Night of the Living Dead (1968) / Horror-Sci Fi
MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably R for violence and some gore
Length: 96 min.
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner
Cameo: George Romero
Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: John Russo, George Romero
Review published March 2, 2013
A breakthrough film for director and co-scripter George Romero (Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead), in what would forever be known as the father of all zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead had plenty going against it at the time of its release. It was a very low budget production (reportedly just over $100,000), featuring a simplistic concept, lots of blood and gore in a time when such things just weren't shown, and acting performance from a cast of mostly non-professionals that range from passable to laughably bad. However, Duane Jones (Beat Street, To Die For), the improbable African-American star of the film, manages to pull it all through with a respectable turn, becoming the catalyst by which all of the major events of the film spring from.
The high concept storyline, such as it is, involves the newly dead coming back to life with just one thing on their minds -- the destruction and consumption of the still-living. The story starts off in rural Pennsylvania, with brother Johnny (Streiner) and sister Barbara (O'Dea, October Moon) paying their yearly visit to their father's grave on behalf of their mother, only to be attacked by a strange man who knocks out Johnny and proceeds to chase after Barbara tenaciously. On the run, Barbara ends up holing herself up in a seemingly abandoned farm house, only to find that it is already inhabited by several others who are holed up for the same reasons. Tensions run high, as the men and women begin to squabble over the right course of action for survival, and possible escape, while the number of undead outside begins to multiply. All they have in terms of hope is the radio and television feeds alerting them of the situation and tips on how to kill before they are killed.
The bulk of the movie plays like the Alfred Hitchcock flick from 5 years prior, The Birds, only it is people who are trying to get into doors, windows, and cars to maim and kill whomever they can without any rhyme or reason. Many have read political themes into the piece, suggesting a lack of belief in the sovereignty and power of authority to take care of its citizens. Much political analysis has been made of star Jones' race, which had been a rarity for an African-American to be the hero in a film with a predominantly white cast, but Romero simply states that the actor was the best available person for the role, nothing more. Certainly, the film did strike a nerve for viewers in the late 1960s for its assertion that sometimes there is just evil for evil's sake, and perhaps nothing can be done to stem the tide, which, in the era of world leader assassinations and Vietnam, certainly tapped into an already shaken public psyche.
Though Night of the Living Dead is primarily regarded as a horror film, there is an unexpected underpinning of science fiction to the premise, as news reports begin to explain that the strange occurrences may be related to a phenomenon that spawned from the return of a space probe that had gone to Venus. Romero's film would eventually be called the granddaddy of zombie horror, it is also quite influential in the viral epidemic subgenre in sci-fi, as well as the fears of venturing into the unknown reaches of space itself. Romero cites the Richard Matheson novel, "I am Legend" as a main influence, not surprisingly.
By today's standards, the gore of the film is very tame, though for its era, many who witnessed human organs and limbs being cannibalistically consumed had never seen what it might have been like. As Hitch did with Psycho, the filming of the blood (in reality, chocolate syrup) and viscera is in black-and-white, so it isn't as intensely graphic as it could be, but still, it was the first notable film to push the envelope this far, and therefore it would garner a tremendous amount of controversy. We've come a long way in graphicness, for better or wose, as it is often shown on television today without any edits or cuts for content. Romero also tapped into a rather unique feature within horror, with its progressively existential developments and somewhat unsettling ending, foreshadowing the bleakness of films that would become more mainstream during the early 1970s. It is also decidedly amoral in its approach, merely a tale of survival without the hero's sweep or notions of good guys winning in the end.
Some might consider Night of the Living Dead to be the greatest horror flick of all time. I'm not one to argue with this, as there's no denying its massive influence on a genre that just seems to get more popular with each progressive year. Looking at it through a modern-day eye, it holds up relatively well, though its reputation and history makes it a much better film in terms of overall quality than taken as just another movie judged from a critical perspective. The spotty, oft-melodramatic acting notwithstanding, the film also suffers at times from a certain crudeness in direction, particularly whenever there is a physical confrontation taking place, whether it is human vs. zombie or human vs. human. Romero's ability to edit together effective montage sequences just wasn't there at the time. The handling of the rifles is especially awkwardly presented, impatiently forced, and scenes with them go on for lengthy periods of time with little payoff.
In terms of cinema and its impact on society, or just genre, Night of the Living Dead is deservedly well studied and analyzed, and probably deserves a 'classic' or even a 'genre masterpiece' rating among those who realize its importance. However, it is one of those movies whose ability to shock and scare have been vastly surpassed by its offspring, which would push the envelope of nightmarish visions light-years beyond, and would do so with better emphasis on the screenplays, casting of suitable actors, and tighter editing of action. Nevertheless, for horror fans and historians alike, Romero's masterwork is a must-see experience, and should be viewed with a less-critical eye in exchange for its importance to its time and place of release.
-- Followed by Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Remade in 1990 as Night of the Living Dead, in 2006 as Night of the Living Dead 3D, in 2012 as Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection, and in 2013 as Night of the Living Dead: Origins. Re-released in animated form in Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated (2009).
©2013 Vince Leo