Night of the Living Dead (1968) dir. George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith, O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman
I must confess for 32 years I’ve harboured a horrible secret. I had never seen “Night of the Living Dead”. And I only caught it accidentally on late night television a couple days ago. But it was worth the wait, and I can now understand and appreciate the influence for George Romero on cinema. “Night of the Living Dead” deserves all of the praise – it’s an indie zombie classic that hasn’t lost anything in age. Though almost 40 years old, it feels as modern and relevant now as it did then.
The opening is in a cemetery where arguing siblings Johnny and Barbra visit the grave of their father. Then randomly a stranger attacks them. Johnny is killed and Barbra is chased to a nearby abandoned house. When more zombies start attacking the house, Ben, a heroic stranger arrives to save Barbra and seek shelter with her in the house. After Ben boards up the house and fights off more zombies he finds out the basement is occupied by other victims – Harry and Helen and their sick daughter Karen and a young couple, Tom and Judy. Over the course of the night, the internal conflict within the group – specifically Ben and Harry – is almost as great as their fight with the assailants outside.
The broadcast of the film on “Sun TV” in Toronto was horrible. It was dark and murky with bad contrast. And at times it was difficult to even see the characters faces. Of course some of this is due to the low-budget nature of film, but some of it was the bad broadcast tape Sun was using. But rising above this is smart writing and a thoroughly modern cinematic shooting style.
“Night of the Living Dead” is a lean pragmatic film. The characters act in the moment and react to the reality of the situation. There are no backstories to tell or to reveal. Take Ben for example, when he shows up at the house, he briefly explains to Barbra how he got to the house, and from then on he’s about action and survival. With Barbra Ben hardly speaks a word, instead we see the intense details of his preparation for the house. This could have been accomplished technically with a few montage edits to show the passage of time, but Romero shows us everything in real time. Romero accomplishes one of cinema’s oldest rules, establishing character through action as opposed to dialogue.
Romero’s film is the work of a true independent – unlike say, the Corman films, or “Easy Rider”, or the Cassevettes films – Romero produced his film with no Hollywood connections. It was shot in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania with local private money with actors that then or since have remained completely unknown other than for this film. The low budget allowed Romero to employ a handheld style that was ahead of his time. Despite the grainy black and white image it’s a thoroughly modern style that resembles the camerawork of today’s films.
What elevates Romero’s film above any other b-movie, or Corman-style horror film is its lack of pretension. In fact, the film is under-dramatic. So real, it seems like a perfunctory exercise. This approach allowed Romero to inject his trademark social commentary as subtext. Analysts have compared Romero’s zombies to a criticism of capitalism – an extreme form of survival of the fittest social Darwinism. It may be a stretch, but the ironic and tragic ending certainly befits a pessimistic 1960’s society in despair.
Romero also subverts every other Hollywood horror film which came before it. After the arguing about whether to stay upstairs or in the basement the television set is turned on and we get the news reports of the causes of the zombie-infestation. The depiction of the military action and the inept scientific explanations of the phenomenon seem to be direct shots at the classic b-movie horror genre. This is Romero telling us his film is not a Hollywood film, but his own disturbing and frightening inward look at ourselves. Enjoy.
PS “Night of the Living Dead” was improperly copyrighted back in 1968, so the film is in the public domain and available through a number of distributors: I don’t know which the best, so beware.