History, Legacy & Showmanship

The Original Zombie Apocalypse: Remembering “Night of the Living Dead” on its 50th Anniversary

October 31, 2018 - 11:15 am   |   by
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Night of the Living Dead is a classic that has inspired countless imitators, and spawned a sub-genre that continues to be exploited today in film, television, books and video games.” – John Scoleri, author of Latent Images: Night of the Living Dead

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s influential and franchise-spawning horror film about a group of characters trapped in a Pennsylvania farmhouse who are stalked by flesh-eating zombies.

Night of the Living Dead – co-written by John Russo and featuring Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Riley, and Keith Wayne – opened fifty years ago this autumn, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with author and film historian John Scoleri.

John Scoleri is the author of Latent Images: Night of the Living Dead (Dreams and Visions Press, 2019), and several books on artist Ralph McQuarrie, including The Art of Ralph McQuarrie: Archives (Dreams and Visions Press, 2015). He was co-editor (with Peter Enfantino and Robert Morrish) of The Scream Factory Magazine (Deadline Press, 1989-1997) as well as the 600+ page greatest-hits collection, The Best of The Scream Factory (Cemetery Dance, 2018). [Read on here...]

He produced the DVDs Caroline Munro: First Lady of Fantasy (2004) and Ralph McQuarrie: Illustrator (2002), and has contributed to several volumes on author Richard Matheson, including Bloodlines (Gauntlet Press, 2006). His article “Born of I AM LEGEND” appears in Fantasm Media’s Official Night of the Living Dead 50th anniversary Magazine (Fantasm Media, 2018), and he maintains numerous blogs where he continues to evangelize all the things that he loves, including the I Am Legend Archive (with a current count of 155 different editions from around the world, he claims to have the largest collection of Richard Matheson’s novel) (iamlegendarchive.com), bare•bones (with Peter Enfantino and Jack Seakbrook) (barebonesez.blogspot.com) and several episode-a-day TV show blogs, including the currently-in-progress Dark Shadows Before I Die (with his sister Christine) (dsb4idie.blogspot.com).

John Scoleri

Scoleri kindly spoke to The Bits about the influence, appeal and legacy of Night of the Living Dead

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Night of the Living Dead should be remembered on its 50th anniversary?

notld newspaperadJohn Scoleri: I think the ideal way to remember the film on its 50th anniversary was to see the Museum of Modern Art’s 4K restoration on the big screen. I was honored to attend the 50th anniversary screening of the film a few weeks ago at the Byham Theater (formerly the Fulton) in downtown Pittsburgh, in the same theater where the film premiered in 1968. The majority of the surviving cast and crew were in attendance, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate the film.

Beyond that, I think Night of the Living Dead should be remembered for the influence that it has had and continues to have on cinema and pop culture. It’s a classic that has inspired countless imitators, and spawned a sub-genre that continues to be exploited today in film, television, books and video games. It remains an important piece of cinematic history, both in how it helped usher in a wave of regional filmmaking, and how it broke new ground in terms of having an African American in a leading role for a character not defined by his race.

Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw Night of the Living Dead?

Scoleri: Well, it was Friday, July 13th, 1979. I actually just published an essay on my decades-long search to confirm the exact date of my first viewing. Suffice it to say, mine is a pretty common tale among fans of my generation. I was 9 years old, and had heard about the film from my older brother who had seen it. He described it as being scary – even in the daytime! When a listing showed up in the local TV Guide indicating it would be on one of our local Creature Features programs, we made a point not miss it. While I don’t remember the specific details of the film from that first viewing, I do remember being wide awake when it was over, in a state of shock over how the film had ended with the death of our hero, and his unceremonious inclusion in the bonfire with the ghouls. None of the monster movies that I had seen up to that point in my life had prepared me for this. After a single viewing, Night was my all-time favorite horror film, and it remains so to this day.

Coate: In what way is Night of the Living Dead a significant motion picture?

Scoleri: I appreciate that you didn’t constrain that to “horror,” because I think the film, and its importance, transcends the genre. There is no questioning that as a horror film it was groundbreaking. The unrelenting tone and graphic depictions of gore pushed boundaries far beyond most films of the period, certainly in terms of their stark, realistic portrayal. But beyond the film’s horror elements, the underlying theme of a group of people being unable to work together in order to survive will always be relevant and relatable to modern audiences. And it cannot be overstated that the casting of Duane Jones (who delivers an amazing performance in the lead role) provides the film with a historical relevance that still reverberates today.

Coate: How do you think the numerous sequels, remakes, etc. compare to the original ’68 movie?

Scoleri: I’m a huge fan of Dawn, Day and Land of the Dead. Day was the first of Romero’s films that I saw in a theater, and is probably my second favorite behind Night. I love how the film establishes how widespread the problem has become in the opening sequence in Florida before it settles in to the more intimate and claustrophobic setting of the underground mine. I also think that Tom Savini’s make-up effects in Day of the Dead have never been topped; and there have been a lot of zombie films and TV shows since 1985.

I’m less fond of Diary and Survival of the Dead, as I feel those two films were compromised by budgetary limitations; most significantly when it comes to CGI effects and casting. That said, I recently revisited them both and I found that I had warmed up to Survival. The casting was certainly a step up from Diary, and it’s a much better looking film. Unfortunately the CGI effects, which were somewhat masked by Diary’s shot-on-video approach, stand out even more in Survival.

I also count myself among those who love Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead. I think it’s a great example of how to approach remaking a classic horror film. It manages to work equally well for both those intimately familiar as well as those unfamiliar with the original. It’s not a pointless shot-for-shot remake, nor is it unrecognizable to fans of the original. For fans of the original, I think it succeeds by playing off our expectations; providing its own unique twists and turns along the way.

The Zack Snyder remake of Dawn has a very strong opening, but overall it lacks the emotional weight that Romero infused in his films. I don’t really care whether his characters live or die – they’re just fodder to prolong the roller-coaster ride.

There are a number of great zombie films that came in the wake of George’s that took inspiration from his films and went on to put their own unique spin on things (not unlike how George took inspiration from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and expanded on it). These include Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and Peter Jackson’s Braindead/Dead Alive. I confess that I also have a soft spot for the numerous Italian knock-offs I grew up watching on VHS. They are by no means great cinema, but quite often enjoyable in their absurdity.

Coate: Where do you think Night of the Living Dead ranks among George Romero’s body of work?

Scoleri: I’ve already indicated that Night is my favorite horror film, so you would probably assume it’s my pick for Romero’s best film. When looking at his entire body of work, which includes the great Dead sequels I mentioned [earlier] and several other important classics such as Martin and Creepshow, I would place Night second only to the one film that I’ve come to associate most with George the man and filmmaker: Knightriders. It’s an under-appreciated gem filled with familiar faces from his stock company, and I think the story speaks volumes about the filmmaker. It’s amazing that he was able to make the film when you consider the concept: a traveling renaissance fair built around jousting on motorcycles. It doesn’t exactly sound like a blockbuster idea on paper, but it has grown to be my favorite Romero film.

Coate: Where do you think Night of the Living Dead ranks among the horror genre in general and zombie-themed film & TV in particular)?

Scoleri: I think Night of the Living Dead is at the top of the list. If I were to list my favorite horror films from every decade starting with the silent era up through today, none of those films have had a greater impact on me, and arguably the horror genre, than Night of the Living Dead.

As a fan of zombie and siege films (John Carpenter’s Assault on the Precinct 13 is my favorite non-zombie siege movie; no surprise considering that it was inspired in part by Night), I have seen more than my share of them through the years. As I noted [earlier in our conversation], I am particularly fond of the ones that attempt to do something unique. Unfortunately, the majority of zombie films, particularly those from the last several years, are blatant attempts to cash in on the current popularity of zombies, and are the cinematic equivalent of eating previously chewed food.

I never dreamt that one day a zombie-themed show would be one of the most popular shows on TV. Or that the same kind of graphic make-up effects that were earning George’s films’ X-ratings would someday be considered acceptable on commercial television. I have read The Walking Dead comic book since its debut, and to me, it was basically just another rehash of Romero’s ideas. I was optimistic for the first season of the TV show, as I knew Frank Darabont was a fan of Romero and Night of the Living Dead, and he is certainly an accomplished filmmaker. As the show was a relatively faithful adaptation of the comic, it didn’t blow me away. Sadly, with the success of the show came the oft-repeated refrain, “Unlike those that came before it, this show is more about the human characters than the zombies.” Which just goes to show that whoever was saying that had zero familiarity with George’s zombie films.

Night of the Living Dead premiere

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George A Romero

Coate: Do you believe Night of the Living Dead has been well represented on home video over the years?

Scoleri: Night of the Living Dead was the first videocassette that I owned a pre-recorded copy of. It was available at our grocery store alongside numerous other public domain titles for the low price of $14.95. Fortunately, I got my Dad’s money’s worth out of that VHS tape; poor quality copy that it was. And I’m sure that tape was representative of most of the copies of Night of the Living Dead on home video up until the LaserDisc era. For fans of the film, there are two major milestones in Night’s home video history. First and foremost, the Elite LaserDisc restoration. Don May, Jr. and Vini Bancalari deserve kudos for rescuing Night of the Living Dead. By going back to the original elements, they were able to provide us with the best looking Night of the Living Dead we had ever seen (likely true even for those folks who saw the film in its early theatrical engagements). And because of that, I forgive them for the collective cry of terror that went out across the globe when thousands of fans popped in their LaserDisc for the first time only to see a faded, scratched print of the film’s opening. Our hopes were momentarily dashed until the image blew apart revealing the Elite logo, followed by the THX Deep Note intro (forever preserved here). As wonderful as that transfer was, it was not without issues, including splice repairs that resulted in the use of repeating frames. But that was a small price to pay for an otherwise stellar transfer. And now, decades later, we’ve got a new milestone in the form of a state of the art Criterion Blu-ray, taken from the 4K restoration of those same elements supervised by the Museum of Modern Art, along with fixes to the film’s framing and audio (Ben’s hammering is finally in sync!). Fans can now enjoy the finest presentation of Night of the Living Dead they could ever hope for. I do occasionally hear people say that they prefer to watch films like Night of the Living Dead in grainy, unrestored editions similarly to how they originally remember seeing them. To those people I would say that this film loses none of its power as a result of the restoration. It looks and sounds amazing. But then what do I know. I only own the film on every imaginable format from Super 8mm & 16mm film to the current Criterion disc!

Coate: How would you describe Night of the Living Dead to the uninitiated?

Scoleri: Powerful. Unrelenting. And yet so much more than just a horror film. An extremely important film whose impact still resonates 50 years after its original release.

Coate: What was the objective with your forthcoming Night of the Living Dead book?

Scoleri: First and foremost, I’m a diehard fan of Night of the Living Dead. Twenty-five years ago, I co-edited a 25th Anniversary tribute magazine, which was something of a love letter to the film and the people who made it. That debuted at the 25th anniversary Zombie Jamboree, a convention held in the Monroeville Mall (where Dawn of the Dead was filmed). That was the first time I met the principals involved with the making of the film.

Twenty years later, I attended the Living Dead Festival put on by Gary Streiner (one of Night’s original investors/filmmakers) in Evans City, Pennsylvania, home of the cemetery where the film’s opening scenes were shot. At the event, I met even more members of the film’s cast and crew, and one thing that struck me was how many amazing photographs the guests had to sign. These were not just frames grabbed from the film, and included many images that I had never seen before. It got me thinking about how cool it would be to have an authorized book reproducing all of those photographs. A few years later, as the MoMA restoration was underway and plans are being made for the film’s 50th anniversary, I reached out to Gary and the folks at Image Ten and pitched the book. Fortunately, they were open to the idea and earlier this year I was granted the license.

My goal with Latent Images is to offer a high-quality, oversize coffee table book of photographs from the making of the film. Much like the books I’ve done on artist Ralph McQuarrie through Dreams and Visions Press, I am ultimately a customer of this book, too. I want a copy on my shelf! And I can honestly say that as a fan, people who are into this film are going to be beside themselves when they see some of the photographic imagery that exists. Not just amazing black and white photographs, but color photographs, including some extremely rare Polaroids taken on set. Those who are casually familiar with the film and the most commonly reproduced images will be blown away by what we’ve collected, and I guarantee even the most passionate fans will find plenty of surprises within. I want the book to be a lasting testament to the film, both for the fans who love it as much as I do, as well as for the filmmakers who worked so hard to make it. They have long deserved something like this as a testament to their achievement, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to do them and the film justice. At the 50th anniversary event a few weeks ago, I was able to share sample pages with the cast and crew, and I am pleased to report that everyone is very excited about it, as so many of the images are new to them, too!

Coate: What is the legacy of Night of the Living Dead?

Scoleri: Night of the Living Dead changed the landscape of horror, but it also changed the landscape of independent cinema. We could spend a lot of time listing filmmakers who followed the lead of Night of the Living Dead by making their own independent, low budget horror film. But broader than that, I think aspiring filmmakers who felt shut out from the Hollywood system suddenly had a different example of success they could try to emulate. Here was a small group of regional filmmakers who looked around at the landscape of films on the market and said, “We can do something better than that.” And they did.

Coate: Thank you, John, for sharing your thoughts and insight about Night of the Living Dead on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

Latent Images: Night of the Living Dead (Book)

IMAGES

Selected images copyright/courtesy Continental, The Criterion Collection, Image Ten Productions, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Walter Reade Organization.

 

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

Night of the Living Dead (Blu-ray Disc)

 

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