Fifty years ago this week, American moviegoers wandered into a low-budget horror flick filmed outside Pittsburgh. What they saw would change the genre forever.
Director George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” broke new cinematic ground, crowned Romero as the king of horror, and transmuted the cultural tension of 1968 into a zombie zeitgeist. Pittsburghers will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Romero's classic film through October. A complete listing of events is available at the festival’s website.
90.5 WESA’s Maria Scapellato spoke with University of Pittsburgh Professor of Film Studies Adam Lowenstein about the movie’s impact on cinema and culture.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MARIA SCAPELLATO: People at the movie’s premiere said for years that they were really shocked by what they saw on screen. What made “Night of the Living Dead” so innovative?
ADAM LOWENSTEIN: It remade the horror genre as something that's closer to home, to us, [as] more about our everyday lives rather than something foreign and fantastic. Before “Night the Living Dead,” we had things like Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. After “Night the Living Dead,” we have much more human monsters, and scary things that we’re more likely to run into in our everyday lives.
SCAPELLATO: Yeah, the fact that [the film] was shot on a low budget in the outskirts of western Pennsylvania, mostly in Evans City — did that make it even more frightening for viewers? That these could be your neighbors, and your friends, and your family?
LOWENSTEIN: Absolutely. There's a way in which “Night the Living Dead” feels more like a newscast than a horror film. And I think that's a big part of the film's power, is its ability to be so real to us.
SCAPELLATO: You know, people were really shocked in news accounts by the level of gore and violence in [the film] back in 1968. It really frightened people — they really weren't expecting this, were they?
LOWENSTEIN: No. And the initial reviews of the film were incredibly negative. One of them called the movie and “unrelieved orgy of sadism,” based on the violence and the gore in the film.
But just two years later, in 1970, George Romero was asked to visit the Museum of Modern Art and talk about why the film was so socially and politically important, on the occasion of the film being acquired for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
And I think one way to think about that change is to think about the years between 1968 and 1970 as two of the most turbulent and violent in American history. The movie went from seeming out-of-bounds to seeming very much of the times.
SCAPELLATO: Zombie movies and television shows, they're really popular today. What is the fascination that the public has with the zombie genre?
LOWENSTEIN: Well, George used to always say, and I think he is absolutely right, that “the zombie is us.” Rather than a creature that's [as] fantastic and different from us as can be, the zombie is a very working class, everyday monster.
If you encounter just one of them, you're probably likely to vanquish it because they don't have a lot of power, or strength, or smarts. But what they have is the numbers and a mass importance. When they’re together, they're very powerful. When they're alone, they're very weak.
And I think there's something about the zombie condition and the human condition that are more intimate than oppositional.
SCAPELLATO: Do those political, class, racial divisions that existed way back in 1968 — do they still exist today? And can social media be fanning these flames? And what do you think Romero would say about our condition today, as opposed to 1968?
LOWENSTEIN: Well, I feel as a testament to both “Night the Living Dead’s” power, and the sort of deep crisis of our current political climate, it feels like “Night the Living Dead” is at least as timely and relevant and urgent today as it was in 1968.
I mean, again, we are living in a political climate that's extremely polarized. If we think about the pro-war and antiwar establishment, counterculture, pro civil rights [and] segregationist divisions from 1968, we can turn to contemporary examples that are eerily similar.
Kieran McLean contributed to this report.