'Night of the Living Dead' (1968) - Zombie Movie Review
Night of the Living Dead didn’t invent the undead. It didn’t create the term “zombie”.
Night of the Living Dead did something even more impressive. It established the set of rules of what a zombie film should be. Rules that, 50 years later, are still definitive. Rules such as if a man is bitten by a zombie, he’ll end up being part of the undead flock.
The only way to eliminate zombies is destroying their brains. The noise, smell and the darkness are big no-nos if you want to survive.
Night of the Living Dead completely redefined the genre. It was the first time that the zombies didn’t emerge as part of a mad scientist’s plot or the product of the evil mind of a voodoo master, both repetitive tropes in the 50s and 60s.
No, the zombies here respond to their own undead impulses to feed.
The cannibalism in Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences. The explicit and disgusting violence of a mob of zombies devouring intestines or that of a girl gorging on her parents in a basement marked a tendency in terms of the limits of violence and experimentation to play with horror.
The experimentation was not limited to the limits of visual shock. Director and co-writer George Romero went a step further. This is not a mere horror movie that culminated the era of drive-ins while at the same time boosting the midnight movies wave. Romero broke all the rules when he used his small independent B movie as a vessel to leave a social comment.
Night of the Living Dead is a commentary on the predator-Darwinian and consuming condition of the human species, responding to its most selfish impulse and literally eating members of its own species to try to satisfy their insatiable hunger.
Also, in 1968, the United States was in social turmoil because of the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Romero doubles down by placing the African-American Ben (played by Duane Jones, who in real life had been already breaking conventions as an academic in a predominantly white world) as the protagonist hero (something still controversial at the time) and by showing the government and American militia as incompetent entities incapable of safeguarding their own people.
The plot looks alarmingly pedestrian and simple today, but only because its impact on culture was so powerful that thousands of movies basically adopted this story as the basic setting-frame of their zombie versions.
But in 1968, the story of this film had legs. The tale begins with brothers Barbra and Johnny Blair arriving on a sunset to visit the tomb of their mother. An enigmatic man approaches them slowly with the intention of eating them. But the casual setting, still in broad daylight and the massive cultural ignorance of what a zombie is, made the scene a total horror. The confusion is utter. Johnny succumbs to the threat and Barbra manages to lock herself in an old country house.
There, she will meet the rest of the survivors. The tall, strategic and noble Duane, young couple Tom and Judy and the small Cooper family unit, comprised of spouses Harry and Helen and their little daughter Karen.
What's Your Rating For Night of the Living Dead?
From then on, George Romero shows off his intelligence as an independent director with a tight budget. The rest of the movie, filled with human drama, happens inside the abandoned house. The information from the rest of the world arrives erratically through hopeless TV news bulletins. The close-ups and the quick editing (for the time) helped to create a unique tension.
Like a good zombie movie (and more being the main influence of the genre), the dramas between humans end up being more lethal than the unexplained zombie threat. Mistrust, egos and the need for control make this group a small time bomb that will end up annihilating itself.
Of course, the fate of our characters will be horrendous. The majority will die annihilated by the lack of communication and a situation that clearly surpass them. Ben, the African-American protagonist will be the only survivor, until, in an even more vicious and cruel twist, he is killed by mistake of a headshot made by surviving white men who apparently have “controlled” the situation.
The impact of Night of the Living Dead was not only limited to the genre. This movie single-handedly revitalized independent cinema. A major studio would never have made a movie like this one at the time.
The fact that such a transgressing storytelling–whose freedom didn’t reach the cheap exploit but could display important social issues–could end up raising 250 times its budget (Night of the Living Dead cost 114 thousand dollars and raised 30 million) without a doubt was and will continue to be an unprecedented motivator for different generations of creators. It was also the starting point for Romero's zombie movie legacy.
Title: Night of the Living Dead
Release Year: 1968
Director(s): George A. Romero
Actors: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, a.o.
© 2019 Sam Shepards