Night of the Living Dead (1968)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is without question that George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has shaped the landscape of the modern zombie movie. But unlike most of its seedlings, this independent horror classic offers minimal gore. Due to budget constraints, it is forced to rely on steady pacing, mounting tension, precise framing between predator and prey, and smart timing when it comes to detailing information about the undead. It works because of its simplicity. By leaving just enough for the imagination, it lures us into its world where the line between the living and the dead is so tenuous that a friend or family member one minute can become a flesh-eater the next.
A portentous visit to the cemetery becomes a death sentence when siblings Barbra and Johnny (Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner) come across a lumbering man in a suit. This is a terrific opening sequence because it underscores the material’s ability to change from silliness to viciousness at a drop of a hat. Observe closely during the first contact between the living and the undead. The camera does not observe from a distance or mere few feet away. It is placed in the middle of the scuffle, as if to highlight the size and strength of the assailant.
The dead might walk slowly, but it is not harmless even when by itself. When it is within grabbing distance, it takes advantage and it becomes a challenge to escape. It can be punched, kicked, scratched—but it feels nothing. The grip just gets tighter. A horde of zombies is another matter entirely. You can run. But they will walk and walk until you can run no longer. The desperate Barbra, too, notices that they do not take their eyes off her. She tries to hide, but they seem to always know where she is. What is scarier than knowing deep down that you will die and it is only a matter of time? This film plays upon this impending sense of doom all the way to the finish line.
Introducing colorful personalities for the slaughter is a trait that many zombie films have adapted and made their own. Here, one becomes seven before the halfway point, but the interactions between Barbra and Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who stole a truck to escape from fifty to sixty zombies near a diner, remains fresh. No, it is not because they find a special connection, or attraction, or some other nonsense that doesn’t fit into the survival story. It is the exact opposite: Barbra and Ben do not get to know each other.
In fact, Barbra remains traumatized from her encounter in the cemetery. These two are simply shown co-existing in a farmhouse that is slowly becoming surrounded by the undead. Sure, they conflict once or twice. But it is never personal. Every waking moment is a struggle for survival. The same cannot be said between Ben and the remaining personalities—heated exchanges that touch upon power and race. Keep in mind that this film was released when America was undergoing social and political upheaval. It cannot be denied that the Romero (who co-writes with John. A Russo) is making—not just a statement—but a stand in regards to human rights, specifically black rights in the US, as to say, “What is more horrific than racism?”
While I recognize the picture’s importance and numerous positive qualities, there are a number of continuation errors that cannot be overlooked. They occur enough times that encountering them took me out of the experience. An example involves Barbra, having just entered the farmhouse, deciding to go upstairs. She stops in her tracks because right at the top of the stairs is a rotting skull staring at her. She freaks out and remains downstairs. Later on, however, when Ben chooses to move the body, the corpse’s head is not rotten at all. In fact, it looks like a beautiful woman who’s simply asleep.
Another example: when a character is being stabbed to death with a trowel, notice that no blood spatter is shown during the time of the killing. But, toward the end of the scene, we see blood on the wall… but its consistency and pattern do at all match the feverish violence—it were as if somebody faced the wall and squirted corn syrup from a bottle instead of using a brush of some sort to make the image look more convincing. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with budget. These can be solved with a careful eye, a higher level of perfectionism, a willingness to get it right rather than simply having something on screen.
Regardless, “Night of the Living Dead” is a strong picture because it possesses real ideas and it is not afraid to offer specificity—traits that copycats sorely lack so it is to no one’s surprise that the majority of them end up becoming substandard. The best moments in the film are when characters simply listen intently to the radio and watch television as officials offer insights about the bizarre phenomenon and advice regarding what to do to stay alive. Less really is more.