“Night of the Living Dead” premiered on this date in 1968. It’s the best film ever made in Pittsburgh, and incidentally, one of the scariest movies ever. It was director George Romero’s first feature film, and he had to scratch to get the money together; the 30 days of actual shooting stretched over eight months as Romero looked for investors. It was released by a small local company; it featured unknown and largely untalented actors, with Pittsburghers playing the ghouls, but somehow it all worked. The movie became a hit, largely through word of mouth.
Romero, who wrote the script, said, rather unhelpfully, that it was “an allegory meant to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves…The zombies are us. We create them so we can kill them off, justifying ourselves—it’s a kind of penance, self-exorcism.”
Romero had been a 19-year-old grip (lighting technician) on Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” in 1959, and he borrowed some of the master’s techniques (oblique camera angles and lengthy stretches of silence, for example) in shooting “Night of the Living Dead,” which parallels another Hitchcock masterpiece, “The Birds.” In both films, a small group of terrified victims board themselves up in a house to withstand a mysterious assault. And in both, the lingering question is, “Why?” Neither the birds nor the living dead, as individuals, are that scary: the horror of them is in their sheer numbers, and their malevolence is disembodied. Where does it come from?
“The Birds” scares us because the birds are no longer birds, but something else. At the heart of Romero’s nightmare is the thought: What if the dead, like the birds, won’t stay in their place?