Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
“If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy. ” (Sheriff McClelland, Night Of The Living Dead)
Although the idea of the dead coming back to life had been covered a number of times before the release of Night Of The Living Dead, it was George Romero’s low-budget 1968 flick that essentially laid down the rules of the modern zombie movie and kicked off what is (along with the slasher) easily one of the most oft-produced subgenres in horror.
It starts with Barbara and her brother Johnny heading to a cemetery in Pittsburgh to visit their mother’s grave. There they’re confronted by a man who stumbles over to them and attacks Johnny, killing him, before chasing Barbara. Managing to escape, she finds solace in a small cottage in the middle of the countryside, but is shortly joined by another chap, a black man called Ben. Soon many other similarly stumbling maniacs join the crazy man outside and a small army of shuffling ne’er-do-wells begins to gather around the cottage.
As Barbara and Ben are joined by a few more people who’ve been hiding in the house’s basement, they manage to get the radio and TV working and tune into the emergency news broadcasts. They learn that the dead have started coming to life and are eating the living. Any people they eat in turn become one of these ‘ghouls’ (they’re never actually called zombies at any point during the movie). And thus the modern zombie film is born.
Two things spring to mind while watching Night Of The Living Dead – the first is how surprisingly grim and graphic it is given the era in which it was filmed, and the second is writer/director George Romero’s fairly obvious commentary on how we interact with one another. The former is the most immediate – considering the furore surrounding some of the now-tame taboos broken by Hitchcock’s Psycho (such as the shot looking inside a toilet bowl and the suggestion of a clothed unmarried couple sharing a bed), to have a film only eight years later showing hundreds of mindless ghouls, some completely naked, eating flesh and entrails must have caused outrage at the time. Indeed, many of the scenes that stunned in 1968 still have the power to shock in 2011, in particular one involving a young girl and a trowel.
The latter is more subtle but lingers longer after the credits. Each instalment of Romero’s original Dead trilogy (Night/Dawn/Day) is laced with social commentary, and while it’s laid on thickest in Night’s sequel Dawn Of The Dead there’s still plenty being preached by Romero here. As those in the house discuss their escape plan, it all starts to fall apart as arguments begin and fights break out. It’s clear what Romero’s telling us – even with faced with the bleakest of situations it’s still difficult at times for people to work together harmoniously. In a way, the biggest threat to the human race isn’t the dangers outside, it’s the human race itself and our inability to trust each other.
This point wouldn’t come across nearly as well had it not been for the fantastic cast of unknowns who make up the occupants of the house. They all have their own very clear and distinct personalities and these personalities clash just as you’d expect. In your head you’ll form your opinions quickly, defining each of the characters – the good honest guy, the bastard who deserves to die, the one who means well but deep down you know isn’t strong enough to survive – and it’s a true testament to the cast’s abilities that every single character’s fate is of interest to the viewer.
You may wonder why I felt the need to mention Ben’s colour earlier in the review. Indeed, you might already have a Word document open, ready to scribe your no-doubt carefully-worded statement accusing me of all sorts of discriminatory shenanigans. The reason Ben’s colour is so important is that Night Of The Living Dead is one of the first mainstream movies that featured a black man as the hero.
Don’t forget, this was nearly 45 years ago, a time when non-whites were very much considered a lesser class and the blaxpoitation boom was still a few years away, so black audiences were barely seeing their colour represented on the big screen at all, let alone in lead roles. As a result, for Night Of The Living Dead to feature a black man as the protagonist in a movie aimed at mainstream audiences was a huge decision at the time, one that nowadays wouldn’t have us batting an eyelid (which, of course, shows the progress we’ve made since).
Then there’s the controversial and powerful ending, with its strong double-meaning barely hiding its racial undertones. Make no mistake, this is more than a mindless monster movie.
Night Of The Living Dead is a true classic, a film that any self-respecting horror fan has to see at least once. It’s aged incredibly well and still packs a punch 45 years later, and Romero’s not-so-subtle social undercurrents should give budding sociologists something to sink their teeth into too.