Night of the Living Dead: George A. Romero Births a Modern Monster

Night of the Living Dead. 1968. Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero & John A. Russo.
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig, S. William Hinzman, and George Kosana. Image Ten/Laurel Group/Market Square Productions/Off Color Films. Rated R. 96 minutes.

★★★★★night_of_living_dead_1968_poster-4Before this 1968 classic, the zombie movie was all about Haitian voodoo zombies and similar tales out of folklore. With Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero brought the modern zombie into our lives. Nowadays, with The Walking Dead, its spin-off Fear the Walking DeadWorld War Z, and many many other titles, the zombie sub-genre of horror movies has become nearly mainstream. Whereas years ago only a certain section of movie fans were into zombies. After the rise in popularity over these past few years, it doesn’t seem anymore like zombies are as scary as they once were, at least not all the time.
But in Night of the Living Dead there is a constantly dreadful atmosphere in which you’ll find yourself very much afraid, very unsettled and without tons of blood and gore dripping from the frame (though there are some nasty bits for ’68) Romero manages to make the zombies in his film quite creepy. From the setting to the music, to the excellent and revolutionary script at the time, there’s a reason why people look at Romero’s film and consider a grand achievement, both in film generally and in the horror genre. This is not one of those films where people look back at it and gain much of their respective for it through nostalgia. Even post-2000, Night of the Living Dead remains as relevant as ever tackling sociopolitical issues within the context of a horrific situation and setting.l1hs4jqklr5y3l6asxg4Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) head out to the countryside where their father is buried, sent to put flowers on his grave by their mother. When a strange mute man approaches Barbra and attacks her, Johnny tries to intervene but gets his head beat in over a gravestone. Finding her way out to an isolated farmhouse after crashing her car, Barbra meets a man named Ben (Duane Jones) – they barricade themselves inside and try to stay safe as possible. Soon, the pair come to find five people hiding in the basement. Things get tense between the people inside the house, as the living, walking dead shamble around outside; and they’re eating people!
With limited options, and worried what may happen if the dead break in, the group tries hard to band together, or else they’ll die apart.notldA hue part of why I love Night of the Living Dead is the acting. Duane Jones is the obvious standout, as his portrayal of Ben is just incredible; he is tough and calculated, calm, yet he is also able to bring out the fear any man or woman would feel during such a situation. Not only that, the fact a black man was playing the lead, the hero so to speak in a 1968 film is astounding. He did the role justice and in a way he + the whole film takes a stand. Further than that, the plot itself has racial undertones (particularly at the very finale of the film), so I think having a great actor like Jones play the character of Ben did wonders.
Judith O’Dea as the near catatonic Barbra does fantastic stuff with the role. While many might look at her character and feel she’s boring, I feel O’Dea played the traumatised young woman well. And who wouldn’t be traumatised? Romero and Russo switched the script up to work better with the way she played Barbra, so the writing and her talent go hand-in-hand, it all compounds into a subtle and appropriate performance which contrasts perfectly with the character of Ben. When these two meet up at the farmhouse accidentally, there’s a nice back and forth sort of, as Ben is highly active, he wants to make sure things are boarded up and the house is safe while Barbra can hardly even talk except for a few sentences now and then. Really great stuff. The rest of the actors do a good job, but these two are most certainly the big highlights in terms of performance.night_of_the_living_dead_3 night_of_the_living_dead_2The entire film is unsettling to me. Don’t try and say “Oh you must not have seen this or that or this other movie” because I’ve seen over 4,100 films in the past 30 years. No joke. Many of those, at least 1/3 likely, are horror films from the more tame to the most extreme. Check out the rest of my reviews if you think I’m naive.
There’s just no way I can accept someone telling me this movie is not a massive creepfest.
About 45 minutes or so into the movie, a bunch of the living dead are moving slowly towards the house, they’re all walking in their own way and eating bugs off trees, et cetera – Romero captures them so dark and ominously, the music and the shots themselves combine to make these few moments very spooky. Moreover, the score in general is part classic Hollywood-style sound and part scary movie. It’s an awesome sound. Even the sound design itself adds a major element to Night of the Living Dead, from the zombies and their various noises to the chopping of fingers to little ambient pieces, and so on.
Best of all are the zombies, the meat, the blood! Romero used Bosco chocolate sauce to simulate blood here, working well under the black-and-white aesthetic of the cinematography. Apparently when the zombies are feasting on human bits outside the farmhouse, it’s cooked ham and chocolate sauce they’re eating; the joke being, Romero and the crew laughed that they didn’t really have to do makeup on the actors playing the zombies because the ham/chocolate made them sick and pale all on its own. Right near the start of our venture into the farmhouse, Barbra stumbles over a dead body in one of the hallways: Romero made this body himself, including ping pong balls for eyes. This brief bit is nasty and awesome, it’s a real slice of gore for a black-and-white film, and there are few nice moments like that throughout the film.vlcsnap2012052517h22m38Night of the Living Dead is not simply a revolutionary and exciting film for its time, it is consistently both of these things even now, as I write in late 2015. There are uncomfortable issues at hand, including race and even a tensely scary scene involving a daughter becoming zombified and attacking her parents. Not only that, the zombies are unnerving in their quiet, subdued sauntering and the nibbling of human bits, plus the black-and-white cinematography and the stock music really do add something to the overall quality. An absolute 5 star film, all the way. Though I do love Day of the Dead most out of George A. Romero’s zombie films, this will always be a perfect piece of horror cinema for me and each time I put this DVD in there’s something new I find creepy or interesting. You can never go wrong with Romero, despite what his detractors may have you believe, and this is where his greatness all started.

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