MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig, Bill Hinzman, George Kosana, Russell Steiner/ Runtime: 96 minutes
I feel it is safe to say that the decade known as the 60s really truly was a remarkable era for the horror/thriller genre of film. Indeed it started at the very beginning of the decade when film maestro Alfred Hitchcock made people afraid to go in the shower with his masterpiece Psycho. Of course, not being satisfied with just one of these movies, Hitchcock would then unleash the horror of a specific group in the natural world on audiences with the thrill ride known as The Birds. Also around 1962, the world saw the release of a movie known as Carnival of Souls which managed to prove that budget was not always detrimental to a film’s success, and, of course, in 1968, Roman Polanski gave us the hit that is Rosemary’s Baby, but that’s for another review to cover… Now in between those highlights there were scores of other movies that managed to really contribute in their own ways towards the molding and subsequent creation of the horror/thriller film as we know it today. Yet out of all of these, I think one of the defining films from that formative time has got to be Night of the Living Dead from 1968. Indeed tossing away the desire for stars, special effects on a Michael Bay-level, as well as even filming the movie in color, Romero and his filmmaking squad ventured forth on a quest to give audiences the most horrific nightmare they could conjure up. I think it is safe to say that they were triumphant in their quest with the reward not only being a place in the history of film, but its director also earning himself a forever-there place in the admiration of film fanatics with what eventually became his series of films that focused on a unique kind of monster. Indeed the monster that Romero conjured up was not one that utilized its height or a tool of any kind to elicit terror from the audience. Instead his monsters were plain and simply human corpses yet corpses void of any life, reasoning, or desire other than a horrific craving for the flesh of other people and they were able to increase in number by turning those they attacked into one of them so to speak. Suffice it to say then this movie is noteworthy for having been among, if not the first to ask just what is more terrifying than either being consumed while you are still alive or seeing those we love and care about turned against us and into some kind of monster? Well trust me when I say that by the time this movie is done you will most certainly know the answer, and you will most certainly never look at the world around you the same way again….
The plot is as follows: Night of the Living Dead begins its haunting tale by introducing to a young woman by the name of Barbra and her brother Johnny as they travel by automobile from the city of Pittsburgh all the way out into the seemingly picturesque countryside in order to visit the gravestone of their father and pay their respects. It isn’t long however before this idyllic day is turned into a nightmare when, out of nowhere, the pair are attacked by an unusual individual and, in the resulting melee, Johnny is brutally killed. Barbra however manages to get away and runs away to a isolated and seemingly abandoned farmhouse where she proceeds to lock herself in. Soon thereafter Barbra, who is now in a state of shock, finds a man named Ben has managed to get in after escaping several other of these humanoid creatures, and is in the process of ensuring their survival by taking care of all the doors, windows, and other miscellaneous openings inside the house. While taking care of that however, the 2 discover 5 more people hiding downstairs: these individuals consist of Harry Cooper, his wife Helen, their sick little girl Karen, Tom and his girlfriend Judy. However right from the moment they meet it seems, Harry and Ben begin butting heads over just whether the basement or the rest of the house is the best place to hide out. So as the night goes on, the tension between the two men continues to grow to the point of no return all whilst the house and its occupants find themselves under a form of siege by an enemy that not only is increasing in number as the minutes tick by, but that truly is the stuff that nightmares are made of….
Now for a movie that was made for so little money, I feel that Romero did an amazing job in the utilizations of noises, different lighting techniques, practical effects, as well as the turns given by the cast to get the most effect possible. With that being said the performances in this film are truly terrific even though quite a few people might not like just how these characters were either written or how they are brought to life for the audience. Yet even though both of these aspects are dealt with in a manner that is seemingly both simply as well as borderline melodramatic, I can assure you that these characters have more layers to them than might initially be thought. This of course starts with Duane Jones as Ben and Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper. Indeed if there was a key performance-wise that helped ensure that this movie was able to function as excellently as it does it would have to be seeing the ever-rising aggression and rivalry between these two men since this really increases the tension in this film just as much as the zombies themselves if not, quite astonishingly, a little bit more so. Yet with how intricate their back-and-forth with one another truly being, I can promise you that you will always find a new lens through which to see things each time you watch the movie. Indeed while there are people I know who not only identify with, but also stand behind Ben and his way of thinking, I have also noticed in my last viewings that Ben isn’t the saint or pure hero that many have come to associate him as. In fact I would even go so far as to say that maybe if he hadn’t jumped down Cooper’s throat right from the get-go then I can honestly see the events in this movie playing out a lot differently than they already do.
I also feel that Judith O’Dea and Marilyn Eastman do deserve to be recognized for their roles in this living nightmare. Indeed even though there are a few people out there who may critique O’Dea’s turn in this and call it one-note or feel that the manner in which her character was developed was sexist in some way due to the character for the majority of the film is either catatonic or in a horrific state of hysteria, I feel that there are lot of people in either gender who, if put in that same nightmarish situation would respond in exactly the same way that she does for good or ill. Also I feel that Eastman as Helen really manages to bring a terrific balance to both the character of Barbara as well as her husband. Indeed when she’s not spewing venomous and sarcastic retorts to her husband, she really is trying to pitch in and integrate in with the larger group. Now to be fair I cannot honestly tell you that Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley contribute much except perhaps as both peacekeepers during this horrific crisis as well as the only 2 people who have still managed to hang on to their humanity and in that regard they are wonderful. As for Kyra Schon, George Kosana, and Russell Streiner well they get the wonderful opportunity to show just how memorable minor characters can be as 2 of them get to say one of the most iconic lines to ever come from a horror film and the other gets a scene that is seen as one of the most unease-inducing in all of horror movie history thus making for a wonderful compromise in exchange for their severe lack of screen time.
Now the fact that the filmmaker and his team chose to shoot this film in black and white really does a wonderful job of contributing greatly to the despair that the film possesses in aces. Indeed, and in my opinion, the drained and bleached style as well as the dim camera lighting really do a fantastically horrific job of making the undead look significantly more terrifying than in any zombie film since where they look more bluish, greenish, or gray and always always with the brightest red possible reserved for all the blood that is sure to flow. Yet for me there is just something about watching the undead fumble and bumble about in the dark while the blood gush in darkened yet copious amounts that manages to make them look even more horrific than they ever could in colorized film and especially even if the special effects in those films are more lifelike and infinitely more nauseating than you could ever imagine in your worst nightmares.
Now quite a few people have already gone on at great length not only about the analysis from a social perspective that this film possesses, but also on its impact on horror films since its release and on just pop culture in general. Therefore all I will say on the subject is that George Romero did a wonderful job of mixing together not only some ingredients that were already around in horror films, but also social fears of the time including civil unrest, clashes with authorities, and perhaps most crucially, the war in Vietnam, and managed to conjure up a unique sub-genre of horror film aka the undead zombie flick and also aided in shepherding in a new style as well; a style that, incidentally, was a lot darker, lot bloodier, and grounded in the most gritty realistic foundation possible than horror films had ever seen before.
All in all the scariest thing about ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is not the hordes of undead running rampant outside the farmhouse setting trying to get in and kill our group of survivors. Rather it is the humans themselves as well as the negative behaviors that they conduct their lives with and unleash upon others that are the true monsters. Indeed in movies like this it does not matter in the slightest if you manage to come out on top in a conflict with the monsters in the film. That is because at the end of the day, this movie and others like it argue, it will be the behaviors of our fellow man that will wind up being the very thing that dooms us as a species in a crisis such as this. Thus it is for that reason, more than the wonderful work done by both cast and crew that this iconic horror film will continue to resonate for years to come. On a scale of 1-5 I give Night of the Living Dead “68” a solid 5 out of 5.