50 Years Later, Night Of The Living Dead Still Rips At Our Hearts (And Flesh)

Oct 26, 2016

It seemed like a typical low-budget horror flick, the kind being churned out by aspiring directors in the 1960s. The cost of production was only $150,000, shot on black and white film and crew members used Bosco chocolate syrup for blood.

And yet “Night of the Living Dead,” a movie made entirely in Pittsburgh with Pittsburgh-based actors, defied the odds and the critics to become a cult classic that has brought an entire zombie culture to life and made a profit well into the millions -- all that despite a rocky start.

“The critics really didn’t care for it at all,” said culture critic Joe Wos. “In fact, there was a movement to really start to categorize gory horror films as pornography. So there was a real backlash against it among critics, among censorship boards.”

But the movie goers loved it, it was unlike anything they had ever seen. Nearly 50 years since it was released on Oct. 1, 1968, the film, which is consistently ranked as one of the scariest of all time, has become a Halloween staple.

Local culture expect Joe Wos says Pittsburgh-filmed "Night of the Living Dead" continues to entrance viewers, even 50 years after its release.
Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

“It taps into our fears. We all have a fear of dying,” Wos said. “This gives us a fear of dying and then being brought back.”

The film, which tells the story of bodies leaving the graveyard in search of human flesh, has been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress and appears on several American Film Institute Lists. And now a newly restored version of “Night of the Living Dead” is debuting on Nov. 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Much of the movie’s extraordinary shelf life has to do to do with some of the groundbreaking choices made by director George Romero who co-wrote the screenplay.

“One of the things that set it apart was the casting of an African American hero in the film, Duane Jones,” Wos said. “He was cast, not because he was a minority, but because Romero said he was the best actor for the part. A major studio wouldn’t have done that. So, it was very different.”

And while “Night of the Living Dead” did very well, the filmmakers, including Romero, could have done much better financially were it not for a simple error by the distributor.

“They forgot to put the copyright registration on the film,” Wos said. “And so it immediately fell into public domain. However, I also think it benefited them in some ways. Because it wasn’t copyrighted properly, college campuses could run it for free. Late night movie theaters could run it for free. You could run copies of the film on late night television and it built a fan base that otherwise might not have been there.”