Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 American independent horror film directed by George A. Romero, starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea and Karl Hardman. It premiered on October 1, 1968, and was completed on a US$114,000 budget. The film became a financial success, grossing $12 million domestically and $18 million internationally. Night of the Living Dead was heavily criticized at its release owing to explicit content, but eventually garnered critical acclaim and has been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The film has entered the public domain due to an error by the distributor.
The story follows characters Ben (Duane Jones), Barbra (Judith O’Dea), and five others trapped in a rural farmhouse in Pennsylvania which is attacked by unnamed “living dead” monsters which later became known in popular culture as zombies. Night of the Living Dead was the basis of five subsequent Living Dead films (1978–2010) also directed by Romero, and has inspired remakes.
Duane Jones as Ben: The lead role of Ben was played by unknown stage actor Duane Jones. His performance depicted Ben as a “comparatively calm and resourceful Negro” (in real life, a distinguished gentleman and former university professor), according to a contemporary (1969) movie reviewer.Casting Jones as the hero was, in 1968, potentially controversial. At the time, it was not typical for a black man to be the hero of a U.S. film when the rest of the cast was composed of white actors; but Romero said that Jones “simply gave the best audition”. After Night of the Living Dead, he was in a few other films, and continued as a theater actor and director until his death in 1988. Despite his other film roles, Jones worried that people only recognized him as Ben.
Judith O’Dea as Barbra: Judith O’Dea, a 23-year-old commercial and stage actress, had once worked for Hardman and Eastman in Pittsburgh. At the time of audition, O’Dea was in Hollywood seeking to enter the movie business. She remarked in an interview that starring in the film was a positive experience for her, although she admitted that horror movies terrified her, particularly Vincent Price’s House of Wax (1953). Besides acting, O’Dea performed her own stunts, which she jokingly claimed amounted to “lots of running”. Assessing Night of the Living Dead, she stated “I honestly had no idea it would have such a lasting impact on our culture”. She was just as surprised by the renown the film brought her: “People treat you differently. [I’m] ho-hum Judy O’Dea until they realize [I’m] Barbra from Night of the Living Dead. All of a sudden [I’m] not so ho-hum anymore!”
Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper
Marilyn Eastman as Helen Cooper: Eastman also played a female ghoul eating an insect.
Keith Wayne as Tom
Judith Ridley as Judy: Judith Ridley later co-starred in Romero’s There’s Always Vanilla (1971).
Kyra Schon as Karen Cooper: Karen was played by Hardman’s 11-year-old daughter.
Charles Craig as Newscaster / Ghoul
Bill Hinzman as Cemetery Ghoul: The cemetery ghoul who kills Johnny in the first scene was played by S. William Hinzman (credited as Bill Hinzman). Hinzman also appeared in new scenes that were filmed for the 30th anniversary edition of the film.
George Kosana as Sheriff McClelland: Kosana was Image Ten’s production manager.
Russell Streiner as Johnny
Bill Cardille, a.k.a., “Chilly Billy Cardilly.” Cardille was well-known locally as a Pittsburgh TV man who had his own horror movie show, “Chiller Theater” on TV late Saturday nights in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill portrays a WIIC-TV, Channel 11 (a real Pittsburgh TV station) news reporter.
Romero’s friends and acquaintances were recruited as zombie extras. Romero stated, “We had a film company doing commercials and industrial films so there were a lot of people from the advertising game who all wanted to come out and be zombies, and a lot of them did.” He adds amusingly, “Some people from around Evans City who just thought it was a goof came out to get caked in makeup and lumber around.”