John Charet’s Take On: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Warning: The following review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, than I strongly advise to not go any further.

Filmed in black-and-white on a low-budget reportedly consisting of $114,000 dollars, Night of the Living Dead proved to be a success with both audiences, and eventually critics nationwide. In addition to all of that, it not only served as George A. Romero’s directorial debut, but at the same time, it also cemented his reputation (and deservedly so) as a master of horror amongst devotees of the genre like myself.

During a visit to their father’s grave at a cemetery, siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner) notice a dazed looking man walking awkwardly. When he tries to attack Barbra, Johnny intervenes by fighting back. Nevertheless, this backfires as the man fatally throws Johnny against a gravestone. Running for her life, Barbra seeks shelter inside a farmhouse that looks as If it has been deserted. Upon entering the upstairs area, Barbra discovers a seemingly devoured corpse leaving her terrified and ready to leave. Suddenly, an African-American by the name of Ben (Duane Jones) enters the place and defends it by killing two of the monstrous strangers with a tire iron. Although, Ben is able to persuade her to help him board up the entire house, Barbra’s mental state has deteriorated considerably due to everything that she has just witnessed. Semi-ignorant of her current state of shock, Ben tells Barbra that he first witnessed all of his chaos while passing by a local diner. In his words, he talks to her about how he went inside an abandoned truck so he could listen to the radio and remain informed on the current situation. While in there, he saw a bunch of these strange people chasing after a gasoline truck, which drove right through a billboard resulting in the driver’s death. Afterwards, Ben looked around and realized that he was allegedly the only person left alive and to survive, he would seek solace in someplace that was safe. Barbra summarizes everything that happened to her at the cemetery prior to hiding out in the farmhouse that she is currently sharing with Ben. Under the false impression that her brother Johnny is still alive, Barbra tries to convince Ben to go out and look for him. Ben quickly dismissed this idea by simply stating that your brother is dead resulting in a hysterical Barbra to reply back with  No! My brother is not dead! and after slapping him, he smacks her back intending to shake some common sense into her, but ends up leaving her incapacitated.

Armed with a hunting rifle that he had found in the farmhouse, Ben uses it to fend off attacks from the outside while listening for the next radio report. Unexpectedly, the cellar door opens awakening Barbra and slightly startling Ben, who discovers that a few others have survived. We are introduced to a teenager named Tom (Keith Wayne) and an arrogant and unhappily married father/husband by the name of Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who is unrelated to him. Tom’s teenage girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley) is in the cellar assisting Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) in any way she can with her and Harry’s ailing 11-year-old daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who was bitten by one of the attackers. Harry and his family are hiding in the farmhouse because their car was turned over by the same freaks encountered earlier on by Barbra and Ben. Tom and Judy   sought refuge in the house after hearing about the recent string of murders from a radio report via an emergency broadcast from earlier. Shortly after discovering a television set somewhere in the house, Ben turns it on to listen to the next report with most (If not all) of the others and learns that this nationwide epidemic of murderous mayhem began when the deceased unexplainably came back to life and started feasting upon human flesh. One scientist thinks that this recent outbreak may have originated from a Venus space probe that exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere. According to a local Sheriff, the most effective way to kill these reanimated corpses is to aim for the head with either a gun, a club or a torch. As the number of zombies become more widespread, Ben fends them off while simultaneously plotting an escape route with the full cooperation of everyone around him with the exception of the selfish Harry.

Director/co-writer George A. Romero may have cited Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (read herehere, and here) as an inspiration, but it would be unwise for anybody to sum up Night of the Living Dead as a pastiche of past horror fiction (cinematic or literary) since the result is the complete opposite. In terms of plot, it is most notable for being the first film to depict zombies (read here) as flesh-eating monsters. Succeeding Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and preceding Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch both by a year, the violence in Night of the Living Dead (like the former and the latter) was noticeably more graphic than anything else viewers had seen in the past. Unlike those first two titles however, this one was an independent film distributed by the lower-profiled Water Reade Organization (read here), a once high-profile movie theater chain. Aside from a considerably gory stabbing, a crushed skull and the decomposed face of a corpse, we also get zombies completely devouring human beings.

At heart, Night of the Living Dead also works as a biting satire on the political and social turmoil that ended up shaping the 1960’s as a whole. Not unlike The Wild Bunch, Night of the Living Dead’s display of graphic violence (strong for it’s day at least) was symbolic of the American news media’s daily televised depictions of the ongoing Vietnam War overseas (read here), which the United States was heavily involved in at the time. Taking into account the continued escalation of U.S. involvement (read here) during the then presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), one can’t help but possibly see this as a fitting metaphor. One could also potentially see a parallel between the killings of the zombies and the protest activity that erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (read here and here) with the posse of armed men in the roles of the police officers upholding law and order by physically restraining them. While privately understanding of their anger, the police (alluding to the posse) feel that it would be a dangerous mistake for protesters (alluding to the zombies) to let that emotion influence them to cause chaos and destruction. If Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds served in part as an allegory of the decline of the nuclear family (read here), than director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead symbolically serves as one about it’s demise. For example, Harry and Helen Cooper’s marriage is obviously an unhappy one judging from Helen’s remark to Harry of we may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything. According to Helen, it is important for her egotistical husband to be right and for everybody else to be wrong. Fairly or unfairly, it seems that dysfunctional families like these have only become more common since the passage of no-fault divorce the following year in 1969 by then California governor (1967-1975) and future 40th U.S. President (1981-1989) Ronald W. Reagan (read here and here), who would later reportedly cite this as the biggest mistake of his political career. By 1985, all except one state had some form of it and by 2010, New York would become the last state to pass a no-fault divorce law (read here). Explicitly, the already insecure Harry resents taking orders from Ben, who (along with Helen) hates him due to his arrogance and bullying. Implicitly, Harry harbors a racial hatred for the African-American Ben, who is almost killed by the zombies when Harry purposely locks him outside. Later on, Ben gets his revenge by shooting him with the hunting rifle. Open or closeted, Harry’s racism was typical to that of extreme critics of the Civil rights movement (1954-1968) (read here). By the end, just as it looks as If Ben is going to be the lone survivor, he is unexpectedly shot in the head long range by a posse member, who had mistaken him for a zombie. This ending resembles the pessimism that drove the mood of the nation following two 1968 assassinations on political leaders in the form of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 of that year (read here) and then New York senator turned Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (read here) two months later on June 5. The eerie music that plays during the closing credits foreshadows the two turbulent events that followed in the guise of the King assassination riots (read here) and the aforementioned protest activity that occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago of that same year. Romero’s vision of a radically changing America is made all the more terrifying when one comes to the realization that most (if not all) of these incidents were taking place between early April and late August of that year; prior to the film’s premiere during that month of October.

While I personally feel that director George A. Romero would surpass this one 10 years later with the gorier and wittier Dawn of the Dead in 1978, Night of the Living Dead is still truly deserving of it’s status as an influential cult classic. Even at the tender age of 50, it feels every bit as scary and timeless now as it was in 1968. To put it in other words, Night of the Living Dead is a horror film with a lot on it’s mind.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

My Favorite George A. Romero Films

* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Dawn of the Dead (1978)

2.   Night of the Living Dead (1968)

3.   Martin (1978)

4.   Day of the Dead (1985)

5.   Knightriders (1981)

6.   Land of the Dead (2005)

7.   Creepshow (1982)
(Anthology Film)

8.   The Crazies (1973)

9.   Bruiser (2000)

10. Season of the Witch (1972)
(a.k.a. Hungry Wives)

11. Diary of the Dead (2007)

12. The Dark Half (1993)

13. Two Evil Eyes (1990)
13a. Segment: “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”
(Anthology Film)

14. Monkey Shines (1988)

15. Survival of the Dead (2009)

16. There’s Always Vanilla (1971)

My Top 10 Favorite Horror Films of All-Time

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This Halloween I had planned on doing a random list of great horror films for the holiday. However, I came to the conclusion that it would be best to start off with what I consider to be my top 10 favorite horror films of all-time. Obviously, I have more than ten favorites, but I want to limit it to that number since I believe it is the best amount to start at. Maybe next October I will dedicate the whole month to 100 or 50. Or If I can’t do that, I will do a random “10 Great Horror Films” in which I just pick random films in the genre that I gave either * * * * or * * * 1/2 stars to. Since I do not post picture images on this site, I will give links that will take the reader to a google image site providing pages of images for the film I will talk about on each number. Expect to see the link above the film I talk about. For example, you see where it says “Google Links” on the top center, that is where you can go If you want to see images of the film I am talking about. This will take you to a page that shows pages of websites that provide pictures/images of the film for those who are curious about the mentioned film. P.S. I have given all these films on my list * * * * stars (Out of * * * *). Now with all that out of the way, I want to now present to you with what I call:

My Top 10 Favorite Horror Films of All-Time

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1.) Night of the Living Dead (1968) (Dir: George A. Romero) (USA)
The granddaddy of all zombie films not only ranks somewhere on the list of “My Top 100 Favorite Films of All-Time” but it also happens to be my number 1 favorite horror film of all-time. The plot concerns a small group of people in a small American town trying to defend themselves from flesh eating zombies who once they have bitten you, that person infected will become one of them. Made on a low-budget and shot in grainy black-and-white, the style of the film gives off this documentary-like tone, which makes the proceedings even more disturbing. Add to that, Romero’s pessimistic yet subtle commentary on the political and social upheavals of the 1960’s and you have one of the most apocalyptic horror films ever made.

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2.) The Old Dark House (1932) (Dir: James Whale) (USA)
Although every single one of them is laced with subtle humor, neither of director James Whale’s horror films have succeeded as pure comedies as clearly as this one.  Blending elements of gothic horror and sophisticated comedy all into one, the result is a unique gem that is unlike any other film in the genre. Stranded during a bad thunderstorm, five travelers seek shelter at a nearby spooky mansion where they encounter all sorts of weird behavior from its inhabitants which includes among other memorable characters the family’s butler (Boris Karloff), a mute alcoholic. Taking into account everything I just said, The Old Dark House ranks above the competition as the greatest haunted house movie ever made.

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3.) Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966) (Dir: Mario Bava) (Italy)
Mario Bava (1914-1980) was one of Italy’s undisputed masters of horror (the other being Dario Argento) and for readers of this site, I personally rank him along with Argento as one of my favorite directors of all-time. What makes Bava so deservedly legendary is that all of his films are primarily known for their amazing use of color and Kill, Baby… Kill! is no exception. The plot concerning a series of murders committed by the ghost of a dead girl takes a backseat towards Bava’s aforementioned use of color. One of many examples include a staircase sequence employing the use of blues, greens and yellows. If I did a list of the best horror films shot in color (and their are many candidates), this one would top the list.

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4.) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (Dir: James Whale) (USA)
Bride of Frankenstein is everything a sequel should be and much more. Previously thought dead, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his monster (Boris Karloff) end up surviving and this time another mad scientist (Ernest Thesiger) comes along and successfully convinces Dr. Frankenstein to help him build a female mate for the monster. What follows is a monster movie loaded with subtle humor, gothic imagery and even pathos. All of this begs the question as to why is James Whale often labeled the greatest director of the 1930’s Universal Studios horror films? The answer is simple; he expresses pure enthusiasm whenever he is working within this genre and upon viewing, one can sense the high level of joy he infuses in the proceedings.

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5.) The Evil Dead/Evil Dead II (1981/1987) (Dir: Sam Raimi) (USA)
Two for the price of one. Director Sam Raimi’s 1981 low-budget original ranks in my opinion as not only the quintessential cabin-in-the-woods horror film, but it also stands out as one of the greatest directorial debuts in cinematic history as well. His 1987 sequel Evil Dead II flawlessly blends slapstick comedy and graphic violence all into a complete whole and the result is pure madcap fun. The plot of the first film concerns a group of students spending a weekend in a cabin. While there, they come upon a “Book of the Dead” with a tape recorder that plays the translation. Listening to it accidently unleashes the demons in the woods and one-by-one it takes possession of each student. The second film is similar to the first in many ways; the only difference is the other film played out more like a grindhouse flick and this one plays out more like a comedic horror film. Nevertheless, they are both on the same level in terms of greatness and Raimi injects each film with a non-stop level of energy that has rarely been equaled. P.S. anybody who reads this site will also know that I gave Army of Darkness     * * * * stars (Out of * * * *).

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6.) The Black Cat (1934) (Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer) (USA)
Inarguably the first and best of the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi collaborations for Universal Studios. Amid his quest to avenge the death of his wife at the hands of a Satan-worshipping architect/priest (Boris Karloff), a vengeance-crazed psychiatrist (Bela Lugosi) must also save the wife of a newlywed husband by matching wits with the exact same guy, who plans to sacrifice her in a satanic ritual. Armed with a big budget, director Edgar G. Ulmer takes full advantage of his past experiences in art-direction ( 1927’s Sunrise) and gives us a horror film that conjures up imagery and symbolism worthy of German Expressionism at its best. Legendary horror film icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are also in peak form as well with the former as a villain and the latter as a hero. The only downside is that it marked one of the very few times in Ulmer’s career in which he was allowed to work with a Hollywood budget. P.S. although Edgar Allen Poe is mentioned in the opening credits, the plot shares absolutely no similarities to Poe’s short story and is actually meant as an original piece.

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7.) The Exorcist (1973) (Dir: William Friedkin) (USA)
Adapted from a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist truly comes off as one of the (If not The) scariest horror films ever made. The story as everyone knows concerns the efforts of two Jesuit priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) trying to exorcise a demonic spirit out of the body of a young innocent girl (Linda Blair) after her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn) tries everything she knows to help her. Known for employing documentary-like techniques, director William Friedkin scares us out of our minds not so much with the icky special effects ( i.e. the spewing of green vomit), but with the quieter scenes like the early behavior of the girl during the early stages of demon possession as well as the medical examinations that follow. Everything is superbly chilling here; from everything I just mentioned to the film’s use of locations to the utilizing of darkness and light (most notably the film’s poster image which is a scene in the film). Last but not least let us not forget the brief but effective use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” music which is often associated with this film.

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8.) Cat People (1942) (Dir: Jacques Tourneur) (USA)
Cat People is the first of nine horror films produced by Val Lewton for the prestigious RKO Studios and it is also quite a unique one at that. An American man (Kent Smith) falls in love with and marries a mysterious Serbian woman (Simone Simon), who fears she will turn into a panther If sexually aroused. On paper, this sounds like B-movie material, but in execution it is more than meets the eye. Director Jacques Tourneur (son of his filmmaker father Maurice) focuses on atmosphere rather than cheap thrills; one of many good examples is his decision of never presenting to the viewer what the monster looks like. Among Tourneur’s other skills lies his frequent use of light and shadow to emphasize the influence of German Expressionism. Credit should also be given to the lead actress of the film Simone Simon, who plays the femme fatale with a considerable amount of pathos and sensuality. Another thing to think about is the story penned by DeWitt Bodeen; psychoanalysis as a fad was in it’s infancy in 1942 and the main character’s aversion to intimacy in the film can arguably be seen as a social commentary on sexual repression.

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9.) Dawn of the Dead (1978) (Dir: George A. Romero) (USA)
If “The Godfather Trilogy” serves as the definitive statement on the gangster film than George A. Romero’s “Dead Films” serve as their artistic equivalent in terms of the zombie sub-genre. This time, we have four people; two SWAT team members, one traffic reporter and his newsroom executive girlfriend. All together, they take shelter in a Philadelphia mall to defend themselves from the overpopulating zombies that have basically taken over Earth. Where the original film was shot in black-and-white, this one is shot in Technicolor and Makeup artist Tom Savini delivers the goods with his awesome display of blood and gore. Aside from being an undisputed master of horror, director/writer George A. Romero also knows a thing or two about social commentary and even humor. Released in 1978, this one could best be described as a critique of consumerism when one considers that zombies are roaming the mall as well as when our heroes begin overbuying to survive. The result is a true horror masterpiece that is both cynical and humorous.

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10.) I Walked with a Zombie (1943) (Dir: Jacques Tourneur) (USA)
Based very loosely on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and blending it with a story set in The West Indies, I Walked with a Zombie is without a doubt the most visually exquisite and richly fascinating of the nine RKO Studios horror films produced by Val Lewton. The plot has a young Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) vacationing in the West Indies to care for the wife of a plantation owner (Tom Conway), who seems to be in a zombie-like state as a result of severe tropical fever. Destined to heal her, the nurse thinks a voodoo (courtesy of a voodoo ceremony) might be the cure. As with Cat People, director Jacques Tourneur highlights the atmosphere with his utilization of light and shadow and here it gives the overall tone of the film a hazy dream-like quality. Although the source material came from an article written by Inez Wallace for “American Weekly Magazine“, Lewton reportedly disliked it and asked the screenwriters of the film (Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray) to use the aforementioned Eyre as the source material instead. Either way and I am being highly complimentary here, it stands out as the most literary of all zombie films.