Classic Horror Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Written by: George A. Romero & John A. Russo
Directed by: George A. Romero
A review written by our newest contributor, Jeremy Mullin
In 1968, an independent film called Night of the Living Dead was released into theaters. Directed by a then unknown filmmaker named George Romero and written by Romero and John Russo, the film’s title said it all: a group of people spend a night being attacked by zombies. Shot in black and white and while seeming to be tame by today’s standards, the movie sparked a fair bit of controversy due to the fact that young children were allowed to purchase tickets to see it (the MPAA rating system had not yet been implemented) and were completely unprepared for the level of horror and violence contained within. Even more shocking was the fact that a black man was cast as the lead hero, something that was unheard of in those days! Nonetheless, the movie became a hit and has since become a classic and staple of the genre, practically a required viewing for any horror fan. It also led to one of the famous horror franchises out there, originally a trilogy until Romero returned with a fourth entry, 2005’s Land of the Dead. And while creative differences would cause Romero and Russo to part ways to make their own sets of films (Russo would be the driving force behind the Return of the Living Dead series) and a clerical error would put the film in the public domain (more on that later), this is still a great movie.
Like all horror films of its day, the movie starts off innocently enough. Siblings Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) drive out to rural Pennsylvania for their annual visit to their father’s grave. When they are suddenly attacked by an odd man, Barbara narrowly escapes and makes her way to an old farmhouse, taking refuge with others that include Ben (Duane Jones), Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), their injured daughter Karen (Krya Schon) and teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), who have each survived their own similar encounters. Meanwhile, the house is surrounded by what the group learns are the corpses of recently deceased people, revived by radiation brought back by a space probe and who are eating the flesh of the living. But surviving the night and fending off their attackers is the least of their problems, as they also have to survive each other, with Ben and Harry constantly fighting about the best course of action. It all ends up being a great movie that broke plenty of new ground back in its day and, like Psycho before it, changed the face of horror films and what we think of as zombies.
- Great and Diverse Cast Who Don’t Get Along – This has often been a staple in horror films, a mix of various characters with different backgrounds, often close friends, who interact while dealing with the main villain. But in comparing Night of the Living Dead to earlier horror films, this movie may have been the first to have a varied mixture of characters, particularly of race. More importantly, this group are not only complete strangers, but they also don’t get along throughout the whole movie, as opposed to other films that have characters who start out not getting along but then somehow manage to put aside their differences to take care of whatever evil or monster they have to face. Not in this movie. From the moment when all the key players are brought together, all they do is argue about what they should or shouldn’t do. The most prominent argument is between Harry and Ben: domineering Harry (who may be one of the earliest examples of the resident “jerk” character in a horror film, that one guy or girl who is such a total ass that you hope they die, but doesn’t do so until close to the end of the movie) says they should hunker down in the cellar, while Ben points out how bad of an idea that is and believes they should stay upstairs where they can see what’s going on. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out which character anyone else would want to follow. And speaking of Ben…
- First Non-White Lead in a Movie… Of Any Kind – While not introduced at the start, the character of Ben (played by Duane Jones) quickly becomes the film’s hero, taking charge when everyone else was panicking and/or being stupid. The fact that Ben was a black man was a shocker back in 1968; in the hands of another writer and/or director, Ben would either have been white or been another character while someone else would’ve took charge. Romero, going with his gut, went ahead with casting Jones in the role of Ben, and film history was made. Jones’ performance as a character who maintains a cool head in the midst of a crisis, trying to keep everyone alive, makes you look past his skin color and root for him to succeed and save the day. Or night, I guess I should say.
- Subtle Gore Effects – Bigger budgets meant that Romero could amp up the gore effects in his later zombie films, starting with Dawn of the Dead. Other future zombie films would also go crazy with the gore effects, showing all the grisly details of unfortunate souls being ripped apart and eaten alive. The limited budget of Night of the Living Dead (and the mindset of the time) meant that Romero couldn’t go quite that crazy with the gore. In fact, there’s hardly any blood or gore in this movie; the scene where a group of zombies feast on the burned remains of two of the characters is as bad as it gets. Tame compared to today’s standards, but shocking in ‘68. Still, it shows how limited budgets can make independent filmmakers embrace their creativity in order to bring the scares.
- A Great, Creepy Atmosphere – This is a must of any horror film, going all the way back to the twisted sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari paired with its haunting music. You can’t get a creepier atmosphere than the one in this movie. An abandoned, rundown farmhouse. Complete darkness that a zombie horde comes stumbling out of unexpectedly. Combine it with a simple musical score, which is mostly done with an organ, that sticks in your head and adds to the creepiness, and you get a scary movie that you just don’t want to watch with the lights off.
I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of this movie and despite repeated viewings, I have yet to find anything really wrong with it. But there is one thing I should address, which may have been mentioned before but I figure I could add my own two cents to it.
- Barbara… A Typical Early Horror Female – Despite being one of the first characters introduced, Judith O’Dea’s Barbara does very little once the action kicks in, going into a total state of shock and spending most of the movie sitting and watching while the men do all the fighting. This was pretty much how it always was in these early horror films, the traditional strong female character who kicks ass when everyone else has failed not coming into play until the slasher genre became popular. Yeah, we know that poor Barbara was a product of her day and she was justifiably shocked by events, but ‘60s mindset or no, this is not a situation you can just sit out from. So we’re kind of glad when Ben smacks her around in one scene, since that’s what we all want to do. Thank God for the 1990 remake where Barbara is the one to take charge and get everyone in line rather than just be a timid observer.
Another downside about this movie is the fact that, due to a clerical error when the filmmakers had to change the original title of Night of the Flesh Eaters to avoid confusion with another film with a similar title, Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain with no one owning the rights to it. Meaning anyone can broadcast or stream it at their leisure, or even make their own remakes without having to ask George Romero or worry about legal repercussions. Yeah, not a hit on the film itself, but still a bummer since Romero and the other creators and filmmakers can’t really make a profit off it. We still give credit where credit is due, and it hasn’t really hurt Romero’s success and legacy as a director, but we still feel bad.
All in all, Night of the Living Dead is a classic example of how a horror movie should function: with a great story, interesting characters, and more emphasis on atmosphere and scares rather than insane amounts of gore and/or nudity. Again, if you’re a true horror fan, this movie should be on your “To Watch” list, and owning it for your film collection is a must.