Night of the Living Dead Beat Sheet
Made by a small, determined group of filmmakers from Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget of $114,000, Night of the Living Dead was released on October 1, 1968. After a decade of theatrical re-releases, the cult classic film went on to gross $32 million dollars worldwide. Though many zombie films came before it, Night of the Living Dead set the precedent, and the rules, for zombie apocalypse movies and television shows into our modern era.
Directed and co-written by George A. Romero, the film has five sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), and Island of the Dead (2009). It was remade in 1990 and a 3D version was released in 2006. Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were remade in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Night of the Living Dead is also culturally notable for having the first African-American, Duane L. Jones, star in the leading role of a horror film. Night of the Living Dead has developed a huge cult following since its initial release. In 1999, the Library of Congress registered the film to the National Film Registry as a film deemed “historically, culturally, or aesthetically important.”
This month’s Monster in the House beat sheet celebrates the birth month of the late George A. Romero, Black History Month for the late Duane L. Jones, and the official Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray release of the film on its 50th anniversary, approved by the director and released on February 13th.
Written by: John A. Russo & George A. Romero
Directed by: George A. Romero
MITH Type: Pure Monster
MITH Cousins: 28 Days Later, The Thing, IT, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Alien, Jaws, Train to Busan, Resident Evil, REC, The Mist, Anaconda, Rogue, Tremors, Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, The Shallows, Cloverfield, I Am Legend, The Omega Man, The Last Man on Earth
Opening Image: A lone car cruises down a winding country road toward the cemetery. These are the last few minutes that we’ll see of the world as we know it.
Set-Up: Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) must place a wreath on the grave of their late father. As Barbara climbs out of the car, Johnny hears a strange transmission on the radio. At this point in the story, if he had stayed to listen, the course of events might have changed right there for the ill-fated pair. However, Johnny snaps off the radio and joins his sister. Johnny scares Barbara, who has had a fear of the cemetery since childhood—this is his transgression that will lead to monstrous things.
Theme Stated: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” Johnny isn’t specific as to who the “they” are, perhaps the delusions of a paranoid mind. But we soon learn that her brother’s words have a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s the primal theme of this survival story—to not get eaten. “They’re coming,” Johnny continues. “Look there’s one of them now.”
Barbara’s teasing brother points to a lone, white-haired man (Bill Heinzman) in the cemetery, ambling toward them.
Catalyst: Barbara walks up to the man to apologize for her brother’s ignorant behavior. The man attacks her. Johnny and the man tussle. In the struggle, Johnny falls and hits his head on a grave marker. Killing him. The man chases Barbara. Johnny’s transgression has caused this. They might have gotten in the car and driven back to safety had Barbara not felt the need to apologize for her brother. His sin is now on her as the monster gives chase.
Debate: Barbara jumps in the car but has no keys. The relentless man tries to gain entrance. He busts the window with a stone. Barbara pulls the emergency brake and coasts the car down the hill. The ride is short as she hits a tree—she’s trapped. What should she do? She runs. Seeing a lonely farmhouse, she heads to it, seeking help and shelter away from the pursuing stranger. This is the final part of the Monster in the House equation: House, Monster, and Sin.
Inside the farmhouse, Barbara grabs a butcher’s knife from the kitchen and stalks the house. Things are strewn around like there was a struggle. No people. Peeking outside, she sees the man has pulled down the phone lines. And now he’s joined by two other men who seem to amble in the same drunken, catatonic state.
Her fear mounting, Barbara heads upstairs. She discovers a corpse on the landing with its face chewed off as if by wild animals.
Terrified, Barbara runs outside. She’s blinded by headlights. Ben (Duane L. Jones), clutching a tire iron, flies from the truck. He quickly assesses the dire situation and then ushers Barbara back inside.
Barbara is scared. Who is this man? What does he want? What’s going on? The debate is a long stretch of Act One as the characters are trying to figure what’s going on and what to do.
Break into Two: Ben shows that he can handle himself quickly in this nightmare world. He tells Barbara they need to leave and find other people (living people, that is). His truck is out of gas but if they can find keys to the gas pump, that could get them on their way. He packs some food and dispatches three terrorizing dead that break out the headlights of the truck and one that goes after Barbara. Bright light like headlights or fire seems to dissuade the living dead, or ghouls, as they’re often referenced.
Fun and Games: Ben boards up the house. Barbara, still in an almost catatonic state of fear, helps him. The plan has changed. Ben decides it’s best to stay safe inside the house until help arrives. Ben reveals that “they’re afraid of fire, I’ve found that out.” He then tells his story to Barbara about how he got into the situation—his Catalyst moment that brought him to the farmhouse. He escaped from a roadside diner called Beekman’s. After jumping into the truck to listen to the radio to learn what was going on, he witnessed a gasoline truck followed by the ghouls, crash and explode. After he found himself alone with “fifty or sixty of those things,” he plowed through them with the truck and hit the highway.
B Story: Barbara tells her story of how she got to the house and flies into hysterics. She wants to go out and find Johnny. Her love and concern for her brother, no matter how rotten he was in life, carries the theme, the “love story,” if you will.
Fun and Games (con’t): As Barbara gets more worked up in her concern for her brother, Ben must restrain her and she slaps him. Ben strikes her back to calm her down. Ben places Barbara’s unconscious form on a couch to rest.
As he fortifies the windows and doors with boards and lumber he can scavenge around the house, Ben turns on the radio and learns that this is an epidemic of “mass homicide” that has seized the eastern third of the country.
As more dead appear outside, Ben lights an easy chair on fire and tosses it off the porch to keep the fire-fearing dead back. With a stroke of luck, he then finds a Winchester .30-30 rifle and some shells. He goes upstairs to remove the body from the landing.
As Ben is upstairs poking around, Barbara sees the door to the basement open. Were flesh-eating ghouls hiding in the cellar? No—people! Ben rushes downstairs hearing Barbara’s screams.
Midpoint: Short-tempered alpha male Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who quickly becomes the antagonist of the group, and Ben are at each other’s throats. They argue about which place is safer—upstairs or the basement. Tom (Keith Wayne), another who was hiding in the cellar, tries to be the voice of reason between the two. Tom is joined by his girlfriend, Judy (Judith Riley). It’s revealed that Harry’s wife, Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), and young daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon), are downstairs. Karen was bitten by one of the ghouls and is ill. This raises the stakes and starts the clock ticking as it’s only a matter of time before Karen succumbs to her bite wounds. The heated discussion about how to survive ties A and B stories together.
Bad Guys Close In: Harry wants everyone to return to the cellar where he believes it’s the safest. He argues that the boarded-up windows are no match for the hordes of ghouls that are amassing outside. Ben says that the cellar is a deathtrap. At least on the main floor they have a fighting chance and possible avenue of escape.
As in many Bad Guys Close In scenarios, the group splits apart and Harry locks himself and his family in the cellar, leaving Ben, Barbara, Tom, and Judy upstairs. Helen has as little tolerance for her ogre husband as the strangers upstairs do. Harry wants only to prove that his way was right and Ben’s way was wrong, even willing to risk their lives to do it. “That’s important, isn’t it?” Helen says. “To be right, everybody else to be wrong.”
Helen’s unhappy that Harry boarded them in out of sight and out of mind when there’s a radio streaming fresh information upstairs. Ben finds a television set on the second floor, which sparks the cellar dwellers to surface. Judy is elected to stay with the ailing Karen as Helen meets the group above.
On the TV, they learn more about the epidemic—unburied, recent dead from funerals, morgues, and hospitals have risen to seek living human flesh. Experts aren’t certain what could have caused the dead to rise, but at least one scientist believes that radiation originating from a Venus space probe that exploded into the Earth’s atmosphere is suspect. They also learn that there are safe points they can travel to where there’s food, shelter, and protection away from the murderous dead.
Ben decides that Willard, a safety station that’s 17 miles away, is the best bet to seek sanctuary and get medical attention for Karen. He starts ordering everyone around. Harry stews, not being able to speak up and give orders. Using some kerosene, fruit jars, and old rags, they make some Molotov cocktails that Harry will throw out of the second story window while Ben and Tom unboard the front door, take the truck to the gas pump, unlock it, gas up, and return to take everyone away. In theory, it seems like a risky plan, but a plan of action nonetheless. Of course, as with every “perfect” movie plan, it goes horribly awry.
All Is Lost: After Tom attempts to convince Judy that the plan to gas up the truck and leave is a good one, he and Ben start to head outside. Helen, Judy, and Barbara go down to the cellar for safety. Harry climbs the stairs from the second floor and acts as a grenadier tossing Molotov cocktails at the fire-fearing ghouls. After flinging a few and lighting up the night, and some ghouls, Harry heads down the stairs and seals the door as Ben and Tom leave. Judy, at the last moment, bounds up the cellar stairs and outside to join Tom.
Tom drives the truck with Judy inside and Ben hops in back and fends off attacking ghouls with a fiery torch.
Arriving at the gas pump, Tom finds the key won’t work. Ben sets down the torch in the grass and with the Winchester .30-30, he shoots off the pump’s padlock. Pulling out the hose, Tom clumsily splashes gas all over the truck, the torch Ben set down igniting it. Tom jumps into the burning truck with Judy to get it away from the gas pump. However, as Tom stops the truck and climbs out, he must help Judy, whose jean jacket has caught on the inside of the door. In a moment, the truck goes up in an eye-melting fireball, killing both Tom and Judy.
Now alone with dozens of the walking dead, Ben retreats to the farmhouse, only to discover that the door is barred against his re-entrance. He pounds on the door, demanding Harry Cooper let him in, but Harry doesn’t comply. Ben kicks in the door and finds Harry standing at the cellar entrance. Ben shoots Cooper a look that kills. After he secures the door, Ben evens up the score with his adversary by punching Cooper across the room—their aggravation with one another coming to a head. Ben threatens to drag Harry outside to feed him to the ghouls.
In the most disturbing scene in the film, the ghouls converge on the smoldering truck. They tear off charred remains of Tom and Judy and enjoy a late-night barbeque.
Dark Night of the Soul: On the television, Ben, Harry, Barbara, and Helen learn that the radiation from the exploded Venus space probe is getting stronger—more dead will rise. Armed militia are patrolling the fields, shooting down the mobs of living dead. Killers killing killers. It’s also revealed on TV that ghouls can be killed by a shot to the head or a heavy blow to the skull. “Kill the brain—and you kill the ghoul,” the reporter says.
Soon, the lights in the farmhouse die. Shadows abound. Panic settles among the survivors. Ben fumbles his way in the dark to find the fuse box. As he does, Harry Cooper schemes. If he gets the Winchester rifle, he tells Helen, he can be in charge. He blames Ben for the accidental deaths of Tom and Judy to justify his actions. The dead, seeming to become more intelligent and brave now that the lights in the house are off, pick up stones and scraps of wood and pound on the doors and windows of the house. Ben fights them back without much help from the coward Cooper.
In the melee, Ben drops the rifle and Harry seizes his chance to take charge. He levels it at Ben, commanding Helen to return to the cellar. However, Ben proves himself more resourceful and throws a board at Harry, knocking the rifle away. Ben regains the .30-30, cocks it, and fires a bullet into Harry point blank. Harry tumbles down the cellar stairs and dies next to his inert daughter.
Pale-armed ghouls grab Helen through the slats in the boards nailed across the windows. Barbara goes to help free her. Helen runs downstairs to discover a grisly sight. Her daughter, Karen, has reanimated into a ghoul and is eating dead Harry’s arm. Helen stumbles back as her daughter seeks her mother for more flesh. Helen trips and falls backwards onto the cellar floor. Karen grabs a sharp cement trowel off the wall and stabs her mother to death.
Break into Three: Back upstairs, Barbara and Ben fight off the horde on the porch that struggle to get inside. Johnny bursts through the front door, a dead-eyed corpse still wearing his driving gloves, crossing A and B stories. In his self-fulfilling prophesy, Johnny is the “they” that comes to get Barbara. The undead brother grabs Barbara by her blouse and pulls her back into the mob of hungry dead where they swarm on her to feed.
Five Point Finale:
1. Gathering the Team – Unable to fight the flood of dead invaders through the doors and windows of the farmhouse, Ben retreats to the cellar. Karen, who has climbed the stairs, tries to bite him. Ben pushes the dead girl away.
2. Executing the Plan – As more of the dead horde crash into the house, Ben bars the cellar door with planks as the hungry ghouls pound on the other side with obsessive fervor.
3. High Tower Surprise – Ben’s problems are far from over—there’s no safety any place. Harry reanimates and starts to rise, missing one arm. The lone survivor is trapped with corpses everywhere!
4. Dig, Deep Down – Using the Winchester .30-30, Ben fires three shots into his former nemesis, silencing him for the last time. Helen, with the cement trowel still impaling her, starts to rise next. Another shot from the rifle ends the living dead’s reign of terror in the cellar. For Ben, it’s going to be a horrible night down in the basement with two corpses while walking corpses shuffle on the boards above. He’s at his wit’s end.
5. Execution of the New Plan – It’s morning and Ben awakens. He hears dogs barking, sirens, and shooting. Sheriff McClelland’s posse has shown up. He’s rescued. He climbs upstairs and looks out the window. Ben’s mistaken for a walking corpse and shot by an overeager vigilante.
Final Image: Sheriff McClelland tells his armed group of dead wranglers to build a bonfire to burn all the corpses they terminated surrounding the farmhouse. In one of the most disturbing images in cinema, done with still photographs which add to the realism and terror, Ben’s corpse is dragged out of the house with hay hooks, and thrown onto the huge bonfire. In a sharp contrast to the eerie but bucolic opening of a wide, country road, this final image is one fraught with dread as Ben’s fresh corpse burns on a bed of rotting ones, the fire engulfing him and lighting up the early morning.
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