Reviews, articles, rants & ramblings on the darker side of the media fringe

REVIEW: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead *****

Second review in a short series of five, featuring one of the five major groundbreaking horror movies of the late 60’s through early 80’s. The movies on the list are: The Night of the Living Dead (1968); The Last House on the Left (1972); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); Halloween (1978) and ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981). These movies set the templates that have been used to make and remake hundreds of horror movies of varying quality for the last 30+ years.

Barbara ((Judith O’Dea) and her annoying brother Johnny are visiting their father’s grave. They see a man stumbling towards them as Johnny tries to scare her, making lame jokes: “They’re coming to get you Barbara”, when suddenly the man attacks her. Johnny comes to her rescue and is killed; Barbara escapes and pursued by the undead assailant, makes it to an apparently abandoned farmhouse.

Shocked by the discovery of a dead body she tries to leave and encounters Ben (Duane Jones) whose truck has run out of gas. Ben fights off 3 undead attackers and before realising that the farmhouse is surrounded by dozens of them. He sets to work boarding up the windows while relating his story to Barbara of the carnage he’s see; at the same time informing the audience of the scale of the situation. This is driven further home by the doom laden news reports from the ever present radio: “Attacks by the undead”, “Partially devoured by their attackers”, “The killers are eating the flesh of the people they kill”; then television news break announcing that a radioactive satellite, the Venus probe, is responsible for the dead returning to life .

Joined by Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their sick child, and young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), who have been hiding in the cellar; the group make a stand.

Taking a brilliantly simple idea, which obviously draws inspiration from ‘Rio Bravo’ and ‘The Birds’, throwing a disparate group of strangers together and made us care for them; and using the limitations of the budget to his advantage by restricting the group to one confined set, George Romero has crafted the prototype zombie movie; the template for all that followed it.

The real strength of the film is in the human drama within the house; the group are fractured, argumentative and divisive, building tension throughout. The characters are believable, displaying their fears, prejudice and vulnerability. As viewers we’re initially apprehensive about them, but as the film unfolds we’re willing them to survive, and Romero being a realist, he kills them off unceremoniously, family members literally ‘eating their own’.

The cast of unknowns inhabit their roles well, delivering believable depictions of fear, cowardice, stupidity and uncertainty. However this is Romero’s film, his script, his politics, his direction, and he delivers on all fronts. The use of gore must also have been quite shocking; having the zombies eating actual meat lends the cannibalistic scenes some realism and although not as graphic as the gore thrown onto the screens with the relentless ‘torture porn’ movies, it still holds up today.

A lot has been made of Romero’s social commentary within the film, made at the height of the Civil Rights movement and Americas involvement in Vietnam. Making a black man the more heroic figure within the group, then dispatching him so callously at the hands of the ‘good old boys’ can’t have been missed by m any viewers at the original time of release.

This is an exceptional film, a real classic of the horror genre, bettered only by Romero’s own follow up, the superlative ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Avoid the 30th Anniversary Edition DVD; it contains some awful new footage shot by alleged fans of the original. Also avoid the colourised version and the 1990 remake, which although not abysmal is pointless when you can watch this.

Turn out the lights, board up the windows, sit back and enjoy.

5 out of 5 stars