roger Ebert's reaction to the Family Unfriendly Deaths of Tom and Judy provides the page quote for that trope.
  • Half-Empty Two-Shot: In the Savini remake, something does lunge into the frame, but from the wrong side.
  • Heroic BSOD: Barbra. In the remake, however, this is subverted when she becomes just as much a survivor as Ben and even lives through the end.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Barbra in the remake.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Just watch that ending.
  • 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.
  • It Got Worse: Things really start going to hell beginning with Tom and Judy's death.
  • Jerkass: Cooper, in both versions. Johnny seems to be a bit of one as well.
  • Kill'Em All: None of the main characters make it through the film alive.
  • Kill It with Fire: Fire is one of the only things zombies are afraid of.
  • Kill the Cutie: And how.
  • Licensed Game: There was a Text Adventure treatment involving another person caught out on the eponymous night.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • It should be noted that 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Peek-a-Boo Corpse: One of the more frightening examples, considering how well it was done with 60s SFX.
  • Practical Voice Over: Radio and television broadcasts are used throughout the film to outline the contours and extent of the zombie outbreak.
  • 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.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: When Karen Cooper kills her mother with a spade.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: To the first movie. In the first remake when Karen eats her mother, we momentarily see a spade on the wall similar to the one in the original. The reporter is also the same actor playing the same character from the original as well.
  • The Siege
  • 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.
  • Tears of Fear: Roger Ebert described children in the first theatrical showing were sitting in their seats silently crying in horror.
    • What's so special in this case is that thanks to movie gimmicks such as those created by William Castle, many horror movies of the '50s and '60s had become the equivalent to carnival fun-houses, good for a harmless thrill and very popular with kids. As a result children growing up at that time went to see Night of the Living Dead expecting spooky fun and instead were genuinely terrified by what they saw, a fact not lost upon Mr. Ebert.
  • 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.
  • Thematic Series: As mentioned in the page summary, the sequels that spawned off this movie were all loosely connected.
  • 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.
  • Title of the Dead
  • 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!
    • 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!
  • Took a Level in Badass: Barbra in the remake, in pointed contrast with her original incarnation.
  • 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 in the remake
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The Coopers, in both versions.
  • The Un-Reveal: 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. Justified in that we're not dealing with people investigating the cause, just dealing with the effects.
  • Undead Child: Karen Cooper.
  • The Virus
  • We've Been Experiencing Technical Difficulties: But Johnny foolishly turns off the radio before finding out why.
  • Who Is This Guy Again?: Pretty much 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. (Of course, 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 Gait: Interestingly averted with the very first zombie that Barbra and Johnny encounter.
  • Zombie Infectee: Karen Cooper.