Directed by George A. Romero (1968)
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon
Ah, horror movie love. It’s not something I’m terribly familiar with, to be honest. I don’t really get the fans of Red Box Horror or the ladies who line up for midnight screenings of the Saw franchise. But what I do get is a love of the Zombie Movie Genre, and the modern incarnation all begins with the grainy 35mm Pittsburgh epic. My immediate reaction to Night of the Living Dead was movie-love, pure and simple.
Barbara (O’Dea) and her brother Johnny visit their father’s grave on the night when radiation from a satellite effects the recent dead, causing them to reanimate and crave human flesh. When Johnny is killed, Barbara is able to escape to a farmhouse nearby, where she is joined by other survivors, including Ben (Jones). Ben takes care of Barbara as he fends off the approaching corpses. She has gone catatonic, only speaking occasionally as she follows Ben’s orders.
Ben is by far my favorite character. Not only does he have a take-charge attitude, but he recognizes how the situation has messed up Barbara and approaches everything with a clear head. In contrast, the five others in the house with them, especially Harry (Hardman) who is too stubborn and prejudiced to agree to Ben’s plans.
Meanwhile, our heroine is the opposite of these focused zombies and Ben. She’s helpless, which riled up my feminist side, but as I understand it, they had altered the script to O’Dea’s performance. In fact, it seems like Night of the Living Dead never had a set script, but instead moving along with a general plot and changing elements when necessary. When put in that context, it seems like a different creative work. Rather than some magnum opus, it can breathe and adjust itself as necessary, without losing much in terms of terror, and probably gaining more in subtext. Honestly, it just seems so appropriate for the American Independent Horror to have such a thrown-together production.
As much as the characters are trapped in the farm house while the dead stumble outside, they’re not cut off from the world. There’s a radio that Ben sets up, and eventually they get the television working. The news gives some explanation towards why the dead are reanimated, related to radiation from a satellite, but the explanation is largely unnecessary. It just gets thrown in as an easy explanation. The news broadcast then shifts to the local situation, showing that it’s quite easy to kill the risen dead. Just aim for the head.
Not like that advice helps, when there are so many outside the farmhouse. The attempt to escape ends horrifically, though it was caused by human error rather than the undead. It was surprising to see how crafty the undead act and how determined they are to get to the humans. For zombies, they’re pretty damn intelligent.
And it is damn scary, forty-three years later, in a gritty way that many have tried to replicate, but never quite match.