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"They're coming to get you, Barbara!" "Stop it! You're ignorant." "They're coming for you, Barbara!" "Stop it! You're acting like a child."
Little did Johnny know, they really were coming to get Barbara. But he'd find out soon enough.
George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was an unassuming, budget horror flick shot in Evens City, Pennsylvania in 1967. The crew had few aspirations except to simply get the movie made, but excoriating reviews from conservative critics would propel it to becoming one of the most profitable films of all-time, setting the template for blockbuster zombie franchises like the Walking Dead with its portrayal of flesh-eating "undead ghouls." Not only that, the film would cement Romero's name as one of the great directors of the New Hollywood era.
Romero has at times downplayed the political undertones of the film, but it's hard to view it apart from cultural events surrounding its release, namely the War in Vietnam & the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. & Malcolm X. Choosing to cast a black man--Duane Jones--in the lead of a crisis film during the Civil Rights movement invites interpretation, intended or not. And it's therefore difficult to avoid the interpretation that, though Jones's character escapes a grisly metaphor for the war in Vietnam, he ultimately cannot escape the violence regularly inflicted on black men by law enforcement, who murder him in the film's dispiriting final scene. "The anger and attitude and all that's there is just because it was the Sixties. We lived at the farmhouse, so we were always into raps about the implication and the meaning, so some of that crept in," he would later say.
Night of the Living Dead is now widely regarded as a classic, but outside the film itself, it's influence is due in part to a quirk in copyright law. It was the distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, who requested the title be changed from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead in order to avoid confusion with the 1964 film the Flesh Eaters. But the Walter Reade Organization failed to include the necessary copyright identification on the new title screen, releasing the film to the public domain under the Copyright Act of 1909. This means that, whereas the green-skinned, neck-bolted depiction of Frankenstein is owned by Universal Studios & is therefore off limits to use by other filmmakers, Romero's zombies are not. And this allowed for an entire genre to spring up where these characters all look, sound, & behave the same way.
With its economical approach, subversive themes, & suburban setting, Night of the Living Dead forever changed the way in which horror films are made. It popularized the idea of horror being inflicted in ordinary settings, paving the way for films like John Carpenter's Halloween to follow in its path. And it's regularly included on lists of the most important films of all-time. It's tough to gauge whether or not the copyright issue actually made the film more ubiquitous than it otherwise would be, but it's quite clear that, more than 50 years later, it remains ahead of all its imitators.