“There is panic throughout the nation as the dead suddenly come back to life. The film follows a group of characters who barricade themselves in an old farmhouse in an attempt to remain safe from these flesh eating monsters.” — IMDb
This was director George A. Romero’s feature film debut — wild to think about considering the classics he has under his belt now (Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow, Monkey Shines) and just how known his name is. Reading some of the reviews that were made at the time is equally wild, such as this one from The New York Times: “Night of the Living Dead is a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.”
I mean, they aren’t wrong, but this movie still holds up as a cult classic among horror lovers — who HASN’T said “they’re coming to get you, Barbra!” in an imitation of poor short-lived Johnny’s voice? It did well upon its release, too — despite a budget of just $114,000 it grossed $12 million domestically and $18 million internationally. It seems surprising now, since much of mainstream horror is FILLED with unspeakably disturbing images, that it was criticized at the time for its “explicit gore”. It’s part one of three (followed by Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) — the stories for each film all written at the same time but executed with quite a few years in between each release — and Romero has talked about it being heavily influenced by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend.
It was the first movie to introduce the modern idea of a zombie — though they never use the actual word, opting instead for both “murderer” and “ghoul” — as a reanimated, flesh-devouring creature.
The basic plot — and it’s very basic — begins with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner), venturing to their father’s grave for their annual visit. They are soon attacked by a wandering ghoul and, after Johnny is killed, Barbra runs off and finds a nearby farmhouse. She is found by Ben (Duane Jones), who starts to seal up the windows and doors, they are soon joined by a family hiding out in the basement as well as a young couple. Tensions continue to rise as the group tries, to no avail, to fend off the zombie attack.
** SPOILERS! **
It’s heavily ad-libbed and roughly shot — no real bells and whistles here, though I admired the stark black and white and the use of shadow and light throughout. I think it added to the movie in a real way to have it feel so raw and real.
Whether it was initially intended by Romero or not, there’s lots of commentary and themes throughout: on society in the 60’s as a whole and peoples’ disillusionment towards law enforcement and authority as a whole, the Vietnam war (“We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything.“), and racism (Ben being chased by an all white zombie mob with a torch was very reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, the upper class white man being offended and angry by Ben not ceding to his wishes and to his grabs for power, Ben surviving an attack of the undead only to be killed by a group of white law enforcement). Romero has said that he didn’t cast Ben — a black lead among an entirely white cast — on purpose, or as any kind of statement; he said he simply gave the best audition. But once Duane Jones was cast and they started filming, they became aware of the symbolism and the themes that it was important to play into. In general, it was less about monsters turning against people, but people turning against people — there is no real community formed, no solid efforts to work together to face the threats head on. They are very divided throughout the whole film, and more of them are killed by human error and mistakes rather than the undead themselves.
Barbra was like a silent movie star — so expressive despite not much dialogue. She becomes almost catatonic early on in the movie, and there’s lots of tension between her and Ben in several scenes — again, playing into the racism and general attitude towards people of color in the 60’s.
I do love that they never call them “zombies” — one of the news reports on the radio said “there is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins”, they are called “marauding ghouls”, and, one of my favorite lines: “yeah, they’re dead, they’re all messed up”. Apt.
There’s several amazing shots that I loved: the shot of the open field as the ghouls all silently lurch toward the house is great. The overall feeling of dread and suffocation is awesome. Them feasting on the bodies in the car was definitely a contributor to the “explicit gore” mentioned. And the zombie daughter killing her own mother by repeated stabs with a spade — as writer R.H.W. Dillard, a defender of the taboo in the film, said, “What girl has not, at one time or another, wished to kill her mother?”.
But maybe my favorite was when the zombies finally are fully encircling the house, beating on doors and windows, and the camera pans to each actor as they express their concern and fear, the lighting as dramatic as ever, everyone SO expressive. The ghouls are slow but unrelenting, and in that moment you kind of feel the full weight of hopelessness.
And then there’s the ending — solidifying humans being more dangerous to one another than any outside force, the unreliability of those in power, and the fear of any “outsiders” clouding our judgment to a fatal degree. I loved the darkness of it, the finality.
I don’t think I even need to say it, but it’s a classic for a reason — worth a watch if you’ve never had the pleasure (or a re-watch if you have!).
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: George A. Romero | Writer: George A. Romero, John A. Russo | Cinematography: George A. Romero | Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon