The Best Horror Movie of 1968: Night of the Living Dead

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The Best Horror Movie of 1968: <i>Night of the Living Dead</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

After a few years where the horror genre felt like it was mostly treading water, 1968 signals the start of another paradigm shift. This is a top-flight year all around, but it signifies a time when the genre is growing and changing, leaving behind some of the vestiges of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even at studios such as Hammer, which has been cranking out fairly similar gothic horror films for the last decade, it’s clear that change is in the air. The low-budget success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a beacon and inspiration for the coming crop of indie filmmakers who will usher in the New Hollywood era, starting with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969—check out our appreciation of that film’s 50th anniversary here. But it’s NOTLD that proved you could shoot a horror film for around $100,000 and have it gross 250 times its budget. Those numbers were not lost on the new generation of hungry filmmakers.

Only one other film from 1968 mounts a serious campaign to be considered in the #1 spot, and that is Roman Polanski’s urban masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. The modern tenement/apartment setting of the film brought a story with supernatural implications into what was a new and unsettlingly familiar locale, where an array of “well-meaning” faces walk all over a meek Mia Farrow, taking advantage of society’s expectations that she be subservient to the desires of almost everyone else in her life. Paste’s Dom Sinacola puts it best, in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “With Rosemary’s Baby, the body of young Rosemary is the institution through which Satan’s malice gestates, a body over which everyone but Rosemary herself seems to have any control. At the mercy of her overbearing neighbors (played by a pitch-perfect Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), her Ur-Dudebro husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), and the doctor (Ralph Bellamy) recommended by her high society cadre of new friends, Rosemary is treated as if she’s the last person who knows what’s best for her and her fetus—a position she accepts as a matter of fact. She’s only a woman, a homemaker at that, so such is her lot.”

At Hammer, meanwhile, this is about the time when studio executives, perhaps looking at the increasingly extreme violence and more overt sexuality present in the films of their American competitors, begin to ramp up the sexualization of their franchises, in entries like this year’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave—just look at the poster, if you want the world’s least subtle indicator of how things were changing. These changes don’t always fit in an organic way—although actresses like consummate Hammer Horror buxom beauty Veronica Carlson are no doubt lovely, their increasingly sexualized presentation often seems simply shoehorned into stories that are otherwise traditional gothic monster movies. These films are often still entertaining, but as the close of the decade draws near, Hammer’s output increasingly takes on an exploitative tinge that seems designed to help it compete against the American exploitation pictures of the day, losing some of its sense of gravitas in the process.

1968 Honorable Mentions: Rosemary’s Baby, Kuroneko, Hour of the Wolf, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Witchfinder General, The Devil Rides Out, Spirits of the Dead

The Film: Night of the Living Dead

Director: George A. Romero

It’s sort of funny to think that, in the film always cited as being the progenitor of the modern zombie genre, the word “zombie” is never actually uttered by anyone. The use of that particular term to describe the reanimated corpses seen in Night of the Living Dead was a pop cultural affectation that seems to have grown out of our previous use of the word “zombie,” but as for Romero, he mostly called the creatures “ghouls.” Not that it really matters—the importance of Night of the Living Dead is hardly in its impact on semantics. Its monumental influence is seen pretty much everywhere else, though: In the enduring images of Romero’s version of the undead; in the revolutionary new depiction of on-screen gore; in its low-budget and independent nature; in the color-blind casting of Duane Jones as Ben, the film’s de facto protagonist. Rarely has any one horror film innovated in so many areas at once.

To young horror fans who take in the film today for the first time, the thought of its on-screen violence being shocking might seem overblown, but to audiences of the day, it truly was a revelation, even in the seemingly protective starkness of black and white. The oozing skull of a freshly killed ghoul is an image that was seared into the collective memory of those shell-shocked souls who stumbled out of midnight screenings of the film in 1968 and its various re-releases in the years to come, but it’s the contemporary critical reviews that best capture the tone of moral outrage the film caused in some circles. Variety wrote the following, seemingly calling on the federal government itself to censor the visual affront that NOTLD represented:

“Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.”

When major publications are questioning “the moral health” of the average cinemagoer, it’s safe to say that some kind of cultural revolution is probably underway, and hey—it was the late 1960s, after all. So too does the film reflect more than a decade of societal anxiety related to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, although this was hardly intended by Romero, who initially wrote the character of Ben with a white actor in mind. After discovering Duane Jones, however, the role of Ben took on entirely new significance—a brave, proactive, heroic man whose race largely isn’t a factor in his generally valorous portrayal. Only in his interactions with the more cowardly, selfishly minded (and white) Harry Cooper does the specter of race factor in strongly, but this only made Ben that much more of an icon to black audiences: A hero who stands his ground rather than kowtowing to white authority. Or as Ben puts it, sealing Harry up in the defenseless basement where he’s chosen to isolate himself: “You can be the boss down there. I’m the boss up here!” And then there’s the film’s incredibly bleak ending, which plays very differently when its “rescue” crews are accidentally gunning down a black man, as opposed to a white man.

Finally, and most obviously, NOTLD’s concept of the reanimated corpse as “zombie” provided us with the template for the 21st century’s single most popular and socially relevant monster. The basic rules established here, such as needing to “destroy the brain” in order to stop a ghoul, persisted and were embellished by decades of films to follow, but the still-beating heart of Romero’s vision remains largely intact even now, more than half a century later. In the interim, Romero-style zombies have been used to represent every conceivable form of symbolism, from mindless consumers, to deadly pathogens, to screen-addicted millennials. It’s an outline that has proven as endlessly adaptable as it is persistently horrific. Where would the horror genre of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond have been, without zombies?

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.