I first saw Night of the Living Dead when I was around 9-years-old, but it wasn’t the full film. A comedy troupe called The L.A. Connection had a short-lived television show called Mad Movies (which predated Mystery Science Theater 3000 by a few years) where they would take beloved classic films, edit them down to 20 minutes, and re-dub all new dialogue, always turning the original story completely on its head. For example, they once did The Little Princess (1939) starring Shirley Temple, making Temple possessed by a doll, and only a song-and-dance exorcism can save her.
For Night of the Living Dead, Barbara is throwing a surprise birthday party for herself and the zombies are party goers that arrive too early, throwing Barbara into a frenzy because she didn’t have anything cute to wear and she’s out of lettuce. Every time it cut to a shot of the zombies approaching the house or sticking their arms through windows you would hear them all saying, “surpriiiiisse…” in a mumbled, deadpan tone. It was magical.
For whatever reason the film was never on my radar, even though I knew full well that it was a major milestone in Horror history. I didn’t see the full film until I was a good bit older. I can’t put my finger on it, but despite the terrible practical effects; the sub-par acting; the amateur framing in many scenes; the terrible sound; the canned music; despite all of the things that will usually ruin any chance of disassociating while watching a film, I really enjoyed it. And while I didn’t really feel it was at all scary, there was a unique sense of anxiety and danger underlining the entire film from frame one. I think the high-contrast black-and-white print also played a major role in its success, and the setting itself — a remote country farmhouse — definitely contributed to the claustrophobia.
Night of the Living Dead is one of the most successful independent films of all time, by quite a long shot. The final budget for the film was $114,000 (equivalent to $847,400 in 2020), and it grossed approximately $30,000,000 (equivalent to $223,600,000 in 2020) — over 263 times its budget. Despite its record-making successes, director George A. Romero saw very little of the profit as he didn’t include a copyright at the end of the film. Laws at the time stated this was a requirement, and because he missed it the film almost immediately went into the public domain (which is why you often see it playing on TVs in other Horror films, such as the original Halloween).
And let’s not get started on the fact that this single film is responsible for creating an entire universe of Horror sub-genres, and that many modern day zombie films still adhere to the guidelines set forth by George A. Romero and his crew all of those years ago (zombies are cannibals; they move slowly; they simply adore brains; and you have to shoot them in the head to kill them).
It’s for these reasons that I consider Night of the Living Dead untouchable. Un-review-able. Un-critique-able. Precious, even. And it goes without saying, a must-see film for the Horror completist.