Bickering siblings Johnny and Barbara are travelling by car to a rural cemetery, where they visit their father’s grave. They are approached by a pale-faced who man who stumbles toward them and then attacks them. Johnny is killed but Barbara manages to escape in her car. She arrives at a farmhouse which is soon surrounded by zombies, but a man called Ben arrives and fights them off. As more people arrive, it appears that, according to the radio, radiation from a rocket returning from Venus is killing people and then bringing them back to life with a taste for human flesh……………
It’s quite hard to gauge the impact Night Of The Living Dead must have had on audiences in 1968. Rosemary’s Baby the same year was also important in the development of the horror film, and both films in a way signalled the beginning of the end for the traditional ‘Gothic’ horror movie, but I think Night Of The Living Dead is even more important, even if as an actual film it’s very rough around the edges. For once a traditional monster, the zombie, was brought into modern day, but more importantly here was a horror film where a guy who seems to be the main male protagonist is dispatched almost immediately, the supposed heroine spends the rest of the film in shock, where the characters constantly distrust each other and are mostly ineffectual, where SPOILER everyone ends up dead END OF SPOILER, where the ‘cavalry’ are as dangerous as the monsters they are trying to destroy, where the monsters don’t just kill you but eat you, etc. There are so many ways the film was innovative.
Director George Romero himself was inspired by Carnival Of Souls and I believe The Birds and The Last Man On Earth. Originally it was going to be about deadly aliens, but the budget didn’t allow for that. Made on a shoestring a la The Evil Dead, it was almost released by Columbia and American International, but the former wanted it in colour and the latter wanted more romance and a happy ending. Finally released by the Walter Reade organisation, after Romero had reluctantly cut ten minutes of dialogue, it was a big success but they forgot to put a copyright notice on the print so it lapsed into the public domain and was often hacked about and re-edited, climaxing in a dreadful ’30th Anniversary Version’, that cut around fifteen minutes of footage and added crappy new footage of mostly more zombie action that didn’t match the rest of the film. Unsurprisingly, upon it’s original UK release the BBFC cut a minute or so from the film though after a while, with successively gory and violent horror films, it seemed a little tame and was re-released uncut in 1978 after the success of Romero’s sequel Dawn Of The Dead.
Dispensing with the usual build up, Night of The Living Dead gets underway immediately with the cemetery attack, then doesn’t let up for a while until we arrive at the house, where the pace suddenly slows down. The characters argue and even fight, and although probably realistic, I personally feel there’s a bit too much of this, especially the endless rows about whether to stay in the cellar or upstairs, and perhaps not quite enough zombie mayhem. Nonetheless this was quite original at the time [before, people usually just ‘got on with it’], and inspired countless films from The Mist to Dog Soldiers where instead of rallying together to defeat the outside menace, the characters are constantly at odds with each other and become a kind of microcosm of society. The actual zombie sequences are exciting, if mostly brief, when they come, and Romero films them in a very ‘modern’ style, with quick cuts and unusual camera angles [but not so much that you can’t see what’s going on, unlike in quite a few films today]. A set piece at a petrol garage is especially hair-raising and culminates in a flesh-eating sequence, where the zombies delve into the charred remains of the victims, that really shocked people at the time [and was the major scene the BBFC had issue with], even if the extras were actually eating roast ham dipped in chocolate sauce and we don’t actually see as much as you would do it the film was made now. The last twenty minutes remain very intense, and I was actually very frightened when I first saw the movie twenty or so years ago [it was about 2am on ITV and I stayed up to watch it!] while the bleak ending still packs a punch.
Throughout Night Of The Living Dead, whenever there’s a glimmer of hope, Romero cruelly reverses our expectations, and the ending remains one of the nihilistic ever. It was made at a time of great civil unrest in America. The much-hated Vietman war, where US soldiers were turning into killers just like Romero’s zombies, was going on, African-Americans were marching demanding civil rights and this often resulted in riots, while the counter culture movement was growing. Romero cleverly lets all this inform his movie, while never allowing things to become preachy or this stuff dominate the film; it’s just there for you to pick up. For example the only really ‘together’ guy is a black man, yet that is never mentioned by anyone. Although there had recently been In The Heat Of The Night, where hero cop Sidney Poitier slapped a white man in the face [O, the horror!], I think this movie pushed things further. I can imagine how racists watching the film in 1968 would have reacted to Ben slapping a white woman in the face and even unbuttoning her top.
It’s often said that Night Of The Living Dead also pushed things further with graphic gore, but I don’t think it’s that much gorier than earlier horror movies [for example, there’s a horrifying shovel killing by a child, but it’s not actually shown in much detail]. What horrified people was the realistic context of the bloodshed, in a film that at times resembled a documentary, and of course the fact that these zombies actually ate people, cannibalism almost having been a taboo in movies [and was still causing censors to get their knickers in a twist twenty years later]. The acting in Night Of The Living Dead is mostly by amateur actors but in this kind of movie it often works and certainly does in this one, adding to the feel of realism. Duane Jones as Ben, the closest this movie has a ‘hero’, is very strong, but it’s Judith O. Dea, as Barbara, who gives the standout performance, quite convincingly showing breakdown and mental trauma.
The biggest flaw for me is, in lieu of an original score, Romero’s use of stock music. Obviously there was not enough money for a composer, but most of the music, while often exciting, sounds like it came from ‘B’ sci-fi movies and jars with the general approach of the film. With a few dull patches and variable looking monsters, I do think that Night Of The Living Dead has lost a bit of it’s power now, unlike, say, The Exorcist, which is just as strong now as it was in 1973. It’s still a fascinating and extremely important part of horror film history [well, film history in general] which every horror fan worth his salt should see. Interestingly, it didn’t immediately lead to lots of zombie pictures and wasn’t much imitated. Of course it obviously inspired a few films such as Tombs Of The Blind Dead and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death but not as many as you would think, which probably tells you how hard the movie must have hit people; they must have realised they couldn’t hope to match it’s effect. It was, though, remade, reasonably well if a bit pointlessly, in 1990 under the same title and as well as Romero’s own Dead series, led to an unofficial sequel in 1985, the comedic Return Of The Living Dead which itself spawned had two sequels.