Now here’s a movie that’s been highlighted time and time again as not just one of the great classic horror movies, but a film legend in its own right. While I wouldn’t call this one of my personal favorite movies, or even one of my favorite horror movies, there’s still no denying the significance of the 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead” … and hands down one of the greatest horror movie titles ever. Director and screen writer George A. Romero set a modern day template for zombie movies with this film, but in doing so he also bridged the line between classic B&W chillers and modern gory horror. He even managed to sneak some sly political undercurrents and racial themes underneath all the horrific zombie action. This is also one of the first low budget independent films to receive worldwide recognition. In fact upon its original premier in Pittsburgh it was famously dubbed “The Best Film Ever Made”. So why all this praise for a movie about flesh eating zombies, is it really that great … well, let’s take a closer look at this 60’s horror classic to see how much of it still holds up.
I distinctly remember seeing this film for the first time way back when I was mid-way through High School, and the event was Halloween night itself. It was a good day all around, and staying up that night, alone in the dark while watching “Night of the Living Dead” was the perfect way to close out my favorite holiday. At the time I was just getting interested in the horror genera, and while I rarely ever got scared watching them, I do still remember how this film initially left me with chills all over. The plot is very strait forward, there’s a zombie epidemic raging outside and a small group of survivors are trapped in a house. Aside from the iconic opening cemetery scene, the whole movie is set in the single house location, which helps make the audience feel trapped along with the survivors on screen. The tension and looming danger is very consistent because even though these people are in a house, they never feel safe or 100% secure. In fact many of the characters talk like their time in the boarded up house is the equivalent of a time bomb about to go off.
The zombies featured in this film are often credited for shaping the modern image of zombies in our pop culture, but I don’t fully agree with that. First of all, these zombies actually have a degree of intelligence as they know how to pick up objects and use them as weapons. There’s a scene when one of them tries to break into a car to catch a woman, and the zombie actually has the impulse to pick up a rock and break the window with it. Also, these zombies look much more like regular humans that are under a form of hypnosis rather than reanimated decaying corpses. The most striking thing to me is that these zombies actual display some reserved emotion. Most notably is that their scared of fire and still have the instinct to back away from it whereas all other zombies would probably just walk into fire mindlessly. It’s a nice little call back to Frankenstein as he too was a zombie of sorts that was scared of fire. It actually made these zombies feel more frightening with just those little touches of humanity on display. The only two things consistent about these zombies and the ones of today’s media are that they eat flesh and their bites turn human victims into the living dead, which were both concepts that originated from this film. Even though this wasn’t the first movie to feature zombies it was the first to lay out all the rules, like how a bullet to the head is the only thing that can kill them, and so forth.
One thing I love about this film are all the little horror details that you typically wouldn’t see any other Zombie themed films. Usually these movies go for strait forward gory scares, but this film still has some subtle, quiet and effectively creepy moments. I love this brief moment when one of the surviving woman is quietly wandering through the house, and suddenly a little music box turns on. Nothing supernatural is happening to effect the box, yet the simple jingle mixed with her emotionless gaze create this haunting atmosphere. I also love how after the first zombie attack, she runs into the house and the raw camera work on display help give the illusion that she’s in a living nightmare. All those tense close ups and zoom-ins of the stuffed animal heads certainly feel like they came from a bad dream. While just about every horror movie of the new millennium owes something to this movie, I can’t help be feel that this was mostly a major influence on Sam Ramies “Evil Dead” series. Of course one of the film’s most memorable images is that half eaten corps at the top of the stairs with the eye still hanging out. The violence and carnage on display are actually quiet tame by today’s standards, but back then seeing zombies eating guts was unheard off and very disturbing to view. It goes without saying that the film was made on a minuscule budget and didn’t even have the backing of a movie studio. Yet everyone just put their all into this project and even though it looks really cheap it still feels like art. I just love all the technical details on display, like the heavy shadows, and how certain parts of the frame are lit while the rest is complete darkness. Even the crud camera work and noticeable rough jump cuts add to the films flavor.
Another thing this movie did was brake away from typical horror movie trappings of the period. For example, this was probably the very first horror movie to feature an African American actor in the role of the main hero character. He’s played by then newcomer Duane Jones, who’s convincing in the role and has a fairly commanding screen presence. It’s interesting how this movie sets up this one blond girl to be the films lead, but she slowly becomes a useless extra, and subsequently delivers the weakest performance of the whole film. Another unconventional thing on display for the time is that the horror isn’t just coming from the monsters, it’s also coming from the de-humanizing effect the experience is having on the characters. This is where George A. Romero’s subtle political undercurrents come into play, as the scenes with the survivors are almost like a study of the human condition, kind of like what “The Twilight Zone” series did with its scary setups.
Now while I definitely consider “Night of the Living Dead” a great classic, that still doesn’t mean I think it’s without some shortcomings. One thing that gets kind of tedious are all the repetitive exposition scenes with the TV and radio stations. Seriously, long periods of this film are spent with the characters just watching TV or listening to the radio while the people on the stations are just dropping all kinds of information on us. Personally I think the film would have been more effective without any connections to the outside world, and the less we knew of the zombie epidemic, the more frightening it would be. Also upon my first viewing I was so sucked into the situation and the experience that I didn’t realize how many long meandering scenes take up the run-time in this film. No joke, there is a long unbroken scene of our main character boarding up the house, and while the scene is actually shot very well, it’s also kind of boring to watch. Never the less, the zombie attacks themselves actually come in a nice variety of different setups and are still quite exciting, despite some corny moments to make fun of.
Now spoiler alert because I just can’t review this movie without highlighting the most effective moments of the film, which all happen in the exhilarating third act. To be honest, it’s actually kind of rare for a horror movie to feature scenes that legitimately scared me upon my first viewing, but “Night of the Living Dead” dose have two stand out moments that absolutely terrified me. The first revolves around a little girl who was established earlier as the child of two survivors and is very sick. What the parents don’t realize is that she’s slowly turning into a zombie herself. During the climactic zombie attack on the house, the mother goes down to the basement only to discover that her daughter is actually eating the father. Then in one of the most shocking scenes ever featured in a horror film, the zombie daughter grabs a sharp tool and begins stabbing the crap out of the mother. Honestly, I think this moment puts the famous shower scene from “Psycho” to absolute shame. Not only are we seeing a zombified little girl stabbing her own mother, but I’ll never forget the disturbing sounds of the mothers screaming. It might just be the most terrifying sound design I’ve ever heard in my life. The second scene that left a real sting on me was the twist ending itself, and here I must give another spoiler warning. After the zombies raid the house, our lone hero is the last survivor, and a search party is just outside cleaning up the mess. Unfortunately, our hero in his beaten shape is mistaken for a zombie and gets gunned down. I still remember what it was like seeing that for the first time, and I just couldn’t believe it. What makes this shocking death all the more disturbing are all those still photo shots of the people hooking up his dead body with all the other carcasses. It’s almost like seeing a documentary with raw footage of a World War 2 death camp, and the people with the hooks all seem to represent the grim reaper sending the characters to their demise.
In short, “Night of the Living Dead” is still a great horror movie and has earned the right to be called a classic. It pushed boundaries for its time, it didn’t throw in a pointless romantic sub-plot (which studios were demanding), it got things rolling for the zombie sub-genera and it wasn’t afraid to have a dark ending. My only problem is that on repeat viewings, some scenes do feel very boring and repetitive but even at its dullest, the movie is still a worthwhile experience for us horror fans. George A. Romero followed up on this film with an equally classic sequel in 1978 titled “Dawn of the Dead”. Personally, I found that film far superior with better characters, a more subtle social allegory, and it was consistently entertaining, but I’ll admit it never scared me the same way it’s predecessor did. Then came “Day of the Dead” in 1985, which I haven’t seen but heard it was a decent finally to what is now known as George A. Romero’s “Dead” trilogy. More and more sequels came out over the new millennium, and all of which I’ve had no interest in seeing. I’m perfectly content with the first two classics that both reshaped the horror genera. Even though “Night of the Living Dead” still isn’t one of my absolute favorites, it’s still a must see for any long time horror movie fan and a perfect example of how art thrives on limitations.
I give “Night of the Living Dead” 4 stars out of 5.