Wake the Dead: ‘Night of the Living Dead' (1968) Retrospective
Original Film Poster
The First Time the Undead Feed on Flesh
I can’t remember the first time I saw this. Maybe I first saw the 1990 remake, but I eventually saw this on TCM Underground a few years back. I also saw the commentary James Rolfe did on Cinemassacre a while ago. The film is called Night of the Living Dead, which came out in 1968 and was directed by George A. Romero.
The plot revolves around siblings Barbra and Johnny, who are driving to their father’s grave. While there, they are attacked by a bizarre man who kills Johnny. Barbra escapes to a house and meets a man named Ben. They learn that the recently deceased have resurrected and are out to prey on the living. More survivors come into the house which ultimately leads to a battle of survival against a fleet of undead.
While not necessarily the very first zombie film, this film would be the seeds that would sprout into the ‘living dead’ zombie films. This is the first film to feature stereotypical zombies that eat flesh and reproduce by biting the living. It also started the trope of “shoot them in the head”. It should be noted that nowhere in the film do any characters say the word ‘zombie’ at any point.
The film’s two main protagonist are Barbra and Ben played respectively by Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones. While Barbra is technically the main protagonist, she goes comatose shortly after arriving at the house, leaving much of the work to Ben. Ben is relatively calm and rational for most of the film. He quickly boards up the house’s doors and windows and relaxes with a cigarette. Later in the film, Barbra does snap out of her trance and her status as protagonist is played straight.
Karl Hardman plays Harry Cooper. He’s the foil to Ben, often clashing with his decisions on the next move. He constantly makes bad decisions which eventually cause life-threatening consequences. His wife Helen is played by Marilyn Eastman. Their daughter Karen is played by Kyra Schon, who also happens to be Hardman’s real life daughter. Similar to Barbra, Karen stays out of it for most of the film due to getting sick from a zombie bite.
The young couple Tom and Judy are played respectively by Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley. For the most part they’re just sort of there. They don’t really interact with anyone else in the house. However, they have a scene right before the climax, which is the last peaceful scene in the film. It shows that they’re fearful and contemplate on whether to stay in the house or attempt an escape to a safer area.
Personally, while minor characters, I felt the final conversation between Tom and Judy made them really likable. It’s one of my favorite scenes since it makes you feel for them and makes you want them to make it out alright. What ultimately happens to them leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the film.
The zombies themselves have their own character. As mentioned, they are the slow walking zombies that moan and eat flesh. It’s never specifically stated how the zombies were reanimated, though it’s suggested that radiation from a space probe could be the reason.
One more minor character is Johnny, Barbra’s brother who’s played by Russell Streiner. He’s only in the film briefly at the beginning joking with Barbra. Johnny had no idea that his playfulness would be foreshadowing for what would happen later. Also, the first zombie that Johnny and Barbra encounter is played by Bill Hinzman. While a minor character, he does make another minor appearance later.
Overall, Night of the Living Dead is a highly recommended film. Despite its age, it still has amazing moments that are both suspenseful and horrifying. As mentioned earlier, it built the foundation for future zombie movies, especially the Return of the Living Dead series. With an invested story, dark atmosphere, suspenseful vibe, horrifying scenes, and a shocking ending, this is one of the best zombie films. If there was ever a movie to look at during Halloween or on a dark Friday night, this is the one.
Check out Night of the Living Dead here
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