So…here I sit at the keyboard, pondering tapping out a review for the Beowulf of zombie flicks, the original, classic Night of the Living Dead. Where does one begin? So much has already been said about this groundbreaking film; many have already made the observation that it is one of most important films of our beloved genre; it’s been overstated what a social commentary and satirical work that it is; it’s unflinching and gruesome exploitation has been reviewed and dissected countless times, many of these done far better than my skills are capable of…so why am I even contemplating this?
Two simple reasons: One, I absolutely love the flick, and had a compulsion to watch it for the umpteenth time just the other night (seems when I’m feeling kinda bluesy, this flick somehow cheers me up; don’t ask). Two, I write reviews for horror flicks…so I figured, what the hell?
In the late 1960s, George A. Romero and his associates decided to pool their resources to make a feature film, more or less just to see if they could do it. This group of commercial film producers came together to form a production company called Image 10; knowing enough about the movie business to realize that the best investment was a horror film (low investment for what is typically a pretty good profit return), they set their sights on making a genre film different from any that had ever been seen. What they produced has since passed into legend…
A young pair of siblings, visiting their father’s grave, find themselves assaulted by what appears to be a madman. The brother, Johnny, struggles with the assailant and is gravely injured, but his heroism buys precious moments for his sister Barbara to escape.
She flees to a nearby farmhouse and finds it apparently deserted; the phones are not working, and she cowers in terror as her attacker trudges about the yard. Soon, however, a man named Ben arrives in a truck running on fumes, and is able to fortify the house as more and more of these seeming psychotics begin to fill the field surrounding the house. It’s not long before Henry Cooper reveals that he, his wife and child, and another couple have been hiding, barricaded in the cellar of the home; tensions erupt almost immediately between he and Ben, the latter wondering why Cooper didn’t come up to try to help, and Cooper adamant that he has to protect his family and had no idea what was going on. Petty differences are somewhat tabled, and the group manages to get first a radio and then a television working, but what they discover is mind-boggling: The dead are apparently rising to feed on the living. This is a seeming pandemic, and authorities are trying to round up refugees and provide protection until the government can figure out how to handle the problem. As a debate rather to go to find alleged aid or stay in perceived relative safety becomes volatile in the farmhouse, the ideological power struggle between Cooper and Ben becomes a prescient threat; more so perhaps than even the hungry undead, gathering in both numbers and boldness just outside…
This was the first film to postulate the now-clichéd “zombie apocalypse”, and is to this day the bar by which I measure all that have followed. Romero used the zombies less as antagonists than as catalysts; it’s their existence that not only threatens the representatives of mankind, but also brings out their best…and very worst.
The social commentary is subtle, but present, and the entire film right up to the dark ending is a statement that was contemporary, yet resonates pretty damned true even today. The acting, considering that the cast was largely commercial actors (those that were professional actors at all ) was convincing and harrowing. John Russo’s story, although seemingly simple, was well-done; it easily touched upon facets of our humanity that are familiar; good and bad. When all was said and done, the script had turned from the simplicity of seven strangers trapped in a farmhouse into a complex drama of human relationships, frailties, and avarice. The cinematography, shot in stark black and white (for more budgetary than artistic concerns, but that proved very providential; the film just doesn’t have the same impact in color) was excellent, shadows hiding then revealing, emotions deftly captured; the overall effect was nerve-wracking. The gruesome effects were remarkable and gut-wrenching, and largely very realistic, keeping in mind the technology of the time and the limited funds.
This film is effective because it touches all of us in a place where we live; it humanizes an apocalyptic situation better than any film before (and a considerable amount of films SINCE), putting we, the viewers directly into the horror through the cleverly written, familiar characters that we’ve come to know.
What we’re shown is harsh, unforgiving; both the instinctive savagery of the mindless dead to the equally savage selfishness of mankind itself; so many lines are crossed that we scarcely have time to breathe. A testament to this effectiveness is the film’s longevity: it’s still as powerful and popular now as it was then (more so, truth be told), and is still as relevant a mirror with which to see ourselves. On multiple levels, it was a slap in the face; forty years ago, and today. One has to recall that at the time of this film’s release, no audience had ever seen its ilk; we Fellow Fans were far less jaded, the time more innocent. Up until then, horror fare had largely been the “big bug” flicks of the fifties and the dark yet PG rated Hammer films; it had to have been a hell of a shock to those ticket holders at the movie houses and drive-ins back in ’68 to watch the hungry and unrelenting dead munching on the flesh and bones of freshly char-broiled victims. I can imagine the looks on the faces of those theater-goers when the little girl first reanimates, murders her mom with the trowel, and then begins to devour her…heh, I’d have liked to have been a fly on that wall, knowing what I know now.
Romero and crew, on what was almost a lark to simply “make a horror movie”, inadvertently crafted a timeless legend, setting the stage for an entire genre to follow…not only with the hungry undead (although this film CERTAINLY marked the beginning of that cottage industry), but of the path which mainstream horror was to follow even unto the present day.
This inexpensive, unassuming little film, breaking taboos and pushing limits, permanently changed our views on what a horror film could, and indeed SHOULD, be. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Granted, if you’re used to films like 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake, it may seem a little tame; but take it in the context of when it was made and what it has meant to the genre we love. Look at it for the incredible “firsts” that you’ve seen duplicated many times since…
…and above all, look at it for the raw relevance that it gave to the genre as a whole; horror films had matured, and cinema would never be the same.
It’s a classic in every sense of the word.