Movie Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
“They won’t stay dead.”
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
Synopsis: A group of strangers take refuge in a remote farmhouse when the recently deceased are brought back to life by radiation from a passing satellite.
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Although George Romero’s cheap independent horror Night of the Living Dead makes no mention of the word ‘zombie’, it enjoys an indisputable place in movie history as the Granddaddy of the modern-era horror sub-genre. This is the movie in which, for the first time, the living dead roam the earth in search of living flesh to consume, and that establishes the ground rules which, with a small number of variations, are followed to this day: that zombies can only be killed by a traumatic blow to the brain, and that those infected by a bite from a zombie are doomed to join their ranks. Its simple plot, in which a disparate group of individuals find temporary – but shrinking – refuge from the insanity outside, has provided a template for the genre ever since.
The honour of becoming modern cinema’s first zombie goes to S. William Hinzman, Romero’s assistant cameraman, who would find himself repeating the part in a number of cheap zombie flicks and even – believe it or not – a pizza commercial. It’s Hinzman who introduces us to the unmistakable slow zombie shuffle as he slowly closes in unnoticed on siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) as they visit the grave of their father in a remote rural cemetery. However, his graveyard zombie demonstrates a level of cognitive capacity beyond that of many of those to follow in later movies. When Barbra locks herself in their car following Johnny’s freak death from a blow to the head while grappling with his sister’s undead assailant, the zombie has enough intelligence to throw a rock through its window in order to get at her. He’s not one unusually bright exception, either; later, at the farmhouse in which a near-catatonic Barbra is closeted with the resourceful Ben (Duane Jones), the gathering zombies deliberately smash the headlights of the truck in which their living prey hope to make their escape.
Ben and Barbra’s desperate situation worsens even further when they discover that there are five other refugees in the cellar of the farmhouse in which they have barricaded themselves. Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), the overbearing, self-appointed leader of this group, clashes immediately with Ben, and for a good 20 minutes or so the tension is allowed to dissipate as the plot focuses on the group dynamics within the house, and the gathering horde outside becomes an almost abstract threat. Harry wants to hide in the basement, which Ben thinks would be suicide if the zombies get into the house, and there’s a heavy irony in the fact that, although the stiff-necked Harry’s plan is theoretically riskier, it would in all probability have been the better one to follow.
Much has been written about the possible subtext within Night of the Living Dead, even though Romero and co-writer John Russo insist no such subtext exists. Some regard it as a commentary on American involvement in Vietnam, while, because of the casting of black actor Duane Jones in the lead role, others see it as a thinly veiled indictment of white insecurity regarding the rise of black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. There’s no doubt that the colour of his skin fuels all kinds of politically determined interpretations regarding the fate of Jones’ character, and it seems inconceivable that, in an era of civil unrest and political turmoil (Luther King was assassinated on the day that the film was completed), Romero could not have had some awareness of the repercussions of casting a black man as his lead.
Whether viewed as some kind of allegorical commentary on America in the 1960s, or as a straightforward horror picture, Night of the Living Dead remains compellingly watchable despite some glaring deficiencies. Romero is a director who often lacks discipline, as is evident from the seemingly endless bickering between Ben and Harry, but it seems that he was reined in to some degree by the severe budgetary constraints that also resulted in the use of black-and-white film and stock (Da-da-daaahhh!!!) music. The acting is variable, ranging from barely adequate to poor, and the continuity is amateurishly inconsistent. And yet, when Romero focuses on the threat to his human protagonists from the zombies outside rather than from one another, Night of the Living Dead’s situations remain tense and compelling, and easily capable of withstanding repeated viewings.
(Reviewed 30th December 2016)