THEY WON’T STAY DEAD!
It started as a comedy called “Monster Flick” that had teenage aliens visiting Earth. But John Russo and George Romero, newcomers to the film business, soon developed an interest in something a bit scarier. Romero read Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend” and found its infected creatures inspiring. In the end, he and Russo came up with a three-part story, the first of which would become Night of the Living Dead.
Today it may seem crude and simple, but this was a groundbreaking horror movie that three decades later was deemed so valuable a contribution to the American history of cinema that the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry. Not bad for a flick about flesh-eating corpses made by students.
Visiting a cemetery
Barbra and Johnny (Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner) are visiting their father’s grave in a Pennsylvania cemetery when they come across a strange-looking man with a dead stare and a staggering walk. Suddenly, he attacks Barbra and when Johnny tries to pull him off of her, he’s pushed and passes out when his head hits a tombstone. Barbra runs away and makes it to a farmhouse that looks empty – until she finds a corpse. She realizes that the pale man who attacked her has company; several other oddly lumbering, moaning men and women are approaching the house. Soon she’s joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who’s also come to the farmhouse as a refugee from the walking dead. He starts barricading it… but how long can Ben and Barbra stay there?
Tame by modern standards
Night of the Living Dead is one of those charming guerilla-style efforts pulled off by people who had very little money but nevertheless found ingenious ways of creating special effects for their little film, and casting it with various friends, family members and local talents as the zombies. There are times when the movie turns very gruesome for its time; after all, the undead are cannibals and the most disturbing scene has to be the one where a child awakes from her deathly slumber only to murder her mother with a gardening tool. Still, even that may seem tame now by modern standards.
The scene appears in the movie’s last half-hour, which is a very intense, icy depiction of the zombies clawing ever closer to our heroes. That’s brilliance on a shoestring budget, but unfortunately it’s not how the movie appears in its entirety. The beginning looks more absurd than scary (clearly showing the filmmakers’ lack of experience) and the story has lulls, as Ben and Barbra are joined by a few other survivors who cause rifts within the group. Occasionally, they watch newscasts on a TV in the farmhouse that show the media, scientists and politicians grappling with this widespread “rage”. While adding an interesting documentary-style touch, this part of the film also slows the story down… and we don’t really need an explanation for the zombie outbreak.
One thing we can always rely on though: the extras who play the zombies.
The actors are a mixed bag, for sure. O’Dea is hysterical most of the time. Jones is vital as a resourceful character one can rely on (and it was unusual to see an African-American as the hero at the time). Most of the cast are less convincing when Romero wants them to express other emotions. One thing we can always rely on though: the extras who play the zombies. Their acting has come to define an entire genre.
Night of the Living Dead 1968-U.S. 96 min. B/W. Produced by Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner. Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay: George A. Romero, John Russo. Cast: Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O’Dea (Barbra), Russell Streiner (Johnny), Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne.
Trivia: The 30th anniversary edition has new footage, dubbing and music. Remade as Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006). Followed by five sequels, starting with Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Last word: “To me, the zombies have always just been zombies. They’ve always been a cigar. When I first made Night of the Living Dead, it got analyzed and overanalyzed way out of proportion. The zombies were written about as if they represented Nixon’s Silent Majority or whatever. But I never thought about it that way. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.” (Romero, Vanity Fair)