Original release: October 1st 1968
Running time: 96 minutes
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo, George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley
‘Horror films now suggest that the horror is not among us, but rather part of us, caused by us…’ (Polan, 1984, p.202).
Night Of The Living Dead is the kind of film you may not have gotten around to seeing if you were born in the 80s or later. You’ve probably heard of it, but the black and white cinematography, the date it was produced and the lack of stars may have put you off. I’d seen enough modern zombie apocalypses on film to think that going back to this one wouldn’t be necessary. Catching it by chance late one night while channel surfing, I was instantly hooked.
The eerie score, the black actor in the lead role and the siege movie set up all grabbed me and kept me hooked until the incredibly bleak ending. It might be black and white and dated but this film still has enough thrills and ideas to inspire horror filmmakers today. And if the ending doesn’t make you gasp, you’re most likely a zombie.
Night Of The Living Dead may have a decidedly low budget and some moments of horrific acting (worse than any special effects gore), but it also has the template for a great horror movie. Starting with a brother and sister in a graveyard, a zombie attack and a quick dash to a secluded farmhouse, the film then sticks in the one claustrophobic setting with a cast of quarrelling characters at each other’s throats more than the zombies outside their door.
Ben (Duane Jones) is the leader of the group, determined to fortify the house, stay out of the cellar to better defend the property and always using his head. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is in shock after the attack at the graveyard; half comatose and wholly useless. Harry (Karl Hardman) is a cowardly father with a wife and sick child in the cellar, constantly at odds with Ben. Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) are a young couple in love who have been hiding in the basement with Harry and his family.
Before the 1960s, horror came from elsewhere; Transylvania or Europe, not from rural and urban America. Like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Romero brings the horror right to the front door and forces these characters to confront their undead fellow Americans. Gregory A. Waller (1987) argued ‘Romero and Polanski redefine the monstrous…and situate horror in the everyday world of contemporary America’ (p.4).
Horror films of the 1970s followed this, radically changing from those that had come before. Films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left (1972) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) as Muir (2002) puts it, brought the horror to ‘our living rooms and backyard’ (p.213).
The shuffling dead of Romero’s night are not the scariest horror creations (and far less fearsome or dangerous than Danny Boyle’s Infected), but it’s the family ties and the people stuck together in the isolated farmhouse that should be scared of each other. The men bicker, the women are placid and docile and the young couple who are in love and might traditionally make solid heroes are killed off as mercilessly as the rest. Even if this miserable bunch can survive the night, who’s to say they can learn to live together in a new day?
In the film, Dillard (1987) argues ‘the idea of the family is perhaps more harshly assaulted than any other… family ties actually become dangerous in the film’ (p.28). The father of the nuclear family is shown as weak, the young lovers useless, a sister killed by her brother and a mother killed by her daughter; perhaps the first of the terrible children that became so popular in films like Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).
The year of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was the beginning of a trend towards progressive horror films that dealt with themes of civil unrest and the negative effects of the capitalist, patriarchal society that America was at the time… and still is.
Romero’s film has far more horror beyond grisly effects. It’s nihilistic and bleak, suggesting that society is doomed and there’s little that can be done. Lock your doors, board up your windows, fortify your house; don’t try making a run for it. Its influence can be felt right up to modern horrors like 28 Days Later (2002) where other living humans become far more dangerous than the undead. Just when you think your characters are safe and the cavalry has arrived in the nick of time, the film hurls one last shock at you. Stay indoors. Trust no one.
Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.
If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.