When An Undead Apocalypse First Swept America In The 'Night Of The Living Dead' The classic film about zombies — the Night of the Living Dead -- has been restored by the Museum of Modern Art and is being screened around the world in its 50th anniversary year.
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When An Undead Apocalypse First Swept America In The 'Night Of The Living Dead'

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When An Undead Apocalypse First Swept America In The 'Night Of The Living Dead'

When An Undead Apocalypse First Swept America In The 'Night Of The Living Dead'

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

All this year, we've been looking back half a century to 1968. A lot happened that year that changed America and the world in big ways and small, from the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, to Apollo 8, to the time the Philadelphia Eagles fans actually pelted Santa Claus with snowballs. Today, we're looking back at a B movie. It was a horror film that created a whole new genre while also holding up a mirror to a troubled time. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has our story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How're you doing tonight, sir?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, good. Can I have one for "Night Of The Living Dead?"

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sure can.

MANN: A couple weeks ago, I went to see the restored print of George Romero's classic black and white zombie picture. And I tried to put myself back in the mindset of someone seeing it fresh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

RUSSELL STREINER: (As Johnny) They're coming to get you, Barbara.

JUDITH O'DEA: (As Barbara) Stop it.

STREINER: (As Johnny) They're coming for you, Barbara.

O'DEA: (As Barbara) Stop it. You're acting like a child.

STREINER: (As Johnny) Look. There comes one of them now.

MANN: Barbara and her brother don't know what's about to happen. Spoiler alert - it's a global zombie invasion, and he's about to get eaten.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANN: In 1968, theatergoers were also in the dark with no idea they were seeing a game-changing film.

STUART KLAWANS: It played on a double bill with - I think it was "Dr. Who And The Daleks." So it really wasn't expected to do anything.

MANN: Stuart Klawans is longtime film critic for The Nation magazine. He's written a lot about this film. When it first screened, he says, people expected the kind of scary movie you go to on a date.

KLAWANS: It was for young people to clutch each other in the dark. Grab your date and be scared. There's really no sex appeal in "Night Of The Living Dead." It's not that kind of a movie.

MANN: That's an understatement. What people got was their very first glimpse of what we now think of as zombies - shambling undead who hunger for human flesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

BILL CARDILLE: (As news reporter) A widespread investigation of reports from funeral homes, morgues and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead are coming back to life and seeking human victims.

MANN: They're mindless and slow and kind of goofy-looking but nearly unstoppable. They just keep coming unless you destroy their brains.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Screaming).

MANN: Soon, there's a desperate group of people trapped in a house, trying to survive through the night. And you also get the sense that civilization itself is unraveling. Speaking in 1988 with NPR's Terry Gross, Romero said he was inspired by his own childhood fears during World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE ROMERO: When I was growing up, I actually went through, in New York City, blackouts, when we had to close the windows and worry about air raids. And I don't know whether those were realistic worries or not. But as a kid, it was a very frightening experience.

MANN: Romero died in 2017. He said what made his movies interesting wasn't the zombies but the people reacting to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMERO: My stories have always been more about the humans and the mistakes that they make. And the zombies are just sort of out there.

MANN: One way Romero kept the focus on the people in "Night Of The Living Dead" was by casting an African-American actor, Duane Jones, in the lead role.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

DUANE JONES: (As Ben) Look. I know you're afraid. I'm afraid, too. But we have to try to board the house up together.

MANN: Romero always downplayed the decision to cast Jones, but it was revolutionary for its time. Film critic Stuart Klawans points out that Romero and Jones made the film over nine months at a time when racial tensions in America were exploding.

KLAWANS: There was no such thing as being colorblind in 1967, 1968 - not in a production that started in the wake of the Detroit and Newark riots, not in a production that pretty much finished with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

MANN: One of the most shocking things about "Night Of The Living Dead" is that Jones' character actually survives the zombies. He makes it through the night. Then this happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

GEORGE KOSANA: (As Sheriff McClelland) All right, man. Hit him in the head right between the eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

MANN: Another spoiler alert here - Jones' character is killed by a group of white men - sheriff's deputies. They think he's one of the zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

KOSANA: (As Sheriff McClelland) Good shot. OK, he's dead. Let's go get him. That's another one for the fire.

MANN: The foreshadowing of our current time, the Black Lives Matter protests - it's kind of unsettling. Klawans says over the years that followed, "Night Of The Living Dead" kept growing in people's imaginations, in part, because it influenced wave after wave of other zombie movies - everything from "Zombieland" and "World War Z" to "Game Of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead" - but also because it kept reflecting the fears and anxieties of new audiences.

KLAWANS: So the film just took on more and more and more weight as it went on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANN: One final surprise is that this B movie made on a shoestring is beautiful. Sure, there's gore. But Romero also created lush black and white textures and fascinating visual compositions. The Museum of Modern Art issued a restored print of the film that's been screening in this 50th anniversary year in movie theaters around the world. The zombie invasion continues. Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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