Frame by Frame: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Year – 1968
Decade – 1960s
Cinematographer – George Romero
Director – George Romero
Aspect Ratio – 1.37
Genre – Horror, Zombie
Camera – Arri 35 IIC (More on the Arri 35 II series of cameras)
Format – 35mm; Black and White
Production Info – Budget of $114,000 and shot in 30 days, which were spread out over seven months as Romero took breaks to tend to his Pittsburgh commercial production company
Key Words – Close-Ups
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A group of bickering survivors hole up in an isolated farmhouse besieged by the undead in George Romero’s immeasurably influential Night of the Living Dead. The film redefined not only the zombie movie but the horror genre itself, drawing a clear line of demarcation between the genre’s history of gothic monsters and enlarged radioactive creatures and the more angry, violent and transgressive contemporary horror of the 1970s. In commemoration of Night of the Living Dead’s 50th anniversary, I’m looking back at some of my favorite frames from Romero’s directorial debut.
The opening scene of Romero’s seminal zombie flick was shot at the Evans City Cemetery in Evans City, Pennsylvania. The cemetery is a short drive away from the Living Dead Museum and Gift Shop, the Monroeville Mall where Dawn of the Dead was filmed, and the Riverside Drive In, which twice a year hosts a weekend of dusk-til-dawn horror flicks.
(Film critic) Rex Reed calls “Living Dead” “crudely made.” Does that bother you?
“No. I agree with him. Some of it’s intentional. In other words, some of the graininess and some of the simplicity is intentional. We make a living making a glass of beer look like heaven (when we shoot commercials), and we could have glossed this up too. That is one of the talents our shop has, making things look beautiful. Maybe that’s why we went as far the other way as we did. We used as often as possible what was there. We tried to be as unpretentious as possible in designing the sets. And we were. The house was bare. There was thought behind everything we brought into that farmhouse.” – George Romero, from a 1972 interview in Filmmakers Newsletter Magazine
For me the most striking visual component of Night of the Living Dead isn’t the shuffling ghouls, but rather the high contrast black and white close-ups. By 1968, color horror films were far from a novelty – both the Hammer horror movies and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle bathed themselves in the gaudy reds of Technicolor. In fact, Romero almost shot Night of the Living Dead in color.
“We came to a point about a week into shooting the film where we had some (additional) investment and we had to decide, well, we could switch to 16mm and go color and reshoot that (first) week or (we could) stick with 35mm and stay with black and white. And I argued at the time that (one of) the most brutal scenes that I’d seen, one of the most gory things, is the image of (Marlon) Brando after they beat him up in On the Waterfront and he’s got blood all over him. I felt that it was more gruesome and I think that had something to do with the news, because news was all black and white at that time…I always felt that the black and white blood looked more real and most of the color blood was John Wayne blood and not very realistic – a little too bright, a little too red. I honestly felt that black and white blood looked gorier so I decided to stick with black and white.” – George Romero
There were maybe two dozen people in the audience who were over 16 years old. The rest were kids, the kind you expect at a Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee. This was in a typical neighborhood theater, and the kids started filing in 15 minutes early to get good seats up front. The name of the movie was “The Night of the Living Dead…”
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
A 1972 interview from Variety, which includes tech info like the following…
What equipment did you use?
We shot entirely in 35mm. We used two Arriflex thirty-fives, one in a blimp. We used all quartz lights. It was all the stuff we had. We used one Nagra for sound, with one microphone, although we used lavalieres in a couple of sequences. Although we used two cameras we never had both rolling simultaneously on any of the sync sound foot-age. We had the blimp housing for one camera, and all the sound is the location sound. We didn’t dub anything, except for one or two words during the escape sequence because we were shooting wild. But the rest of it was the actual sound in the house, and in most cases you can hear it. I mean, it has kind of a hollow sound, but I thought it was pretty successful for being purely location stuff, and some of it was pretty difficult to stage.
What stock did you use to achieve your purposes?
It was all 35mm negative. Plus X mostly. Four X in some of the night stuff. Tri X where we wanted to create some grain, even when we were inside the house. We wanted that flat kind of graininess when Barbara first enters the house and when Ben first arrives and is rummaging around looking for supplies and so forth. We wanted to create a depressing or oppressing air to the thing.