Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman
Plot: A group of people hide from bloodthirsty zombies in a farmhouse.
Rating: NC16 for disturbing scenes.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“They're coming to get you, Barbara, there's one of them now!”
In the late 1960s, a 28-year old filmmaker with a small budget released a film that would alter the course of horror cinema. His name was George A. Romero, and his film was Night of the Living Dead.
Perhaps the first zombie picture to enter mainstream consciousness, Romero’s feature debut would become one of the most important horror films, influencing filmmakers worldwide from Lucio Falci (Zombie, 1979) to Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, 2002) to Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza (Rec, 2007). Such was its importance that the National Film Preservation Board (USA) decided to enter it into its registry.
Night of the Living Dead has a simple premise – a group of people struggles to hide from bloodthirsty zombies in an isolated farmhouse. Except that these people are a group of misfits, strangers to each other. There is a resourceful and rational black man, a white woman in shock, a simple-minded man with his overly concerned lover, and a selfish family man (Mr. Cooper) with a wife and a wounded daughter.
Conflicts occur mainly as a result of Mr. Cooper’s comic stubbornness and refusal to listen to the black man, giving the film not only an additional “villain”, but also a source of light-hearted relief in a dark film.
For a horror film, Night of the Living Dead is substantially creepy, with the level of tension escalating as time passes. Romero’s zombies are slow-walkers, afraid of fire, but never stop until they get what they want – to attack, kill, and devour live human beings.
For a black-and-white film shot more than four decades ago, Night’s portrayal of gore is surprisingly realistic; scenes of zombies eating an assortment of human remains e.g. limbs and organs, still retain their ability to shock in this day and age when extreme violence seems like the norm.
Presented like a documentary of sorts, Romero’s film is a startling and powerful commentary of the psychology of the American conscience in the 1960s. Themes include the fear of the mob, the white man’s fear of the black man, the (emotional) weakness of women, and the fear of Armageddon are expressed through the characters whose actions and words are heavy with meaning.
Romero also portrays the authorities (on television, no less) as distant folks who are unclear of the situation on the ground, and who think that relaying the magic phrase “we are doing our best as fast as possible” would allay the fears of a concerned citizenry.
While the world has made great strides in dealing with racism, organized crime, gender inequality, and at the same time promoting diplomacy, Night of the Living Dead is still strangely relevant today as when it was first released. Perhaps our fears transcend time, rooted in memory and experience.
In addition, Romero’s film is also a strong rallying call for us to unite together to solve issues regardless of differences, petty or not. If there is such a thing as an “educational” horror film, that thing would be called Night of the Living Dead. It’s not about zombies. It’s about us.