Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Ben (Duane Jones; center) makes a forceful point about what to do about these zombies. Tom (Keith Wayne; right) listens. Barbara (Judith O'Dea; left) contributes the best way she can.

Directed and photographed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by John A. Russo & George A. Romero. Produced by Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner. Music by Scott Vladimir Licina. Edited by George A. Romero, John A. Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon.

When it comes to horror movie monsters, I’ve always secretly felt that zombies frequently don’t have the stuff to go the distance. I’ll grant you that the idea that your dead loved ones are reanimating as walking corpses with a taste for human flesh is—shall we say, compelling. But more often than not, a zombie will simply exhaust its inherent interest long before 90 minutes (or even 120, God help us) is up. There’s little strategy to a zombie’s attacks, little that the can do to progress a plot except multiply, and really, even when they do devour you and eat your brains and make you one of them…well, it’s just their nature, you know? It’s nothing personal, and so it’s hard to get truly frightened by them. For this reason, if I’m forced to choose between zombie movies, I always find myself more inclined to look at the ones that focus less on the mindless monsters and more on the social chaos they create—their very existence typically being something that tears down civilization in a hurry. That I find interesting and scary. But the zombies themselves? Meh.

However, there are zombie movies and then there is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Made on small budget ($114,000) that its filmmakers were lucky to even get at all, Night of the Living Dead is the seminal zombie movie, and in many ways the seminal horror movie of the mid-century. After a decade and change of monster movies that had various ingredients of camp, Night of the Living Dead blew the doors open on the genre by agreeing on a tone that was serious, dark, disturbing, non-exploitative, and not an iota funny. And it also upped the ante on motion picture violence and gore, and may have had a hand in the formation of the MPAA ratings system, which of course we would not do without today. When Variety review the film in 1968, they dubbed its (relatively tame) display of violence as an “unrelieved orgy of sadism.” How far we’ve come.

The other thing that Romero proved is that there are no limits to how cheaply you can make a successful horror movie. This weekend, in which we watch the cheaply-made Paranormal Activity franchise make oodles of cash, is probably a good occasion to reflect that for filmmakers trying to get their foot in the door of Hollywood, nothing is a more surefire road to success than making a good horror movie. Horror, unlike any other genre, can get away with minimal overhead because stars are not necessary to make a successful horror movie, while they typically are necessary in order to grant a success in any other genre. Also, with a small-budget horror movie, you are guaranteed some semblance of an audience, because horror fans are either (a) severely undemanding or (b) open to trying everything at least once. Take your pick.

That said, when you’re watching Night of the Living Dead, the last thing you’re thinking about is the quaintness of its violence, or the business of its making.This is a brutal and effective horror picture, which is surprising given how rather ordinary its zombies are. Rather than overloading them with makeup and gore, Romero depicts them as slightly pale, lumbering creatures that wear scars and permanent frowns. Honestly, I have the suspicion that Romero isn’t really interested in his zombies, anyway. Not here, at least. I think he’s more intrigued by his characters. True, Romero has been since yoked to the particular subgenre that is the zombie movie, and has cranked out dozens of spiritual sequels (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land, Diary, etc). But with this first one I think he sees the zombies as primarily a vehicle to get to the good stuff: that is, the gradual breakdown of civility between a group of trapped individuals.

The characters in Night of the Living Dead are quickly sketched, but sharply observed. There is Barbara (Judith O’Dea), who, in one of those great opening horror scenes that sickeningly slides from the mundane to the frightening, is menaced in a graveyard by a towering ghoul. There is Harry (Karl Hardman), a frightened little man who installs himself as alpha male of the tiny farmhouse that Barbara takes shelter in. There are supporting roles for a Harry’s concerned wife and daughter, a nervous teen couple, and then there is Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who is Barbara’s first rescuer, and later butts heads with Harry over the correct course of action. Ben, effectively, becomes the lead of the picture, since he picks up the proactive slack when Barbara reduces herself to sitting on the couch in shock. It’s fascinating to see such a significant and progressive role for a black actor in the late ‘60s, but even more interesting is Jones’ performance: wise, direct, soulful, smart. In many ways Ben is the best thing in the movie.

There is no explanation given for the zombie uprising. No virus, no magic spell, no radioactive waste that spills into a cemetery. It just happens. What information we do get is filtered through TV news broadcasts that are conveyed by the anchors with confusion and fear. The rules are established here for the zombies, but they are kept at a minimum: if you die, you become a zombie. Zombies can only be killed with a shot to the head. Zombie corpses must be burned immediately. You know the drill. Meanwhile, nerves inside the boarded-up farmhouse get seriously frayed, especially when the two men disagree about how to proceed.

The basic plot outline we have certainly seen before, and perhaps even seen done more slickly. But perhaps we have not seen it better than here: the original Night has a rawness that its glossier imitators were incapable of replicating. Some of that may stem more from Romero’s relative inexperience behind a camera, but one cannot deny the curious effect the film has (enhanced by its eerie, black and white photography) a creepy, insinutating presence. With it’s unrefined sound mix and guerilla-style shot choices, it often feels less like a traditional horror movie and more like a docudrama about real people facing an impossible situation that is closing in on them.

Romero’s storytelling is tight, while still finding room for effective grace notes, like the shadowy, bloody corpse that Barbara at the head of a flight of stairs, which comes at the end of a wordless suspense sequence as she investigates the house. Or, later, she finds a music box that plays a slow tune that makes some sort of subliminal, hard-to-describe contrast to the chaos outside the house. And Romero’s camera and cheap film stock do a pretty efficient job of finding interest even when outside the house, away from the characters. You’d think that a director would run out of ideas how to make a bunch of people stumbling around the exterior of a house interesting, but he does a good job.

Romero’s real purpose, here, I think, is to show the decay of civilization in the face of horror, but with a key racially-charged component. Thanks to 40 + years of progress, we might not notice that as strongly now. It is significant that the most inhumanity shown to a character is shown to Ben in a climactic sequence, and that provides a thematic link with his ultimate exit from the picture. Certainly this means something, and perhaps it is Romero’s vision that when put under great pressure, human beings will retreat instinctively to carrying out their deep-seated prejudices. (None of the characters in the movie declare themselves specifically as racist, but given the time it was made, they don’t even necessarily have to.) Nowadays, we see Ben and Harry argue and we don’t instinctively think about race, we think about men angering each other. I think Romero’s story is about racism, but I think audiences would be forgiven, reading it fresh today, to think of it simple as a parable about society.

The movie is refreshingly unsentimental in its structure. No one is really safe here, and many of the characters don’t come across particular well. Especially Barbara, who practically falls into a coma of despair, and does none of the strategizing once the other characters enter the picture. But Barbara’s passiveness, while perhaps unwittingly reflecting the lopsided sexual politics of the time, does not feel overly symbolic because we can certainly imagine being in her position and reacting the same way. Furthermore, we get few biographical details about these people. No backstory or speeches, and no declarations of values. Romero’s characters are instead defined almost exclusively by their actions, a nicely Darwinian touch that complements a story of sudden social upheaval pretty well. This informs the screenplay all the way to the end, where…well, you’ll see.

Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is just plain a lean, surgically effective horror film. It bets its emotional capital on our investment with the characters, and does well to make those characters memorable. The film produced many, many, many follow-ups: some official, some not, some cheaper, some not, some seen by me, some not. Many of them are pretty much the same. I’m not what you would call a fan. But I found an eerie spell that was cast by watching Romero’s original, and I think that may be because it find a way to cater to people who don’t necessarily find zombies frightening. Like I said, zombies…not so scary. But a man with a gun shooting at everything he’s afraid of? Now that’s scary. I feel like Romero might even agree.

Happy Halloween.

GRADE: B+

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1999 – Eyes Wide Shut

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1973 – The Wicker Man

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