Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The first time I saw George A Romero’s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead it was actually a colourised version being distributed by Palace Video (home of The Evil Dead). ‘Sacrilege!’ I hear you cry. But with no other version of the film to compare it to, I quite liked it. Even after colourisation, the film retained its power to shock and astound. I bought this version in the late 80s as sell-through video had just become ‘the thing’ with films being sold for roughly £10 a pop. It was the best tenner I had ever spent.

Then, finally, in the late ’90s widescreen films on video were the new ‘thing’. Goodbye, pan and scan with each side of the film missing. Night was released in this format and *shock horror* in the black and white it had originally been shot in. The transfer was also remarkable. I never knew the original film looked so beautiful. This Tartan release put the kitsch colourisation in the shade (no pun intended).

I then saw that through rights issues associated with the film, it was being reissued on various cheap labels as DVD became the latest film medium to buy. Most of these transfers left a lot to be desired (hello again pan and scan my old friend).

But, partly through the cultural worth of the film and partly through karma, the film would years later be released in 4K on Blu-Ray and on the ever-excellent Criterion label. This is for all intents and purposes the definitive version. It’s fantastic and packed with special features. That’s one thing about being old(er)- living through the amazing era of home videos and onwards you get to see your favourite films released on whatever the latest format is and hopefully restored and cleaned up. Hooray for film preservation.

But what is it about Night of the Living Dead that makes it one of the greatest horror films ever made? The story begins with Johnny and Barbra visiting their late father’s grave. A shambling figure approaches them (giving birth to one of the most iconic lines in film history- ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbra!’) and suddenly lurches at Barbra. Johnny tries to fight his sister’s assailant but is knocked out in the tussle. Barbra makes it to a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and finds a female occupant not just dead but half-eaten. Barbra is joined by a young man called Ben after seeing other shambling figures approaching the house. It would appear that they aren’t alone in the house as a young couple called Tom and Judy and a family called the Coopers (Harry, Helen and their young daughter who has been bitten by one of the undead) have been down in the cellar the whole time.

There are mutterings from Harry that what is happening is some sort of widespread mass murder. The group then later find out from a TV news report that it is thought that a satellite that visited Venus was shot down after it was found that it contained a radiation that has caused the dead to rise up from their graves and see the living as their primary food source.

I love the fact that Night starts out like any other horror film of the era but then starts to mutate into a film that audiences had never seen up until that point whether it was regarding the action within the plot or the structure of the film.

Drive-in and Grindhouse audiences were to see the complete breakdown of society. That’s heady stuff for an evening’s entertainment and massively ambitious for a low-budget horror film from an, at that time, unknown film director.

The film was also a first in that the lead female character very quickly becomes catatonic and withdraws inside herself very quickly after reaching the farmhouse because of the trauma of what has just happened to her and her brother. If that wasn’t enough she then sees the half-eaten corpse of the previous female occupant of the farmhouse. Usually within films until that point, leading characters were established as they were there until the bitter end. Romero exploits this and demolishes audiences’ expectations. In fact, Romero even tops Hitchcock here who disposed of his supposed leading character Marion Crane in the shower in Psycho early on in that film’s runtime. Barbra for much of her screen time in Night is either withdrawn from the outside world or hysterical.

There’s a very poignant and unsettling moment when she accidentally triggers a music box to start. What would have been innocent and comforting in other circumstances is now rendered sober, sad and utterly heartbreaking as we see Barbra’s face through the slots of the contraption as it spins. The days of civilisation and order are now over. How Barbra meets her end is bother sad, vicious and ironic as she is finally reunited with her brother albeit in zombie form.

I love the film’s pessimism. One prime example is when Tom and Judy assist Ben in trying to refuel his truck at a nearby petrol pump, the petrol from the pump spills and is set alight by the lit torches they are holding. The truck with Tom and Judy in it catches fire and then explodes. We later see the zombies chowing down on the couple’s entrails. As if this wasn’t enough, when Ben approaches the house and bangs on the door to be let back in, we see Harry ignore his banging and set off back into the cellar. Ben kicks in the door, sees Harry setting off back downstairs and beats him for this. It would appear that the breakdown of society has brought out the various characters’ true natures.

Robin Wood had a theory known as the Return of the Repressed about film but was influenced by Freud. Wood argues that ‘the repressed represented the surplus that existed in society but had not been allowed to exist openly, left lingering under one’s bed or hidden in the closet.’ In Night this seems to be regarding the issue of the family. The myth of the nuclear family being the only family form or specifically the only acceptable or functional family form is attacked here. Firstly, it could be seen that the seven people who have found themselves together within the confines of the farmhouse could be seen as an alternative family form who must work together or die. With any family form, there are power struggles with, in this instance, Ben and Harry jostling for the top spot. Ben wants control for the genuine good of everyone in his new family, Harry wants to be the ‘father’ figure for the mere power and control of the position and so that he can do everything for himself rather than for anyone else.

The nuclear family in the film are shown in its reality rather than the false depiction conveyed in the media and advertising. Helen and Harry are stuck in a loveless marriage. As Helen starts a sentence at one point ‘We may not like each other…’ There is also a point in the film in which Helen has overstepped the mark with what she is saying to Harry. As he angrily throws down the cigarette he is smoking, she expectantly stops talking, almost like she knows what’s coming (a backhander). This is a very subtle depiction of the implied domestic violence within their marriage. This directly goes against the false myth of the nuclear family being the preferred and most functional family form in American society at that time.

The nuclear family within the film is also, literally attacked and eaten from the inside later in the film when we see Karen, now in zombie form, chowing down on her Dad’s arm after he has been shot by Ben. She then grabs a trowel and stabs her mother to death with it. Do we need a clearer depiction of both Romero’s, Wood’s and possibly society’s view on the myth of the nuclear family? I remember a module I took at University which was devoted to the horror film. The lecturer said ‘This is when the modern horror film was born’ and then he showed the clip of Karen killing her mother. I agree with him.

And then we have the film’s ending. Oh boy. Firstly, if you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead, stop reading and watch it. It’s on YouTube and waiting for you! The film’s conclusion finds Ben, the only survivor, stumbling up from the basement. There is a posse of zombie hunters who see him, MAYBE mistake him for a zombie (but we don’t know for sure) and shoot him in the head. The closing credits then play with stills of Ben dead, his body being hoisted up by the posse with meat hooks and then placed on a mound and set alight.

Not only is there the fact that the only living human being from the farmhouse has been killed and the twisted irony of this event but also the fact that Ben is black and his killing by the lynch mob could obviously stand for something else. This is the most shocking conclusion of any film I’ve ever seen. The power of what we’ve just seen occur and the fate of this strong, amazing character is very difficult to watch and my blood always runs cold when I see this sequence.

Key to this scene is the music used by Romero. In fact, the music within the whole film is amazing with the director using appropriate library music for the film. This masterful use of library music would be utilised again in Romero’s sequel to Night which is, of course, Dawn of the Dead, a sequel just as brilliant as Night.

The influence of NOTLD would pop up in movies that I saw after my first viewing of this classic. The gang members in Assault on Precinct 13, the chowing down of entrails in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and just about every other horror movie that featured zombies being prime examples.

In 1999 Night was deemed to be ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ by The Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. And rightly so.

If you haven’t seen NOTLD, you can’t call yourself a true horror fan. Period.


31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A mysterious radiation thought to have been brought back to Earth after a space probe to Venus is bringing the dead back to life to feast on the living. A young woman named Barbara is visiting her dead father’s grave with her brother Johnny when…

This film has so much of a great reputation amongst horror fans and cinema scholars alike. Does it live up to this?

In a word- YES. Not only does it feel real (it’s based in the America it was made in and looks almost like a documentary) but you get the impression that the events that take place in the course of the film could actually happen. We are witnessing the fabric of society unravelling magnificently due to the disaster which has occurred. Life (and death) will never be the same again after this literally Earth-changing event.


Hitchcock may have ripped up the horror rulebook by disposing of Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane early on in Psycho when the audience wrongly thought of her as the main female character who would make it to the end of the film. But George A Romero goes one better in Night. Barbara is still in the majority of the film but is so traumatised by her ordeal that she is rendered catatonic for the rest of her tenure. And what a great performance it is- a mental breakdown captured on celluloid, a brilliant portrayal of a response to trauma. Watch the scene where Barbara comes across the music box. It’s one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen.

Romero also holds a mirror up to societal tensions and conflicts throughout the film. Duane Jones as Ben is the lead of the movie but is also African American- unheard of except when depicted by Sidney Poitier in mainstream Hollywood films that felt groundbreaking and progressive but also marginalised. These films squarely tackled race (and rightly so). But Jones just happens to be black and this is never mentioned in Night. His race isn’t an explicit issue in the film- but maybe directs the actions of other characters (check out the conclusion to Night. There are MANY different readings and interpretations of this. It’s the most shocking ending I have ever seen in a film and just as relevant today as it was back then. I actually get a shiver down my spine just thinking about it and what we see during the end credits of this film).

Duane Jones plays Ben

But there are other societal echoes within Night. Notice how Ben gives his monologue regarding the backstory as to how he ended up at the farmhouse. Jones is truly astonishing especially here. But then watch how he reacts when Barbara tells her story- her account is no less serious or devastating as she’s just seen her brother being knocked unconscious after being attacked by a member of the undead during an event that should have been humdrum and routine. She is termed hysterical by Ben who tells her to calm down. Different oppressed sectors of society with equally disturbing back stories to tell but instead of each being given their time to share their experiences, a member of one group tells the other to effectively shut up. 50 years on, this film is still relevant.

This film also has a lot to say about the family of that time. The traditional family is under attack from the zombies (as Robin Wood expressed using his theory of ‘Return of the Repressed’). The notion of Mom, Dad and 2.4 children (possibly with an apple pie on the table) is no more. The new family in the farmhouse consists of disparate members of society who are forced together to survive against what has gone wrong in the outside world. In fact, in one scene we see Ben actually taking apart the notion of the family and the household from within as he starts taking apart furniture like the kitchen table to barricade the doors and windows with. The scene where the mother is stabbed to death by her daughter who has been bitten by a zombie represents the death of the outdated notion of the family in it’s purest form. The new killing and replacing what and who has gone before.

Child kills parent, the new killing the old

The first time I saw this film it had actually been colorised but still worked. The thinking behind this colorisation was probably the video company thinking that all horror films made within a certain timeframe were ‘kitsch’, camp and unworthy of serious analysis or enjoyment. I believe the term is ‘so bad it’s good’ (vomit). I remember an advert for a screening of the film on the UK’s Channel 4 that billed the film as a typical 60’s drive-in B movie- cue emphasis on bad acting, rubbish make-up and all round tack. Wrong on EVERY count.


It was a revelation when I first saw the film as it was intended to be seen in black and white. It’s actually a beautiful film with every frame resembling the work of the Nouvelle Vague rather than some Grindhouse fodder made on the cheap to be shown to the stoned.

I saw this film yesterday on the big screen. It was the Criterion 4K restoration and it looked and sounded amazing.

If punk is seen as Year Zero for music then this is Year Zero for horror and one of a whole slew of films that represented a turning point for American film in general.

Fun fact- this is the film on in the background when Harold is having a sandwich made in Halloween 2 (1981).

5 out of 5 stars

Night of the Living Dead 4K Restoration Premiere Press Release

Night of the Living Dead 4K Restoration Premiere Press Release

More great news today! Heres the press statement regarding the 4k premiere of Night of the Living Dead-

Press Release: NEW YORK, October 19, 2016—The Museum of Modern Art announces the addition of George A. Romero’s horror classic Night of the Living Dead to the upcoming To Save and Project festival in November. The iconic horror film, widely diminished by duplication due to infamous copyright issues, will have its world premiere in its originally intended quality, thanks to a painstaking 4K digital restoration by MoMA and The Film Foundation. Director George A. Romero will attend the world premiere on November 5 at 8:00 p.m. at The Museum of Modern Art to introduce the screening. Tickets for that program go on sale October 22. An additional screening will take place at the Museum at 7:00 p.m. on November 12.
Perhaps the most influential horror film of the last 50 years, Romero’s classic is also one of the most abused—subjected, because of its public-domain status, to well over 100 home video releases of deteriorated quality. The film has now been restored to its full, original glory by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, working from the original camera negative, which was carefully guarded over the years by the members of Image Ten, the Pittsburgh partnership that originally produced it.
Night of the Living Dead has long been the subject of restoration discussions after a missing copyright notice upon its original 1968 print left it open to duplication and public rerelease. Recognizing its cinematic impact immediately, MoMA first acquired an original print in 1970 for its collection. Now, decades later, the Museum presents this important motion picture in its best possible state after a painstaking audio and image restoration.
“It’s an honor and a thrill to have MoMA restore and present a horror movie that I and a group of Pittsburgh friends created nearly 50 years ago,” said Romero. “After working closely with MoMA and the Film Foundation on this restoration, I know the meticulous work that has gone into creating this new restoration and I am excited to terrify new audiences and devoted fans with a version that returns our film to the quality we originally intended.”
“Our annual To Save and Project festival showcases the best new restorations of masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead set the standard for horror, and the figure of the zombie in its myriad incarnations on screens large and small. Until now, however, it has been impossible to truly appreciate the film’s formal beauty and visceral power,” said MoMA film curator and festival co-organizer Joshua Siegel. “Our state-of-the-art restoration draws upon the best original visual and audio elements previously thought to have been lost, ensuring that audiences will be able to enjoy Night of the Living Dead as originally intended by its creators for generations to come.”
“The Film Foundation is thrilled that George Romero’s groundbreaking film is being restored from the original camera negative and track. We hope this will allow a new generation to experience the film and appreciate the elements that made it so innovative at the time, and give it continued power and relevance today. George Romero’s involvement in the restoration means that this version will be definitive, and the only one that truly reflects his vision,” said Margaret Bodde, executive director of The Film Foundation.
The film was restored by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. The restoration was overseen by George A. Romero and Image Ten—most especially, Gary Streiner, Russ Streiner, and John Russo—with restoration work done by Cineric Inc, NYC, and Audio Mechanics, Burbank, CA.
Among its many influences, Romero’s film is credited with creating the zombie as we know it today: the reanimated corpse with a taste for the living, seen in everything from The Walking Dead to Shaun of the Dead. Despite its humble Pittsburgh working-class origins, exploitation genre ties, and inadequate handling by the original distributor, Night of the Living Dead has set numerous precedents for motion pictures throughout the world. It was the first film of its kind to cast an African American actor as the lead character based solely on the strength of his performance, and tramples widely held taboos of the time—from respect for the dead and authority figures to traditional family relationships and the narrative tradition of heroes surviving to the film’s conclusion.
Night of the Living Dead premieres as part of The Museum of Modern Art’s 14th annual edition of To Save and Project, an international festival dedicated to celebrating newly preserved and restored films from archives, studios, distributors, foundations, and independent filmmakers. Running from November 2 through 23, 2016, To Save and Project is organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, and Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.
Tickets for all screenings are available two weeks prior to their screening date, beginning October 19. Tickets for the first screening of Night of the Living Dead will go on sale October 22.
Special thanks to Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan and Cindi Rowell for their assistance on this exhibition.”