Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero, John A. Russo
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley
Running Time: 96
BBFC Certificate: 15
I never watched a huge number of horror films when I was a child/teenager, but there were a few I snuck in that made a huge impact, scaring the living daylights out of my innocent young self. These were Jaws, The Shining, Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead. The latter, George Romero’s seminal zombie movie, is rightly regarded as a classic, but many prefer the sequel, Dawn of the Dead. I love that film too, but Night of the Living Dead was always more powerful to me and remains my favourite of the Dead films. It used to terrify me when I was younger and I watched my VHS copy many times back in the day. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it now though (I’ve never seen a DVD copy if that’s an indicator of time), so with the Criterion Collection giving it their 5-star treatment, I thought it was high time I revisited one of my favourite horror films.
Night of the Living Dead opens with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (one of the film’s producers, Russell Streiner) making their annual trip to their father’s grave. When they get there though they’re attacked by a stony-faced assailant, leaving Johnny knocked out, presumably dead. Barbra manages to escape to a nearby farmhouse, where she meets Ben (Duane Jones), who’s also been attacked and chased by a group of strange individuals. As the attackers begin to pool together and approach the house, Ben boards it up and the pair stay put. When they hook up a radio and later a TV, they learn that the dead have been coming back alive and preying upon the living, causing a national emergency. The pair survive as best they can, grouping together with the Cooper family and a young couple, all of whom had been hiding in the cellar before venturing out to see what the noises were upstairs. On top of the problems outside, there is friction inside the house though, as Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman, the film’s other producer) doesn’t like to take orders from anyone and disagrees with Ben’s plan to stay in the house before attempting to escape in a truck.
Night of the Living Dead was a highly groundbreaking work. It wasn’t the first zombie movie ever made, but it set several of the ‘rules’ and tropes that would drive the sub-genre for the next 50 years. It was also one of the first indie horror films to make a big impact (it earned over 150 times its budget). Carnival of Souls was another low budget indie marvel and was made a few years prior to this, but hardly anyone saw it until it was re-released in the late 80s. Night of the Living Dead was also an early example of a gory horror movie. Again, it can’t claim to be the first, Blood Feast came out 5 years earlier, but here the blood and guts are used more sparingly, naturalistically and effectively.
That sparse naturalism is how the film still remains memorable in general. The film is rather low key in many ways, keeping most of the action confined to one location and providing fairly short and sharp attacks throughout rather than extended set pieces. In fact, watching the film again after all these years, I forgot how much of the film (before the final 15 minutes at least) is simply a couple or small handful of characters talking about the incident and their backstories. This sounds dull, but credit must go to the writers and cast for making this work. The acting can be a bit hit and miss. I was never a fan of O’Dea’s in particular, but Jones and Hardman make up for anyone else’s shortcomings. Romero’s direction and editing keep things ticking along nicely too, perfectly commanding the pace of the film.
When the attacks do come they’re incredibly effective too. The make-up may have been basic back then and the ideas and techniques copied hundreds of times over since, but the hands tearing through the walls and relentless nature of the zombies remains a frightening sight. I find the scene where a child feasts on her own parents deeply disturbing in particular. It was the scene that most affected me when I was young and it maintains that power to this day. Elsewhere, the film maybe isn’t quite as terrifying to me as it used to be, but it has enough moments that still give me the chills. The all-pervading bleakness of the atmosphere helps too.
Another aspect of the film that helps it retain its classic status is how it can be read as a political allegory. Some have claimed it’s an allegory for the Vietnam war and many have discussed how it acts as a reflection of American society in the 60s in general. What seems to be the clearest statement on the surface is the casting of an African-American as the lead and the character’s ultimate fate though. *SPOILER* He works harder than anyone to survive and manages to stave off the zombies, only to be murdered by a group of rednecks at the end. *END OF SPOILER* Romero has often dismissed claims that this was intended, as he didn’t write the character as an African-American, he simply hired Jones because he was the best actor available to him. However, the film can still be read in this way and even if the allegory is dismissed, the film must be praised for being forward thinking enough to cast a black lead without the narrative being specifically about race, something that is unfortunately still rare to this day.
Aiding the social commentary are some brilliantly recreated news reports. These give us a glimpse of the world outside the farm house, including the mob put in charge of dealing with the situation, popping off the ‘ghouls’ with little care or respect. These reports also add to the naturalism of the film, which could have seemed silly in the wrong hands.
So, Night of the Living Dead may not scare me to the same degree it did when I was a youngster, but it’s still a bleak, intelligent and groundbreaking masterpiece of horror. Over the years, films have used the same formula with slicker production, better actors and more realistic special effects, but the stark simplicity of it and the power of some of its final scenes in particular, have rarely been topped.
Night of the Living Dead is out on 19th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer looks fantastic. It’s clean and sharp, with a natural look and a strong, clean soundtrack to back it up.
There are plenty of special features included too: - New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director George A. Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner - New restoration of the monaural soundtrack, supervised by Romero and Gary R. Streiner, and presented uncompressed - Night of Anubis, a never-before-presented work-print edit of the film - New program featuring filmmakers Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez - Never-before-seen 16 mm dailies reel - New program featuring Russo about the commercial and industrial-film production company where key Night of the Living Dead filmmakers got their start - Two audio commentaries from 1994, featuring Romero, Russo, producer Karl Hardman, actor Judith O'Dea, and more - Archival interviews with Romero and actors Duane Jones and Judith Ridley - New programs about the editing, the score, and directing ghouls - New interviews with Gary R. Streiner and Russel W. Streiner - Trailer, radio spots, and TV spots - PLUS: An essay by critic Stuart Klawans
It may be missing the feature length documentary included in the 2008 Optimum Blu-Ray release of the film, but more than enough bases are covered here in this enormous collection of interviews, commentaries and rare footage. The ‘Night of Anubis’ cut is more of a curiosity than anything, only offering a couple of minor differences on top of the ropier presentation. Pretty much everything else here is well worth a watch though. The commentaries in particular are excellent, with the groups of contributors bouncing off each other nicely, loading each track with fun anecdotes and glimpses into the production.
There have been a lot of releases of Night of the Living Dead over the years, due to rights issues, but it’s hard to believe one will ever top this one.