Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero, John A. Russo
Producers: Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Bill Cardille, Kyra Schon
Year: 1968
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 96 min

They’re coming to get you Barbara…

With such a prophetic opening statement it’s not hard to see where the plot of George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is going to go. Within mere minutes of Johnny (Russell Streiner) teasing his sister for her trepidation at being in a graveyard, he lies dead and poor Barbara (Judith O’Dea) is locked in her car screaming as the undead begin to move, albeit exceedingly slowly, towards her. Thus begins a true classic of the genre; the original zombie movie.

It is relatively soon after this that the entire cast is united, each of them bringing a different crisis mentality to the table. First we are introduced to Ben (played by Duane Jones), the perfect example of a selfless, brave but ultimately doomed hero; the one man that you would want with you were the dead to rise any time soon! Ben picks up Barbara and takes her into a nearby abandoned house, which will ultimately be the setting for the rest of proceedings. In this house we are introduced to the Cooper family, the father Harry (Karl Hardman), mother Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). The family is representative of a horror movie convention, the overly cautious, self-centred group who place their own needs above the collective; and ultimately pay with their lives. We are also introduced to the immensely likeable teenage couple Tom and Judy (portrayed by Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley respectively). Tom and Judy show bravery, kindness and act as a metaphorical representation of the power of the human spirit, even through unimaginable horror they remain selfless and loving. They stay together, try to help the others together and ultimately die together. It is this cast of characters, confined in an ever decreasing space that provide the real essence of the film. Forget zombies (a term never used in the film), forget gore and forget shock, this is a film where the true horror comes from the conflicting nature of humanity. Each character has an equally good chance of survival, and it is through these personality differences that the tension arises, how far each character is prepared to go for the sake of their own lives is what creates the tension. It is this atmosphere, occasionally punctured by reminders of the supernatural horrors in the outside world which distinguishes The Night Of The Living Dead as a true classic of the genre.

As an audience we build up a rapport with the characters, we know what we think we should expect from them, we understand their motivations, and ultimately I believe that each person who sees the film, will identify with a different character. Of course everyone would like to think of themselves as the saviour, the one person who takes charge for the greater good, in other words Ben, but I for one have no doubt in my mind the majority of us would end up locked in the cellar, I certainly know I would!

The glut of human emotion on display in the film is summed up with the love, desperation, sadness and fear which Helen shows in perhaps the most iconic scene from the movie, where, trapped in the cellar with the ‘ghoul’ formerly her daughter, she utters through tears the immortal line ‘Poor Baby..’

The dialogue in the film is sparse and often confined to short responses, this again increases the tension of the piece, it causes the audience to feel the desperation of the cast and ultimately draws us into their world. Though Romero himself has stated that the idea for the film was taken from the Matheson story I Am Legend, I see more classic horror features here, reminiscent of Poe or Lovecraft, where true horror comes from within ordinary people put into terrible situations.

Of course, the more analytical viewer will pick up on the obvious plot holes within the story, for example, despite Harry’s assertion that the cellar is logically the safest place to hide from the spreading plague despite being conclusively disproven both in theory (by Ben) and in practice late in the movie, not one of the cast members stumbles upon the realisation that the ‘ghouls’ are incapable of climbing, jumping or moving at any serious pace. Knowing this would it not be sensible to move to, off the top of my head, the attic? The roof? Clearly this was a fact known by Romero himself since in the 1990 remake (directed by Tom Savini, but rewritten by Romero) we see Harry hiding in the attic and surviving the apocalyptic events. It is only a minor point, and I am most definitely nit picking, but it does detract from the general realism of the film; standing alongside the infamous Indiana Jones submarine paradox as a glaring weakness in an otherwise fantastic movie.

If you come to this film expecting to be terrified, to be unable to sleep for the foreseeable future then I’m afraid you will be disappointed. The movie can be best described as ‘claustrophobic’; with such disparate characters all confined to an ever shrinking locale, it is not the ‘ghouls’ that provide the discomfort, it is the encompassing feeling of being trapped; and that is in itself representative of Romero’s genius. Many horror films in the modern era rely far too heavily on excessive gore, or simple shock as the enemy leaps from off camera; not Night of the Living Dead. Though it is true to say that the film has significant gore, it is rather a by-product of the story and the feeling of ever decreasing circles which span the entire plot. From a personal perspective I feel that the horror genre would do well to look to it’s roots, look at what terrified the audiences before the advent of CGI, and bring back the intricacies of plot, character and atmosphere of movies such as this.

For anyone who wants to know how it all began, or simply a thoroughly enjoyable 96 minutes, then the Night of the Living Dead is highly recommended.

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2 Responses

  1. David Brook

    I love this film. I prefer it to all the zombie movies that followed, even people’s usual favourite ‘Dawn of the Dead’, which is great, but a bit too long and slow in my opinion.

    As for you mentioning that those looking to be frightened would be disappointed, I’d have to disagree with that. On first viewing especially I always found this film terrifying. It doesn’t have any cheap jump scares or anything like that, but I find the oppressively bleak tone really affecting. It’s horror like this where you can’t see a way out that I find much more scary than some masked monster popping out of the background accompanied by some loud orchestra crash. Plus I’ve always found cannibalism disturbing and there’s plenty of gut munching in this! I think the no frills black and white presentation is another factor which works in its favour. The lack of gloss makes it all feel a little more ‘realistic’.

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  2. Mike Black

    I agree with you, this one is the best of the ‘…of the dead’ series, it has the right blend of engaging characters and suitable pace. I also agree that the film is a frightening one, once the viewer is engaged in the film it is a truly unsettling experience, one unmatched by any other movie in my opinion. However, for me, once the credits roll I always cease feeling tense and am able to relax in the memory of a great movie, unlike some others (which are directed, shot and acted with less skill) where I need to put the lights on all through the house just to feel safe! I suppose for me that is the difference between frightening and terrifying. Romero is still a genius though!

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