OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Name one zombie movie. C'mon, just name one. If you're anything like me, the first one to come to mind was probably Night of the Living Dead. A staple of late-night Creature Feature Shows, it certainly wasn't the first zombie movie, but it brought them into the limelight. Since then, zombies have become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror, appearing in everything from movies to video games. Directed by an aspiring Pittsburgh filmmaker named George Romero, Night of the Living Dead has become one of the most enduring, beloved, and imitated classics of horror, and made its director a legend. So enough ballyhoo, let's get to the review. (Hey, that rhymed. I'm a poet and I didn't even know it.)
The movie's plot is astoundingly simple. We begin, appropriately enough, at a cemetery in the middle of nowhere, where bickering siblings Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive to put flowers on the grave of their father. As Johnny teases his sister, they're attacked by a pale-faced man (Bill Hinzman) who they assume either drunk, crazy, or both. Barbara flees after the man bashes Johnny's head against a tombstone, eventually arriving at a secluded farmhouse. Shortly thereafter, a tough black guy named Ben (Duane Jones) shows up in a stolen truck, and he begins to barricade the house to protect them from the growing number of zombies outside. They find a band of five survivors hidden in the basement: young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), and the Cooper family, Harry (Karl Hardman), Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and their injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). The panic-stricken group must now defend themselves from not only a veritable army of flesh-eating ghouls, but from the growing tension and cabin fever inside the house.
The first chapter of Romero's "Dead Quartet" (the other parts being 1978's Dawn of the Dead, 1986's Day of the Dead, and 2005's Land of the Dead), Night of the Living Dead has spent the last four decades cementing its reputation as one of the true shining stars of the horror genre. The movie is also a prime example of a movie that has no humor (outside of one throwaway line), but rather paints a bleak portrait of society. George Romero's "Dead" movies have always been known for their underlying social commentaries, and Night is no different. Though he was probably cast just because he was the best actor to audition for the role, having Duane Jones, an African-American, as the lead actor surrounded by a cast of Caucasians seemingly gives the movie a condemning outlook on racism. Jones's character takes charge of the situation almost immediately, a move which causes him to butt heads with Karl Hardman's antagonistic, mean-spirited Harry. And I don't want to give away the ending, but it doesn't seem like a coincidence that it had a very "lynch mob" type of feeling to it.
When it's not making any kind of commentary on society, the script has consistently realistic dialogue, a good lesson for horror filmmakers. The genre is an extension of the fantasy realm, and to that extent, excuses often ridiculous dialogue. However, Romero shows us a realism that enhances the fear of the film. Yeah, the characters make the dumb moves associated with horror movies, but the characters actually react to said dumb moves. Though some of my fellow critics and moviegoers may disagree, the movie is visually astounding as well. The gritty look of the movie adds to the movie's claustrophobia, as if the zombies are around the corner at all times. Of course, such illusions make the film a more frightening experience, and that's just the point. Shot in black and white with stark, natural lighting, the movie's lack of color enhances the movie's frightening atmosphere. Shadows appear everywhere, and the movie looks almost unreal. I can't say so for sure, but it's almost as if Romero meant to make the movie with a chiaroscuro style, to give the movie an unreal vibe that makes it that much more terrifying. Romero's direction is also superb. Shot in black and white with stark, natural lighting, the movie's lack of color enhances the movie's frightening atmosphere. Shadows appear everywhere, and the movie looks almost unreal. I can't say so for sure, but it's almost as if Romero meant to make the movie with a chiaroscuro style, to give the movie an unreal vibe that makes it that much more frightening.
The actors are also up to the task required of them. Duane Jones (a brave bit of casting, considering black leading men were few and far between at the time) and Karl Hardman are wonderful as the constantly clashing Ben and Harry, but on the other hand, I could take or leave Judith O'Dea's character Barbara. Her nearly-comatose, always-whining character is insanely annoying, though I'm sure that was the point. Barbara is almost like a toddler, and she often gets in the way of something more important. I found it to be an interesting dynamic compared to the rest of the cast. Barbara sits around and mopes all the time, while the other characters actually try to survive. It's almost as if she's resigned herself to the fact that like it or not, they're all screwed.
Night of the Living Dead is a masterpiece, which still holds up under today's standards. Romero takes an intense social commentary, fine acting, and graphic violence and crams them into 96 minutes, creating one of the most influential and important films of the twentieth century. If you have seen it, watch it again. If you haven't seen it, why not? Despite four decades having passed since its first release, it holds up as a true classic, one which leaves an indelible mark on modern cinema as we know it. And for that, I give Night of the Living Dead four and a half stars.
Final Rating: ****½