NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
What can be said about George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead at this point that hasn’t already been said, it’s one of the greatest horror films ever made and has lost none of it potency even today. Romero may not have invented zombies, but he turned them into their own genre and is responsible for inspiring almost every zombie flick or TV show we see today and created the template for the flesh-eating, shoot-em in the head characteristics that almost every zombie media follows.
Night starts out with siblings Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Steiner who also produced) driving from Pittsburgh into the country to place a wreath on their father’s grave. In the graveyard they are attacked by a seemingly deranged man (Bill Hinzman) who kills Johnny and then chases the terrified Barbara, who finds shelter in an abandoned farm house. A man named Ben (Duane Jones), who is also fleeing a similar attack, then arrives as do more of these apparently deranged people. Soon we find that not only are the dead returning to life and eating the living, but a group of terrified people, including the Coopers, Harry (Karl Hardman), wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and local boyfriend and girlfriend Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), have been hiding in the cellar right beneath their feet. Now the group must somehow fight off what seems like an army of the undead and each other, as the arrogant Harry clashes with the strong-willed Ben over who runs the house and gives the orders.
George Romero has created a horror masterpiece that is filled with dread in every shot thanks to some incredibly moody black and white photography. The film is shot much like one of the classic Universal horrors from the 30s and 40s or the silent Nosferatu with it’s stark and ominous shadows creeping into the frame or creating dark patches where any horror could inhabit. Romero also creates thick tension not only from the terror that lurks outside the house waiting to get in, but the conflict between those who fight for control inside the besieged home, because they can’t control what’s going on outside it. We share the occupants dread as the dead multiply and every chance to escape is dashed and hope dwindles while their fear grows. It tears them apart and soon the danger inside the house is no lesser then what awaits outside. Romero increases the horror when we see an escape plan go awry and it costs the lives of a few of the survivors. The rest get to finally witness what they’ve only heard about on TV as their housemates are devoured in graphic detail by the army of carnivorous corpses. The FX in this low budget film are good with the zombie’s looking quite nightmarish and the entrails they devour very effective…maybe more so…in shadow drenched black and white.
Romero also gets very effective performances out of all his cast, especially Jones as the tough and resourceful Ben and Hardman as the slimy and devious Harry Cooper. These are now considered classic characters in horror film history and Jones’ Ben is also boundary breaking, being the first black man to be cast as a horror film lead especially in the middle of the civil rights movement of the time. There are so many classic scenes as well, that still frighten even today with a proliferation of graphic zombie flicks, zombie themed video games and a weekly TV show. And Night also remains one of the most quotable horrors of it’s kind as well…“they’re dead, they’re all messed up!”…for delightful example. It’s controversial ending still has power even after all these years and multiple viewings.
A true horror masterpiece that is one of the greatest horror flicks of all time and a must watch during the Halloween season. It inspired countless other like films and made a horror legend out of Romero, who added to the zombie pantheon with five more films in the series to date. I was fortunate enough to see NOTLD in a theater during the early 80s at a revival screening at my beloved Oritani theater in Hackensack, N.J.
A classic 4 zombies!