Night of the Living Dead Still Chilling and Entertaining
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Review by Daniel Rester
“They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”
The passing of director George A. Romero recently is a major loss to the horror film community. The man pushed boundaries within the genre with his creativity and commentary. He also basically made the zombie sub-genre that audiences know and love today. Zombie flicks existed before Romero, but his first feature Night of the Living Dead changed the game in terms of how these creatures were presented on-screen.
In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead, the plot revolves around Barbra (Judith O’Dea), Ben (Duane Jones), and a host of others trying to survive in a Pennsylvania countryside home when the dead begin to rise. They create barriers in front of the windows and doors as they gain information from the radio and television, learning that these dead people are feeding on the flesh of humans due to a possible contamination from a space probe.
Shot in stark black and white and with a budget of only $114,000 (but made $30 million at the box office), Romero’s film relied a lot on sheer film-making creativity to surpass its limitations. And boy did it. By having a small cast of characters and one primary location (lending claustrophobia), the story remains tight throughout as the gritty cinematography and gruesome makeup lend to the impact as well.
At the film’s time of release, the killing scenes were considered the ne plus ultra in horror gore. By today’s standards, the flesh eating isn’t quite as flashy or brutal as in other films. Yet the tight close-ups, slow camera movements, and other techniques used by Romero to depict the gore is sure-handed. Those elements combined with the grim b&w images allow some scenes to still send chills up the spine even to this day.
The acting is strong as well, led by Jones. The actor was a controversial choice as the film’s heroic lead at the time of release due to the actor being black. This casting actually lends a bit of unintentional commentary on racial relations to the end of the film (which I won’t spoil), which gives it a lasting bite. Romero has claimed that he only chose Jones for the part due to his acting abilities. Either way, Jones plays the character well and his inclusion adds for some thematic discussions.
There’s also some fun and fear to be had in Romero’s use of television clips in the plot that discuss space expeditions. Night of the Living Dead came out right in the middle of the Space Race, so its commentary on this matter was very timely. There is also some punch in the newscast characters putting potential blame of the incident on military and scientific failures in discovering the cause.
Night of the Living Dead is a genuine horror classic (#8 on my list of the top 100 horror films) and the quintessential zombie film. Sure it has some dated elements, but its story and commentary remain interesting and its images arresting (especially the little girl in the basement). What else could someone ask for from a piece of horror entertainment?
Due to past distribution issues, the film is actually available in the public domain, so you can watch it right on Youtube in case you still haven’t seen it. Turn the lights off, grab some popcorn (or brains), and enjoy the masterful Night of the Living Dead from the late, great George A. Romero.
My Grade: A+ (on an F to A+ scale).