“They’re coming to get you, Barbara! There’s one of them now!”
The Scoop: 1968 NR, directed by: George A. Romero and starring Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones, and Keith Wayne
Tagline: They keep coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for HUMAN FLESH!
Summary Capsule: A few people trapped in an old house struggle to survive the night while being besieged by walking corpses.
Justin’s rating: Shut up, crickets!
Justin’s review: I have a huge backlog of movies sitting around the house right now, which tells you all sorts of things about my free time (I have a hearty chuckle when I think back to when I was a single bachelor and used to rent movies by the bucketful). So last night I reached into my pile and pulled out my RiffTrax edition of Night of the Living Dead for a good MST3K-like chuckle or two.
While the snarky commentary was good, I actually found myself really watching the movie as well. I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead several times in the past, but it’s been a long while since I have — and there have been plenty of zombie movies and games that have filled the gap between then. So going back to the “original” (for all intents and purposes) zombie flick was quite educational.
It’s a surprisingly effective tale with some very strange acting (yes, we all like to gang up on Barbara as the most useless character ever). A brother and sister head out to a cemetery to pay respects when they’re accosted by a strange man. The brother gets killed and the sister runs to a nearby farmhouse, where she holes up with several other people who are on the run from these odd murderous cannibals. Zombies, or ghouls as the film likes to call them. Cue the gang not entirely trusting each other or working together so that the zombies can get an edge and eat them all, the end.
What fascinated me is how zombies were handled from the get-go. For one thing, these zombies are a lot more agile than what the stereotype became, even using crude tools (like rocks or spades) to help ’em with their murdering. They can even shuffle run, so take that 28 Days Later. Some of the makeup effects are pretty well-done, and paired with the acting does a great job of giving an unnatural feel to these moving corpses. Many of the zombie tropes are firmly established over the run-time of the film: that anyone dead will come back to life as a zombie, that they eat flesh (brains aren’t really mentioned), that fire or a shot to the head is the best way to deal with the menace.
I also really got into the news broadcasts. Since the action of the film is pretty much all contained to the farmhouse (and why didn’t the corpse at the top of the stairs come to life, by the way?), the news segments are a great way to give a larger picture of events without blowing the budget on showing what’s going on around the world. There’s even a hint as to the origin of the zombie uprising: a downed satellite bringing back “unusual radiation” or somesuch.
I always found it strange that at the end of Night of the Living Dead, it appears as though the living are winning quite handily, roaming around in posses shooting up the slowly shambling zombies. See, that makes sense to me, and it makes the shocking ending a little more hard to take. But then Romero effectively retcons that moment with his next movie that sees humanity crumbling under the weight of zombies, because how else can you continue a series? I don’t blame him.
There’s like a bazillion free editions of this film, and if you’re a zombie fan you gotta make sure it’s part of your library.
Shalen’s rating: Three thousand out of three thousand animate decaying corpses.
Shalen’s review: This movie holds a treasured place in my personal collection. That in itself is not an indicator that it’s good; I also own Count Yorga: Vampire and Street Fighter. But, as it happens, this one may very well be the greatest cult movie ever made and the best horror movie ever made and the best film in my favorite horror subgenre, namely, the one where people get torn to shreds by ravening undead. This makes it very difficult to review. Almost everything has already been said, whether by reviewers or by other filmmakers in their own interpretations of the genre that would come to be called “zombie films,” although this film notably never uses that word.1
It starts with Barbara and her brother Johnny visiting their father’s grave, Johnny grousing all the while. They are attacked by an older gentleman with staring eyes and a stiff walk, he bashes Johnny’s head against a tombstone, and Barbara flees in the car and then on foot. She ends up at the classic big old house so beloved of horror filmmakers, and she is wandering about in a daze when Ben shows up.
Duane Jones’s Ben is the center and the pivot of this movie. Barbara spends most of the rest of the film acting like a person with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but Ben is in charge from moment one. Some of his early interactions with Barbara are really amazing — we can tell he’s the kind of personality who needs someone to be responsible for, and he talks to her often and at length even though he obviously knows she doesn’t understand. This can be done well or it can be done badly, but its use here as an introduction to his character is excellent.2 He spends the rest of the movie acting more or less the way you’d expect of such a personality: he’s capable of heroics, but he’s not a hero.
This film has some really tightly written dialogue, both before and after the other people in the house make their presence known. (See Ben’s first monologue below for a good example.) It does what so many horror films fail to do — it makes its characters human. There’s no “I’m a horny virgin! I’m a bad boy who just got out of jail! We’re a couple and we bang a lot!” type of shorthand. No, in many ways this is a character-driven film rather than an event-driven one. The zombies and gore make it a fairly good horror flick, the acting makes it a pretty good drama, but the writing makes it brilliant.
The cinematography is equally good. This was filmed in black and white, ostensibly for rating reasons, but anyone watching can see what a great stylistic decision this was. This film is very claustrophobic, with the camera crowding in on these little spaces with several people in them, or showing us wide shots of darkness populated with barely-glimpsed awful things. The periodic introduction of television and radio broadcasts increases the feeling of being trapped inside with the characters: the outside world is there, but it might as well be a million miles away. It can’t reach us, or them, and the feeling only gets worse as the house slowly becomes its own little private Hell. This is not a film about fear of dismemberment. It’s about the fear of entrapment, of being unable to escape the inevitable. I’ve seen horror films with gore, and horror films with jump scenes, but very few successfully provide this kind of slowly building tension.3 It’s riveting.
Night of the Living Dead is now almost inextricable from its history, from the archetypes it created, and from the genre it spawned. If you’re watching it for the first time, you can make a checklist of the things you typically see in a zombie movie: the take-charge guy, the babbling victim type, the bitten person just waiting to turn into a slavering monster. This is where all of that starts, the difference being that quality will always separate this film from its imitators. But it’s best to watch Night of the Living Dead all on its own, trying to set those things aside. This not just a reason for people to be dismembered on the screen.4 It’s an excellent movie and a compelling viewing experience, a necessary entry in the canon of film as a whole.
1. The film says “ghouls,” which the creatures actually do resemble. Before this movie, zombies were mostly heavily drugged and hypnotized living people. We understand you can still see them at concerts.
2. The acting doesn’t hurt. Watching this film, you’re not going to notice how low budget it is. It’s sort of the opposite of Dungeons and Dragons, where considerable money was spent and you’d never know it.
3. Some of them try. We recently saw Silent Hill, and based on our own subjective opinion, this film is to that one as Shakespeare is to Danielle Steele.
4. Though we are certainly not against that. We also own Land of the Dead.
Kyle’s rating: So iconic you feel like you’ve seen it if you haven’t; so visceral it’s defined the zombie genre ever since
Kyle’s review: Shalen’s review was not only a great critical take on Night of the Living Dead; it also touched on how genre-defining this “little zombie film that could” truly was. I truly love when fellow Mutants do such an excellent write-up, because then I’m free to come in and babble about things at best vaguely related to the film being “reviewed.”
And actually, although I completely agree with everything Shalen said in her review (this is the point where, if you haven’t read her review already, you should do so before you proceed here. Cool? Cool.), I’d also like to be a little controversial. Because as much as I enjoyed finally seeing NOTLD, I was a little bored by it as well. Perhaps after decades of build-up and experiencing films created by those inspired by this one, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that it was this particular film that set the standard, and the rules, for all that would follow.
For 1968, this was probably one of the most horrible things ever made. I’m not quite familiar with horror films pre-1970’s, except for the ones that got clowned on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I have to think that the intensity of George Romero’s take on zombies was unlike anything else out there at the time. The plot is simple and the horrors are obvious for a bunch of strangers caught in an abandoned house surrounded by zombies, but it’s the emphasis on the psychological strengths and weaknesses that really astound. Where would Stephen King be without the influence of NOTLD?
Whoa, I guess I liked it more than I thought. I think it’s simply another situation where the initial groundbreaking film gets dated over the years and diluted by so many films ripping off its essential qualities, to the point where it’s difficult to watch the source film objectively. I don’t think that NOTLD has really been surpassed, perhaps only by a handful of films, but I do think that when it comes to modern sensibilities there are more “exciting” and “polished” ways to get the sort of thrills NOTLD dead delivers. Prince of Darkness and 28 Days Later are great examples of the alternatives.
Night of the Living Dead is a classic, though. George Romero has what is arguably a cult of personality about him in relation to zombies (and, on the strength of sequels, consumerism as it relates to survivalist situations in apocalyptic settings) and the rules he set regarding zombies and the surviving humans forced to deal with zombies live on to this day.
I thought I was more prepared to speak out against Romero’s seminal film, but I have to admit that its artistry overwhelms most negativity. Whereas other influential films like Nightmare on Elm Street or Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be discounted as slasher trash with exploitative elements, Night of the Living Dead has got undeniable class. I still contend that the story model it established proved to be a hindrance as a cinematic blueprint for subsequent creators, but it’s difficult to hold that against Romero and his film.
But we do need some new zombies ideas, and we need them fast. Who’s willing to help me?
- I saw this on my second viewing – Ben puts shoes on Barbara’s feet, but in the next shot she is barefoot and there is no sign of them anywhere.
- One zombie appears to be naked. Dead person butt cheeks.
- How phlegmatic the news guys are: not a perky reporter voice in sight. Is this a sixties thing?
- A zombie smashes the truck’s headlights early on, but a later escape attempt shows them intact again.
- When Ben tells Barbara that the house is secure and all windows have been sealed up, he’s standing right in front of an unsecured and unboarded window. Oops.
- When Tom, Judy and Ben are going to the gas pump, there’s one shot where it’s obviously daylight despite the scene occurring at night. I noticed this myself. It’s pretty glaring.
- The little girl has exactly one line consisting of two words.
- The zombies shown eating “body parts” are eating roast pork with chocolate sauce (used for blood throughout the film). Filmmakers joked that it was so nauseating they didn’t need to add zombie makeup, since everyone looked sickly anyway.
- Columbia Pictures was the only major Hollywood studio interested in distributing this film, but eventually passed because it was in black-and-white at a time when movies had to compete with new color televisions. Ironically, Columbia did distribute the 1990 color remake. American International Pictures (AIP) considered releasing the film, but wanted George Romero to shoot an upbeat ending and add more of a love story subplot. (Cue Shalen laughing. Ha ha ha haaa.)
- Actor/co-producer Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper, the father in the basement), also served as makeup artist, electronic sound effects engineer, and took the still photos used for the closing credits.
- Some of the groans made by S. William Hinzman when he’s wrestling with Russell Streiner (Johnny) in the cemetery are authentic. During the struggle, Streiner accidentally kneed Hinzman in the groin. (A/N: Hinzman was one of the original $300 investors in the film.)
- This was one of the first films added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress because of naïve business practices that allowed the copyright of the film to slip into the public domain.
The social commentary on racism some have seen in this film was never intended (an African-American man holing up in a house with a white woman, a posse of whites shooting a black man in the head without first checking to see if he was a zombie). According to the filmmakers, Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the part of Ben. (IMDB also says the role was originally intended to be a crude but resourceful truck driver and was rewritten by Romero for Jones after he auditioned.)
Johnny: They’re coming to get you, Barbara! There’s one of them now!
Ben: You know a place back down the road called Beekman’s? Beekman’s Diner? Anyhow, that’s where I found that truck I have out there. There’s a radio in the truck. I jumped in to listen, when a big gasoline truck came screaming right across the road! There must’ve been ten, fifteen of those things chasing after it, grabbing and holding on. Now, I didn’t see them at first. I could just see that the truck was moving in a funny way. Those things were catching up to it. Truck went right across the road. I slammed on my breaks to keep from hitting it myself. It went right through the guard rail! I guess – guess the driver must’ve cut off the road into that gas station by Beekman’s Diner. It went right through the billboard, ripped over a gas pump, and never stopped moving! By now it was like a moving bonfire! Didn’t know if the truck was going to explode or what. I still hear the man… screaming. These things, just backing away from it! I looked back at the diner to see if – if there was anyone there who could help me. That’s when I noticed that the entire place had been encircled. There wasn’t a sign of life left, except… by now, there were no more screams. I realized that I was alone, with fifty or sixty of those things just… standing there, staring at me! I started to drive, I – I just plowed right through them! They didn’t move! They didn’t run, or… they just stood there, staring at me! I just wanted to crush them! And they scattered through the air, like bugs.
Newscaster: All law enforcement agencies and the military have been organized to search out and destroy the marauding ghouls. The Survival Command Center at the Pentagon has disclosed that a ghoul can be killed by a shot in the head, or a heavy blow to the skull. Officials are quoted as explaining that since the brain of a ghoul has been activated by the radiation, the plan is kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul.
Newscaster: It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It’s hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact.
Karen Cooper: I hurt.
Dr. Grimes: In the cold room at the University, we had a cadaver, a cadaver from which all limbs had been amputated. Some time early this morning, it opened its eyes and began to move its trunk. It was dead, but it opened its eyes and tried to move!
Field Reporter: Are they slow-moving, chief?
Sheriff McClelland: Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Alien, Flesh-Eating Hellbound Crawling Zombified Living-Dead Part II in Shocking 2-D
- Dawn of the Dead
- Land of the Dead