Like our review of The Ring (2002), apologies for this seasonally mistimed review of the film that launched George Romero’s zombie franchise: Night of the Living Dead (1968). Not that I am complaining. For months I cast about trying to choose which movie to watch. I soon realized that my tastes are somewhat eclectic, but I found that I enjoyed what others suggested to me. Okay, so this little introduction does not pertain to the movie I am discussing today. I just wanted to say thank you to all of you who have been giving me films to review. I have been extremely gratified with the volume of entries. Even if I do not always find these films worthy of merit, please know that it has been appreciated.
By 1968, color was the norm for movies, but Night of the Living Dead was filmed in black and white. It was a brilliant move. My distaste for horror films is well documented, but there are some exceptions and this is one. It does not rely on jump scares or excessive gore (though there are some pretty horrible moments). It uses arcane filming techniques that work great with the subdued lighting, a truly creepy soundtrack, and a sensible plot (what a concept!). In short, it is an actual movie instead of a disorganized mess of an excuse to scream ninety minutes. We start our tale of survival in a zombie apocalypse with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) traveling to the countryside to lay a wreath on the grave of their father. Once there, a shambling man begins to approach them. Johnny wrestles with him, getting killed in the process, and Barbara flees. She ends up in an abandoned house not too far away, and soon after she arrives another person pulls up in a car. This is Ben (Duane Jones), and when he gets to the house there are more zombies gathering outside. Together they manage to get inside and set about the task of boarding up all the doors and windows. Actually, this turns out to be more of a one man job because Barbara is hysterical over losing her brother. During an altercation with Ben, she physically attacks him, and he slaps her knocking her out. After a round of hammering and nailing, Ben goes upstairs to look for other useful items. As Barbara comes to downstairs, a door to the basement opens and that is when we discover that they are not alone in taking shelter at this location. Hiding downstairs are five people: the Coopers, with dad Harry (Karl Hardman), mom Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon); and a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Riley). Immediately an argument breaks out between them as to the best course of action. Harry favors barricading everyone below, while Ben desires the perceived freedom of the upper floors while also continuing to secure potential access points. Their disagreement is heated, but Ben had found a gun in the house and it gives him certain leverage. Thus the Coopers decide to remain in the basement with their sick daughter (she had been bitten by a zombie), but Tom and Judy to go with Ben and Barbara. However, after Ben finds a television upstairs, the broadcast they tune into instructs them to attempt to make it one of the refuges set up by the national guard. The problem is that Ben’s car needs gas, and while this house, being a farm, has a gas pump (not uncommon in rural areas), it is locked and they are surrounded by the undead. Though the plan they hatch to make it to the filling station succeeds, Tom has the worst gas-up in cinematic history, killing him and Judy and destroying the car in the process. Ben makes it back to the house unharmed, but initially Harry will not let him inside. When Ben finally makes it in, he shoots Harry. Stumbling down the steps, he learns that his daughter had become a reanimated corpse and murdered his wife. Above, Harry and Barbara struggle to hold back the gathering horde, but Barbara loses her nerve when she Johnny among them. Now alone, Ben makes it the cellar and bolts the door behind him, dispatching Harry and Helen before spending the rest of the night listening to the undead trying to get at him. Unfortunately for Ben, humanity seemed to get organized and began sending out armed posses to shoot any human that is walking without breathing (hey, I know I am grasping for other ways of saying “zombie”). They happen to approach the house as Ben emerges into the daylight, mistaking him for a zombie and depositing a bullet in his skull. So, sad ending, but at least it moves along.
There are a few things that make Night of the Living Dead arguably the best of the horror sub-genre of zombie films specifically, and one of the best scary movies of all time in general. The filming, lighting, and music referenced above, if not the actual acting (which is laughably bad at times), are one. If nothing else, it laid down several of the troupes that others followed. These zombies are slow moving, have a hunger for human flesh (though brains are not specified), do not like fire, can only by stopped by taking a blow or shot to the head, and, other than being the recently deceased, can also spread their zombification (you know, the act of turning someone into a zombie?) by biting the living. These are all things we have seen in countless films and television shows, but being original does give this 1968 classic several points in my view. Those that have adopted its formula unfortunately seem to veer into weird philosophy or some other form of nonsense that I find tiresome and unneeded. Then again, I suppose there is some truth to the notion that imitation is the highest form of flattery. But what makes this film so good is the intensity it maintains throughout without resorting to cheap tricks or jump scares. I have seen it several times, but in spite of knowing the ending, each time I hope that Ben makes it. I root for him as he attempts to fortify the house and I mourn a bit when he dies in the end. These emotions, combined with its real, yet subtle creepiness, and you have the makings of a good movie in general, much less a scary one.
In thinking about Night of the Living Dead, I recall times when people have compared the Christian belief in life after death to being a zombie. Obviously, this is a silly concept. The glorified body we are destined for in the end times will bear little resemblance to the shambling corpses in zombie movies, but people like to think they are making a good joke when they say such things. The Church has nothing to say about zombies in general (and why would it because they are not real), and yet every once in a while I get such comments. And there are those that endlessly (needlessly) speculate as to what they would do if ever faced with throngs of the undead. Unfortunately, Romero did not stop at just one of these films, which has simply given fuel to these increasingly ludicrous theories throughout the years. His characters also question the existence of God, which would be understandable if the dead ever began to rise in this manner. The dead will rise one day, but it will not be in order to eat the living. There may be some of you reading this who will say, “Well, how do you know that?! It could happen!” All I would say in return is Faith, my friend, Faith.
If you are looking for a good horror film without the unnecessary elements in so many recent iterations, check out Night of the Living Dead. If you have never seen it before and feel I spoiled it above, watch it anyway. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on it, so please feel free to leave a comment below. I should probably say such things more often, but I digress. In any case, I would love to know whether or not you feel the same thrills as I do while viewing it.