Should I Watch..? 'Night of the Living Dead' (1968)
What's the big deal?
Night Of The Living Dead is a monochrome horror film released in 1968 and is the debut film of the late George A. Romero. A low budget independent production, the film proved massively popular and influential to generations of film-makers and helped establish the zombie subgenre in movies. The film stars Duane Jones (the first African-American actor to lead a film in Hollywood), Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley. The film concerns the efforts of a group trapped in a remote farm house during an unexplained epidemic of murder committed by the recently deceased. Made for just $114'000, the film went on to earn more than $30 million worldwide despite harsh criticism for the film's levels of violence and gore. Since its release, the film has become a cult classic and has been preserved in the US National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". It also spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs as well as a remake in 1990.
What's it about?
Siblings Barbra and Johnny Blair arrive late at a cemetery in rural Pennsylvania to lay a wreath at their father's grave. As they make their way back to their car for the long drive back, they are attacked by a strange man shuffling around among the tombstones. Johnny defends his sister but is killed after smacking his head on a grave, giving Barbra time to escape. Crashing their car in a blind panic, she runs to an isolated farmhouse while the mysterious assailant gives chase.
Once there, she is rescued by Ben - a resourceful young man who barricades the doors and windows to prevent a gathering group of ghouls from breaking in. Unbeknownst to Ben and Barbra, they are not alone as the basement is occupied by others fleeing the chaos. Harry and Helen Cooper are keeping their heads down in order to try and save their injured daughter Karen while another couple, Tom and Judy, fled to the farmhouse after hearing about the spate of violent murders on the radio. But as the night draws on and they find themselves increasingly out-numbered, Ben has an idea that might save them...
George A. Romero
John A. Russo & George A. Romero
Release Date (USA)
4th October, 1968
What's to like?
Considering the world into which this film was released, it's no exaggeration to say that Night Of The Living Dead would have struck audiences like a thunderbolt. One of the last films released before the US rating system was established in 1968, the film would stun audiences with its graphic depictions of murder and cannibalism. Not since Psycho had a film shook people up so badly although given current movie tastes, the film has naturally lost some of its ability to shock. But not all - the flesh that the zombies eat looks worryingly real and the black-and-white footage gives the film a real documentary feel, like some of the news footage the character watch in order to find out what's happening.
The film is all about atmosphere, creating a growing sense of dread as events unfold. Romero's skill as a director, unbound by studio demands, would go on to shape the entire zombie subgenre. The word "zombie" is never used, their sole weakness being heavy damage or destruction of the brain, their lust for human flesh, the unknown cause of the outbreak, their slow and shuffling movement, even the notion that everyone is infected and will turn after death - all of these concepts came from this picture. But the film throws in a few terrifying curveballs such as the graveyard zombie running after Barbra or even using rocks to smash windows or car headlights to obscure their approach in the darkness. Romero also makes great use of lighting, forcing attention exactly to where he wants you to look such as the horrified face of Barbra, her face twisted as she slowly descends into insanity.
- Hardman was one of two producers of the film who appeared in the film - the other was Russell Streiner who appeared at the start of the film as Johnny, Barbra's brother. Hardman also worked as a makeup artist and electronic sound engineer and even took the still photos that appear in the end credits.
- Romero was often asked if the casting of Jones in the lead was a response to the recent assassination of Martin Luther King but Romero always denied this. He claimed that he only heard of the killing on the radio once the film was finished and that Jones simply gave the best audition for the role of Ben.
- Some of the moans heard from S. William Hinzman (who played the graveyard zombie at the beginning of the film) are authentic as during the scuffle with Streiner, he was accidentally kneed in the nuts!
What's not to like?
Horror veterans these days are used to scenes of increasing brutality and while this is no walk in the park, it will seem almost laughably tame compared to the likes of Hellraiser or Nightmare On Elm Street. This movie works because of what you can't see - the zombies are usually seen through gaps in the barricade or en masse from a distance so the crude makeup doesn't ruin the effect. Compared to any of the countless films inspired by it, the film doesn't go overboard in trying to scare the bejeezus out of you - it can do that anyway without the sort of makeup we see in films like Shaun Of The Dead.
Acting, it has to be said, isn't the best. O'Dea's catatonic Barbra is endlessly grating while Hardman's hard-headed (and possibly racist) coward seems as much a threat to the group's safety as the horde of zombies outside. And while Jones' performance as the only truly heroic member of the cast is rightly lauded, there are moments that make you uncomfortable such as his violent approach to Barbra's initial hysteria. The ending, which I won't spoil here, also feels revolutionary for the time. Coming out of nowhere, it's such a complete swerve that I almost couldn't quite believe it.
Should I watch it?
Fifty years after its initial release, Night Of The Living Dead remains an essential watch for both horror fans and film historians. Romero's ground-breaking debut might look a little tame these days but its sense of paranoia and fear, combined with an unsettling vibe and everyday characters, create a film that delivers frights and shocks in a way that no film had prior to it. Marking the genesis of modern horror, the film is a lesson in how to hold audiences in the palm of our hand before crushing them with the other.
Great For: horror fans, zombie aficionados, film historians, generations of film-makers ripping off Romero's ideas
Not So Good For: very young children, the easily scared, black-and-white snobs (they don't know what they're missing)
What else should I watch?
Night Of The Living Dead might be the start of the zombie flick but from here on, it splits into numerous branches. With the film in the public domain due to the lack of a copyright notice, Romero and Russo went their separate ways and two competing series of zombie films were produced as a result. Romero's ...Of The Dead series is generally considered the better of the two, resisting the more comedic elements introduced in Russo's Living Dead series, which he only wrote the story to the first film Return Of The Living Dead. Romero's 1978 follow-up Dawn Of The Dead is considered on a par with the first film although it is much bigger in scale, more visceral than before and obviously now in colour.
Tom Savini, who worked as a special effects and makeup specialist with Romero throughout his career, directed a remake of Night Of The Living Dead in 1990 with the same name. Based on the original screenplay, the film gave the character of Barbra much more to do and featured much more gore but is generally considered to be an inferior product and too close to the original. Of course, zombie movies are ten-for-a-pound these days but finding a good example isn't easy. Shaun Of The Dead might be a comedy but it doesn't scrimp on the scares by any means while 28 Days Later looks at things from an apocalyptic viewpoint, much like the more action-orientated World War Z.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox