Night of the Living Dead (1968)
"They won't stay dead"
A group of strangers find themselves trapped inside a farmhouse when the dead suddenly come back to life, hungry to feast on human flesh.
Sometimes reviews are hard to write because the film in question is just such a landmark film that every man and his dog has seen it at least once. Night of the Living Dead is one such landmark film, a monumental horror outing which every self-respecting horror fan should have seen, and any real connoisseur of film should have too. For every thousands of films made, few have as much significance on their genres as George A. Romero’s 1968 classic did. That may be a grandiose statement but it’s so true.
The horror genre around the late 60s had grown stale. Hammer’s popular British monster franchises had lost their appeal and the old Gothic horrors had grown quaint, with audiences preferring more contemporary settings. A number of controversial psychological thrillers were released such as Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s Psycho but failed to really spurn a new sub-genre, or at least a popular mainstream one. In America, producers were struggling to get away from the cheap and cheerful William Castle-style shockers from the 50s, tacky Vincent Price vehicles, or even detach themselves from the 50s sci-fi monster movies. Horror was very much suggestive, with lavish costumes, cardboard sets and evil mad scientists providing everything that the audience needed for cheap and cheerful chills like you’d find at a fairground. But a red line was always drawn and rarely crossed as to what a filmmaker could get away with. The genre needed something different and along came George A. Romero to not only walk over the red line but run about as far over it as he could.
Night of the Living Dead represented an entirely new direction for the horror genre. Visceral, in-your-face and not afraid to land some hard-hitting social commentary at the same time. It was everything that horror films had not been – the classical conventions of the genre were completely obliterated and re-imagined in one swoop. Audiences just did not know what to expect. The premise is simple, and something that has become somewhat of a staple ingredient for a zombie film as a group of strangers find themselves trapped inside a building with the zombie hordes gathering outside trying to break in. You don’t an overly convoluted story if you focus on developing the characters and getting audiences to associate with them. Night of the Living Dead is surprisingly talky, though its essential for the viewer to witness the disintegration of society, captured perfectly with this bickering group of strangers from all ages and walks of life. Don’t worry though – no one is safe. The horror genre had been a safety-first playground, where major protagonists rarely succumbed to the threats they were up against, but Romero changed all of that, removing the safety blanket and common knowledge security that audiences had grown up on. It was now everything goes and anyone dies, adding much needed unpredictability to the genre.
Despite the fact that zombies originate in Haitian folklore and there had been cinematic depictions of zombies long before Romero came along, it was Night of the Living Dead which really etched our modern interpretations of what we have now come to think of (and let’s face it, love) as the zombie. Slow, shuffling, monsters with only one thought process going on – to feed. From the opening scene with Bill Hinzman’s famous cemetery zombie to some of the unique zombies that attack the farmhouse later on, Romero always had an eye for giving them some personality. Not really a threat on their own to any relatively strong or quick human, the problem comes when the zombies increase in number.
The stomach-churning gore scenes were vile and outrageous for their time, though admittedly they have lost some of their impact nowadays after wall-to-wall zombie overload for the past twenty years. With the contemporary setting, coupled with the black-and-white photography, the gore sequences come off as documentary-style news reports, much like the TV screens were filled with real images from the war in Vietnam back in the 60s, giving the film much more of a gritty realism. This wasn’t some mad Victorian scientists creating Frankenstein-like monsters a thousand miles away in some random Eastern European country setting – these were the next-door neighbours, horribly disfigured through the zombie virus and attacking and eating you and your family. There is no reasoning with them. No real way to stop them all. It would have been a chilling thought back in the 60s.
Romero was never one to shy away from political commentary and his first directorial effort would include some of his most powerful and thought-provoking critiques. Casting Duane Jones, a black man, in the lead hero role back in the 1960s was not something which Romero thought about – he was the best candidate for the role after auditions and there’s no mention of his skin colour at all throughout the film. But having him holed up inside a house full of squabbling white people and to be on the receiving end of some rough justice in the shocking finale, it’s not exactly rocket science to see what sort of message Romero is transmitting – deliberate or not, given the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Jones is excellent in the role, a real calming sense of logic and reason who does the best in the conditions he’s faced with. Karl Hardman, as his opposite number Cooper, is equally as good in his role, though he does overplay the character a little bit. With the white and black male characters bickering at each other and vying for alpha male dominance, the female characters are relegated to little more than screaming background fodder. The sense that this rag-tag group of survivors, so desperately trying to cling together in the face of such horrific opposition, is on the verge of collapse at any moment is symbolic of American society in the 60s, where the optimism of the 50s had been replaced with pessimism, anger and attitude. Romero’s later zombie films would come to embody this sentiment: the main threat has never been about the zombies, but how quickly people turn on each other in the struggle for survival and self-preservation. Too many modern filmmakers have forgotten that but Romero kept that central message prominent all of the way through Night of the Living Dead.
Fifty years after it’s original release, Night of the Living Dead still has not lost its potent impact to shock and terrify the audience. Whilst we may have been subjected to more gruesome zombie outings since, none have quite matched the intensity and shock value that this would have had on audiences back in 1968.
Night of the Living Dead
Director(s): George A. Romero
Writer(s): John A. Russo (screenplay by), George A. Romero (screenplay by)
Actor(s): Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Krya Schon
Duration: 96 mins