Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #798

Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: October 1, 1968
Sub-Genre: Zombie Horror/Satire
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $114,000
Box Office: $30,000,000
Running Time: 96 minutes
Director: George A. Romero
Producers: Russell W. Streiner, Karl Hardman
Screenplay: John Russo, George A. Romero
Special Effects: Tony Pantanella, Regis Survinski
Cinematography: George A. Romero
Score: William Loose, Fred Steiner (Stock recording)
Editing: George A. Romero
Studio: Image Ten, Laurel Group, Market Square Productions
Distributor: The Walter Reade Organization, Continental Distributing
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig, Bill Hinzman, George Kosana, Russell Streiner, Bill Cardille

Suggested Audio Candy ♫

The Cranberries “Zombie”

Unless you’ve spent the past thirty years hidden away in an underground bunker without any source of electricity, then chances are you’ll know precisely what a zombie is. Indeed, should you twist your ankle while out rambling in the woods and pass a little boy out hunting with his father, then the words you’ll most likely hear whispered are “aim for the head son” and I’d recommend shuffling off fast at that point as children tend to be extraordinarily quick on the uptake. Over the past decade in particular, the undead have been pretty much everywhere you look. Indeed, at one point, over fifty new zombie films were being churned out every year and they haven’t only been restricted to the movies either. I find it highly delightful that such a thing exists as a crawling zombie doorstop as it’s a sign of just how much they have been accepted. That said, while all this celebrity status is dandy and all, I often find myself hankering for the good old days.

It was so much simpler back then. You see, they started off with a little something called ambiguity. Being an unknown quantity will get you so far but, when it entails being the very embodiment of death, you’re playing with a full stack of chips. If you asked a hundred people what the one thing they wish to do before they die is, then I’d hazard a guess that “not die” would be on the top of a fair few wish lists. It’s just so final and, what makes zombies just a fearsome opponent despite their shambling approach, is the fact that they remind us it’s not. We don’t know how they feel about being deceased as they can’t vocalize it but neither do they display any signs of annoyance, unlike other more expressive movie monsters. Moreover, their complete abstinence from fury encourages sympathy from the viewer and we find ourselves emotionally torn. Absurd they might be but, should we consider that a sign of weakness and underestimate their most basic primary function, then any negotiating skills count for squat. Single-mindedness is as potent a weapon as they come.

Perhaps this is why so many purists had an issue with the new athletic strain of zombie that emerged around the time of Zack Snyder’s 2004 reboot of a certain much-loved classic. Food was getting faster, download speeds were doing likewise, so it must’ve seemed a no-brainer to light a fire under the undead too. Zombie 2.0 is custom-made for today’s shorter attention span and I get that. But strangely enough the fear is significantly lessened. It likely hasn’t helped that slapstick is often preferred to satire and much of my consternation stemmed from their metaphorical relevance. Their master and commander, who we’ll get to momentarily, took a template that dated way back to Haitian folklore and made it current. The social implication so prevalent in this man’s work adds a whole new level of consternation to proceedings as we are forced to view the world through a pair of eyes that have precious little positive to report about humanity and our chances.

Night of the Living Dead is a bleak movie. Hell, I can only begin to imagine the audience reactions when this tiny independent feature from Pittsburgh native, George A. Romero, screened for the first time in October, 1968 to packed out movie houses. I mean, how do you even process some of the lasting images this film imparts when there’s no yardstick to anything you’ve witnessed before. Forget what Herschell Gordon Lewis had been doing for half a decade, not that it wasn’t still pertinent, as there was very little humor to what audiences were being made privy to here. Had it been presented in glorious Technicolor, then it wouldn’t have been premiered at all. Nobody was prepared for that yet and Romero was simply testing the water at this point or, more accurately, laying the foundations.

After starting life as a short story riffing on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, Romero and co-writer John Russo intended Night of the Living Dead to be a horror comedy and the original working title for the film was Monster Flick. Featuring aliens as opposed to zombies (or “ghouls” as Romero refered to them), it was actually Russo who suggested focusing on reanimated human corpses. The undead had already received representation courtesy of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie back in 1932, with the great Béla Lugosi in the starring role, but were far more in keeping with their Haitian voodoo origins. While other movies had arrived in its wake containing elements of zombie mythology, Romero’s film deviated significantly from the folklore and provided these flesh-eaters a fresh identity. An unprecedented $30m in box-office returns suggested that he was onto something; not that you’d know that from the miniscule share of profits he received at the business end of its international run. However, there could be no denying the statement he had made.

For the purpose of this particular exercise, I have decided to see how the other half live, tentatively speaking. We all know the story by now I’m sure but I figure it’s high time we assume the identity and creeping flesh of one less inclined to human frailty than those it is tasked with hunting down. Naturally this will entail rather a lot of paraphrasing on my part as zombies aren’t known for their articulation skills or winning sense of humor. Given that it’s approaching half a century since Night of the Living Dead first clawed its way out of the topsoil, it just feels right to celebrate its pasty-faced patrons in as intimate a manner as possible. So, without any further in the way of ado, we’re coming to get you, Barbra.

If I were you young lady, I’d listen to your brother Johnny, as his observation is pretty much spot on. You see, I can smell your brains from here and just so happen to be feeling decidedly peckish right now. I’d settle for his but, aside from his one moment of clarity, Johnny doesn’t appear to be packing too much up top. Thus I’ll let the others make a start on him, while making a B-line for the real meal ticket.

As my elected prey, I ask that you take the gammy leg into account, and don’t go fleeing in your gas guzzler when clearly pace is an issue. Instead, how about a brisk jog over to the farmhouse? It shouldn’t take too long to reach from here and I’m sure that’ll buy you time to make sense of all this. I have but one request before we commence – would you mind terribly if I invited a few close friends along? They really are terribly pleasant once you get to know them. please take a bow for Barbra and… GET HER GUYS!

Run Barbra run, see Barbra run. Actually, I fear she may be in danger of giving us the slip fellas. It’s funny how everyone suddenly becomes a track star once decomposition sets in. There was a time when I would have been able to keep up with her stride for stride but I now have to be content with following her cerebral scent as best I can and hoping she gets her pretty little ankle snared in a fox trap.

Never mind, my grandmother taught me that slow and steady wins the race, and also that good things come to those who wait. It’s a good job that patience is considered a virtue as it’s all I’ve got right now, outside of crippling hunger pains of course. I’m not expecting a buffet laid on in my honor or anything extravagant like that; just a spot of nourishment to fend off these incessant tummy growls. Is that really so much to ask?

Right then team, it would appear that we have hit our first snag as Barbra’s cross-country dash to the farmhouse has reaped its dividends and she is currently inside familiarizing herself with her new house mates. I can hear them in there plotting as we speak and can now confirm that fresh meat is indeed on the platter, to the tune of half a dozen more flavorsome frontal lobes for the snacking.

So let me get this straight – first up we have Harry and Helen who, if their constant bickering is anything to go by, I would assume are married. That would make Karen their daughter, although their wee one is apparently feeling a little “under the weather” so they’re tending to her down in the cellar.

Love’s young dream Tom and Judy can’t be more than eighteen so I’m certain we can bank on their ill-considered actions placing the whole group in peril before the night is out. However, it’s Ben we have to watch out for as he appears to have assumed the role of house captain, not that Harry sees it that way.

So here’s my plan and I reckon you’ll get a kick out of this one. With Ben and Harry at loggerheads, Helen rolling her eyes, Tom and Judy making out, and Barbra still in a state of trauma, nobody need notice that sweet little Karen has actually been flirting with the enemy. I figured it might come to this so decided we could do with someone on the inside, a mole if you wish.

As anticipated, they’ve made this halfway house a fortress and it will likely take all night to make any kind of significant dent in the barricade, so my advice would be to dig in as the haul ahead is going to be a long one. When the time is right, Karen will throw a mangy cat amongst the pigeons but, until then, keep on tugging at those boards and don’t forget your moans. If nothing else, this will ensure they can’t settle for a solitary second. The rest should take care of itself.

Get this. Ben happened across a television while scavenging for materials and you’ll never guess who the ghouls of the hour are. The royal we, my fellow fiends. I don’t know what I find most amusing – becoming an overnight global celebrity or the fact that scientists suspect the outbreak to be the result of a returning Venus space probe that was detonated in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Listen to them clutching at straws out of desperation, when we’re the only ones who know the real truth. But do you think we’ll ever tell? Not likely, our greatest collective strength is our inability to vocalize as they can taunt us, beat us, and sever our brains from our spinal cords if that way inclined, but they’ll never make us talk.

Right then, I’m going to need all of your heads on swivels as a small window of opportunity is about to open and this could present our best shot at wrapping this up by dusk. Karen has taken another turn for the worse and it has been decided that she must be transported to a local rescue center post-haste for emergency treatment.

The good news is that Tom and Judy’s lack of respect for gasoline is about to blow up in their sorry little faces. The bad news is that Harry happens to be something of a crack shot with molotov cocktails and will be lobbing them down to distract us. Now we all know that fire is non-lethal when your nerve endings are already shot like ours are, but that doesn’t mean we should go wandering into the flame like moths.

Bide your time, wait for the big boom at the gas station, and grab yourself some hot wings if you’re starting to come across queasy. But I expect you back here pitching in the very second you’ve claimed your scraps as team morale should be plummeting to a fresh low around this time and, with Karen decaying at an alarming rate down in the cellar, this “deathtrap” as Ben calls it is about to come good on its bad reputation.

Harry and Helen shouldn’t pose too much of an issue as parental responsibility outweighs survival when your one beloved child displays the characteristics of a walking corpse. Meanwhile, Barbra still hasn’t gotten her head around watching her brother’s “unfortunate accident” back at the cemetery and appears ready to relinquish her vague grip on sanity. This just leaves Ben, and I’ve got to say, I didn’t read this turn of events in the script.

Could it be that the last man standing is going to be of African-American persuasion? Well that’s a turn up for the books. Indeed, I’m not sure I can recall a black man ever finding himself in a position like this before. One thing is for sure – we certainly won’t be discriminating – as human brains all taste the same regardless of the color of the cookie jar. But credit where it’s due Ben for being nobody’s house negro. It’s about time society rings the changes if you ask me.

That’s what this whole hostile takeover is about; shaking things up and giving humanity something to really shriek about. I don’t hate Ben or any of the others either (although I wouldn’t fancy getting stuck in an elevator with Harry or his missus come to think of it). This isn’t about payback, we’re simply doing the only thing left in our nature to do – feed. So whaddya say team? Y’all ready to skip to the chow down? Just so we’re clear, I’m calling dibs on Barbra’s femur. I figure I’ve earned that one.

I’m not big on regrets, but certainly rue not being born until six years after Night of the Living Dead first shuffled into the frame. It’s hard to think of another film anywhere near as influential or as adept at showcasing the fears and insecurities of an entire generation as this one. 1968 was a particularly torrid year for Americans with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, in addition to growing unrest over the Vietnam war. Romero’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect in this respect as it tapped into this mounting sense of frustration and confusion; without providing any clear-cut solution. It takes a bold filmmaker to make such a pessimistic statement about the state of humanity when mankind is desperately clutching at hope but courage and conviction are two attributes that Romero always had in abundance.

Most critically however, when you strip away all any social context and take Night of the Living Dead for what it essentially is – a horror movie – it still holds up remarkably well to this day. The reason for this is simple – it refuses its audience the chance to collect our thoughts from its first frame right through to shattering last and ensures we remain on the constant back pedal throughout. In later entries, Romero would explore the idea that perhaps these ghouls could be domesticated in some way, but here they’re not looking to make friends and influence people. They are simply the personification of death and, as a result, feel all the more overwhelmingly oppressive. Their humble leader may no longer be with us in a physical sense but, half a century on, his grand legacy is still in the very best of health. Now where did that Barbra chick get to?

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: It’s a common misconception that Night of the Living Dead isn’t gory when, in fact, it imparts a number of grisly images on our psyches. For its time, such frank depictions of cannibalism and bloody murder were just asking for a media outcry but the fact that it arrived out of absolutely nowhere left the wolves little time to prepare their ambushes. I believe stunned was the general consensus and it still packs that same immobilizing punch today as it did way back in 1968. Now that is what I call staying power.

Read Dawn of The Dead (1978) Appraisal
Read Day of The Dead (1985) Appraisal
Read Land of The Dead Appraisal
Read Diary of The Dead Appraisal
Read Survival of The Dead Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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