A little film premiered on October 1, 1968, which told the story of seven people who barricaded themselves in a rural farmhouse in western Pennsylvania one night. Night of the Living Dead was George A. Romero’s first feature-length film after having shot short films, TV commercials, and even a segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Romero directed, photographed, edited, and co-wrote the film on a budget of $114,000. It became a cult classic, spawning a number of sequels and remakes; however, it also revolutionized the horror genre, as well as redefined the concept of the zombie. Now fifty years strong, Fanbase Press commemorates the 50th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead with this special editorial essay from horror writer/scholar Dr. Kevin Wetmore. – Ed.
October 31, 1983, was a Monday. I was a freshman in high school – too young to drink, too old to trick or treat. My school had had a dance the previous Friday night, and I was unrecognizable as Boy George, but back then I was not out as a horror fan. Only my close friends knew how much I loved zombies. So, Halloween was here, but I hadn’t really done that much to celebrate. My folks thought I could give the candy out that night, and I told them I would, but only until nine.
You see, MTV (a channel that used to play music videos and documentaries about music) was a little over two years old when they announced their Halloween weekend lineup for 1983. On Saturday night was a Sammy Hagar concert (because when you think Samhain, you think Hagar). Sunday night was “The Daryl Hall and John Oates Story in Their Own Words.” I must confess, I also missed that one. But on Monday night, Halloween night, at 8 p.m., MTV played “The Halloween Videomusic Special” [sic] (which was simply a dozen music videos with scary elements, like Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” in which he rides an elevator through a punk gothic tower to battle punk zombies and restless leg syndrome), followed by the airing of Night of the Living Dead at 9 p.m. While I’m sure the film had been shown on television somewhere before at sometime, especially given that it was in the public domain and television stations didn’t have to pay for it, this was the first time the film had been broadcast to the entire nation at once.
Back in ’83, Night of the Living Dead (NotLD) was only fifteen years old, a year older than me (and now you know how old I am), but it was already a legend. Day of the Dead had not been made yet, and Dawn of the Dead was only five years old. Being good Connecticut suburbanites, by 1983 we had cable television and a VCR, and I was beginning to discover a larger world of horror than the edited-for-television stuff that played on local channels on the weekend, or the Universal horror films that had shown up on previous Halloweens. We (me and NotLD) came of age together. It was my friend, one year older than me. To have heard about this film for so long and then finally see it marked a change in my life as a horror fan.
The film itself was amazing, and I cannot deny feeling fear a few times while watching it. But also, a whole new world opened before me. The books on my shelves had been a number of recent horror novels (Stephen King’s The Shining and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst), but the non-fictions surveys of horror culture available to the junior high and early high school set seemed to end with the fifties. Universal Horror, as noted above, was well represented, but kids who were interested in monsters were told nothing of recent horror. I had seen Jaws 2, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Cujo in the cinema that year, but NotLD’s relentless nihilism and monsters that had hours before just been normal people struck a deep chord in me that is still sounding today.
I have, since then, seen the film hundreds of times, taught the film to college students in a horror cinema course (giving many of them their first experience viewing the film), been involved in productions of the stage version, met George Romero multiple times, and even written an entire book about NotLD, its sequels, and remakes. (Shameless plug: It is called Back from the Dead: Remakes of Romero’s Zombie Films as Markers of Their Times, and I argue that every sequel and remake takes Romero’s vision and re-sets it in a contemporary context. For example, the remake of Dawn of the Dead is a post-9/11 zombie film that presents the living dead as terrorists, rather than see the mall as a place to indict consumer culture. If you want a thorough analysis of NotLD and all its children, you can get the book on Amazon! End shameless plug.) I have watched it with dozens of friends, enjoyed the “Rifftrax version,” and sat through remakes, good and worse-than-bad. (Looking at you, NotLD 3D!) I have seen it so many times, I can do the entire film from memory. In short, the film has shaped who I am as a fan, an artist, a scholar, an author, and a zombie (future). Credit MTV for ruining another kid.
There are few moments in my life when I can pinpoint the time that life shifted into something new, but 9 p.m. on Monday, October 31, 1983, is one of them. It was the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead. NotLD and I have gone through our forties together, and I can say one of us has aged well and still holds up and one of us is me. Every time I show it to a class or throw it on for background noise as I write, I flash back to that Monday night, my own “Night of the Night of the Living Dead,” and for a few minutes I am fourteen again.