It’s intimidating to write a review of a movie everyone already regards as a classic. When I cover the obscure material, I can at least rely on originality as something to make my stuff stand out. Here I’m standing on familiar ground. But, it’s close to the end of the month which means it’s time for me to post a bunch of articles in rapid succession to try and compensate for not putting up anything for the rest of the month, and I might as well do something Halloween-ish since it’s one of my favorite holidays, and I actually had a chance to see this movie in a theater recently, so I’ll do the entire Romero zombie tetralogy and hopefully have it up by the 31st.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a legendary achievement in both horror and independent filmmaking, one that, like all great scare films, retains its power even as our ideas of what’s scary change. Deceptively simple, the picture builds dread and fear with layers of psychological conflict, action, and a kind of relentless exposition that gives a nationwide scope to a claustrophobic problem. It was innovative in many ways, and though it didn’t really create the zombie movie as a genre, it crystalized it and set the template for future entries, becoming the standard by which they would be measured.
Barbara (Judith O’ Dea) and Johnny (Russel Streiner) are sister and brother,
who arrive at a cemetery in the countryside to put flowers on their fathers’ grave. An old man wandering in the distant background suddenly attacks Barbara, and Johnny is killed when he intervenes to save her. Barbara runs from her relentless attacker (Bill Heinzman) to an abandoned farmhouse, and as more strange, mindless assassins gather around the house, she meets with fellow survivors of similar attacks: Ben (Duane Jones), a young man who quickly takes control of the situation; Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), a middle-aged couple with an injured daughter (Kyra Schon); and Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), young lovers out on a country drive. As the traumatized Barbara slips into a catatonic state and Ben and Harry argue about the best plan of defense against these monsters, radio and TV broadcasts gradually reveal that they’re facing an army of the walking dead, animated by radiation from space and feeding on the flesh of the living. Things get worse.
One of the things that I always notice about the film whenever I see it is how big a role the media plays. The characters are as isolated as those in any other horror film, but thanks to technology they (and we) get to find out what’s happening, even if this doesn’t actually help them in the long run. That this was very much a contemporary film was significant at the time, as the general trend over the past decade had been towards Hammer’s Gothic/Victorian monsterfests, as isolated from the present day as the Universal horror films of the thirties and forties. Here was something taking place on our doorstep, happening to regular people, and happening to everyone. While not unprecedented, this was still unusual, and the overall effect is to make the horror seem more pervasive and unstoppable; simply being smarter than the average horror movie protagonist isn’t going to get you out of this one.
The film broke a lot of rules that were informally in place. Certain characters die who would be thought invulnerable in other horror movies of the day, the ostensible heroine goes into shock and becomes absolutely useless for the rest of the movie, and the zombies (never actually called that in the film) behave more like a “real” phenomenon than supernatural entities; the rules which apply to them have little to do with ritual or ceremony and everything to do with contagion and a kind of warped biology, their brains still being active and hence their one vulnerable spot, like a vampire’s heart. But I think the emphasis on strategy is really what sets this apart. Everyone is forced to think in practical terms about what can be done right away, and the central conflict between the human characters is about the safest course of action for surviving the night. And it’s here that the film gets really complicated.
Ben, as the eventual protagonist, is a proactive and charismatic figure, generally wise and levelheaded. Harry is, let’s face it, a jerk, twitchy and callous and vindictive. But Ben’s plans do have a way of going awry, and Harry does have the makings of a good idea in that he wants to stay in the cellar, which is the safest room in the house. But whether or not he’s right doesn’t matter, because he’s more preoccupied with being right than with helping people out. The tension between the characters complicates the already difficult task of surviving a zombie attack, and as the series progresses we’ll see Romero’s interest in psychological and social obstacles as ways of showing how humanity just might find itself in a losing war against a brainless slow-moving enemy.
A larger theme of social upheaval is also present, as the zombies represent a kind of new society overthrowing the old. Even at points where it seems like the problem might actually be contained, it’s at the cost of anything resembling a familiar status quo- the dead need to be callously gathered up and burned before they can revive, the bonfires a contrast to the cemetery of the film’s opening. Homes and families are placed under siege and traditional community seems to fall by the wayside. (The legendary ending seems to suggest a final disintegration of essential humanity, even if humans manage to survive.)
The proceedings are always tense, even in the slower moments, something emphasized by a loud score and the frequent bangs of hammering. The performances are manic and generally strong- Judith O’Dea goes overboard at times, but at others is strangely effective (there’s always at least one performance like this in a Romero movie, for some reason.) While it’s always clear that we’re looking at a low-budget movie, there’s something very efficient about the timing and structuring of scenes, and it looks a lot better than it should. (The film’s dubious copyright status kept poor prints in circulation for years and to this day on DVD- watch out especially for a truly abominable “special edition” released in 1998, with new footage that completely ruins the film’s pacing.)
This is one of the best horror movies ever made, but chances are you knew that. But it’s always worth taking a second or twenty-third look at the film, especially around this time of year or whenever you feel like not getting to sleep easily. It may not be the best of the series, but it’s a close second, and it’ll always be a classic in its own right. Horror movies would never entirely be the same after this, and it’s still got a few lessons to teach.
Written by George A. Romero and John H. Russo
Directed by George A. Romero