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 here, here, 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.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)