Night Of The Living Dead
US (1968) Dir. George A. Romero
Many hardcore horror fans will no doubt be aghast at the fact this is a first time watch of this cult classic for me – in fact there are even more legendary horror films I’ve yet to see – but better late than never eh? Considered the granddaddy of the zombie movie, Night Of The Living Dead is as infamous as it is famous.
It begins with brother and sister Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea) arriving in rural Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. Johnny teases his sister about her being scared of the graveyard as a child when a man stumbles into view and suddenly attacks them. Johnny is killed and Barbra manages to escape to a nearby house but the strange man follows.
Soon, Ben (Duane Jones) enters the house, himself chased by people in a strange trance like state. After boarding themselves in, Ben and Barbra find more people hiding in the basement – Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), their 11 year-old daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). Outside, the ghoulish attackers are growing in number, making escape from the house almost impossible.
Entire books have been written on the impact and influence of this low budget shocker on horror cinema so I am not sure what my measly review could add to what more informed writers have proffered with greater depth and eloquence. I suppose, only my personal opinion, which is that I can see why Night Of The Living Dead made the waves it did back in 1968 and how it holds up today.
Polymath George A. Romero became known as the Godfather of the Zombie Movie after making this film rewriting the rule book on what constitutes a horror monster and spawning many imitators in his wake. After hearing about this film for years and finally seeing it, the main thing that stands out is how I wouldn’t have appreciate it had I seen it before I became a filmmaker myself.
The main wonder is Romero’s inventiveness in getting so much out of his budget. Many of the crew, including co-writer John Russo, production manager George Kosana, and even producers (Hardman and Streiner) doubled as cast members or played the ghouls, as did Schon and Ridley of the main cast. Meanwhile Romeo handled the camerawork as well as the editing and presumably made the tea too.
You may have noticed that I haven’t used the word “zombie” to describe the flesh-eating antagonists – this is because they were only referred to as “ghouls” in the film. Romeo later said that his creations were so distinct from Haitian zombies (corpses reportedly reanimated by black magic) the name was applicable. It was really the media and fans who associated these shuffling undead cannibals as zombies.
But it can’t be ignored that the archetype of what we now recognise as a zombie is right here in Romero’s film so whether he liked it or not, he effectively created a whole new subgenre in horror cinema. Believe it or not, the original draft was to feature teenage aliens visiting earth, then changed to a runaway finding a stockpile of rotting corpses left by aliens before settling on the flesh eater concept.
Viewed in hindsight, many critics and scholars have alluded to the incisive, timely social commentary of the script which Romero insists wasn’t really there. Much of this stems from the main protagonist being portrayed by a black actor which, outside of Sidney Poitier, didn’t happen in Hollywood. Assumed to be in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Romero maintained his film was completed before King’s death.
However, the film’s ending – which I won’t spoil for anyone else who hasn’t seen it – does illustrate that Romero and Russo did have some social conscience and perhaps is the most shocking moment in the while movie – after the sight of an 11 year-old girl eating her father’s flesh of course!
Elsewhere, the script takes a dig at the patriarchal attitudes of middle America through Harry Cooper and his “he who shouts loudest” approach to debating an issues, throwing his weight around with his family and sulking when his perceived seniority is rebuked by the others. Cooper is the epitome of the pseudo alpha male who meets his match in the calmer Ben, hating the fact the younger man is better in control.
Film fans weaned on today’s CGI fare with meticulous make-up for the actors will find the zombies here to be subdued and cheap looking (which they were), but the grainy black and white imagery and febrile camerawork makes them scary. The aforementioned scene of the flesh eating girl is effective because it is in stark black and white and shot in a half lit basement, something no amount of post-production twiddling can achieve.
At this point in time, Hammer horrors were the benchmark and while Romero borrows liberally from their toolbox – the emphatic musical cues and exaggerated execution of the POV physical attacks – in some ways, his stripped back production values prove to be the antithesis of Hammer’s lavish affairs. Whereas Hammer was pure fantasy, this film is palpable enough to make believe it could happen in your town.
With largely improvised dialogue performed by stage actors inexperienced in the world of cinema, the obvious rough edges are part of the film’s gnarly fabric and its ability to continue to cause great unease even after 50 years. The emergency news broadcasts shown on the TV are really the only things that date this movie to the 1960’s, otherwise it has retained a remarkable level of freshness and accessibility for modern audiences.
Having finally seen Night Of The Living Dead after years of hearing about its importance and classic status, I can certainly see the how pivotal an influence it is, not just on the horror genre but on low budget filmmaking too.