“Night of the Living Dead”
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley
Writer: John Russo and George Romero
Dir: George Romero
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
In 1968, George A. Romero changed the horror film game once and for all. He wrote a solid script featuring creatures that were terrifying, assembled a cast of unknowns, and created a biting social commentary. “Night of the Living Dead” will, forever, remain one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Now, 42 years later, the creatures he created then are staples of pop culture. Romero has directed five sequels with varying degrees of critical and box office acclaim, and countless knockoffs have been spawned. Video games feature the cannibalistic undead, books dedicated to the subject are topping the New York Times Bestseller List, people around the world are assembling in massive gatherings to either r dance or shamble about city streets, and music groups are writing songs about them.
Yes, the living dead are more popular than ever, and it all began with one of the most iconic films — not just in the horror canon — ever made.
For those unfamiliar with the film (shame on you), the story begins with a brother and sister visiting their father’s grave in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh. Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (O’Dea) bicker back and forth, prompting Johnny to tease his sister as a strange man begins to approach them. After the man grabs and begins to claw at Barbara, Johnny fights with the man, ultimately winding up unconscious. Barbara flees from the attacker and runs into an apparently empty farmhouse. She is soon joined by another stranger, Ben, (Jones). This time, the new stranger fends off multiple more “attackers” and begins boarding up the house. Barbara, slipping into a catatonic state of shock, listens listlessly as Ben tells how the strange attackers are everywhere and no one knows what is really going on.
As time passes, Ben and Barbara learn they are not in the house alone, as two teenagers, Tom and his girlfriend Judy, and a set of parents — Harry and Helen Cooper, and their injured daughter, Karen, appear from the basement where they have hidden themselves from the attackers. Instantly, a power struggle between Ben and Harry ensues, each determined to control the situation and make the next decision for survival. While Harry appears to be driven to defend his family by staying in the basement, Ben makes it clear that he is in charge of the main floor — and the only gun in the house. While Ben measures each decision with logic and forward thinking, Harry’s reaction is to either flee from the house or barricade everyone in basement. The tension between the two men is at the center of the story as the refugees begin to learn what is going on through radio and television reports: the bodies of the recently dead have begun to rise from their graves and attack the living — in some cases, biting and devouring their victims.
As the numbers of the slow, lumbering undead begin to gather around the house, and make a couple attempts to gain entry, Ben and Tom lay out a strategy to take a pickup truck, drive to a gas pump outside of the home, fuel it up, pick up the refugees, and drive to the nearest shelter where the National Guard is sure to protect them.
The plan — fails terribly. Tom and Judy wind up becoming barbecue, and, for the first time on film, the undead decide to have a grand meal. Shot after shocking shot of human remains are seen either being carried around, fought over, or consumed by the undead.
The remaining survivors begin to become desperate and some take advantage of the horror and confusion, leading to the collapse of what little safety they had. A last attempt is made to survive — with middling results.
I have tried to be very spoiler-free with the plot synopsis here, but I almost feel I should talk about every, single, vital plot point in this 42-year-old gem. However, I realize there are still many people out in the world who have yet to experience it (although, if they are reading this blog, I really worry about them).
Also, I have refrained from using the term “zombie,” even though this is obviously what the “creatures” are in “NOTLD.” While the film never utters the Z word, instead calling them “ghouls” or “the recently dead,” the entire modern zombie phenomenon stems from this film. In fact, this blog holds all zombie lore to the standards and rules set forth by Romero in this film and his subsequent sequels.
What I did not mention earlier is something that has been up for much debate over the years. The character of Ben was played by Duane Jones, a black man. The year the film debuted was 1968, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. While the film had wrapped prior to King’s death, the fact that the lead in this film was a strong black man absent of racial stereotypes of the day made a huge impact on the film’s initial and cult success. Romero has denied on several occasions that Jones’ casting was a conscious political statement, simply stating that Jones was the best actor for the part. Conscious or not, the fact that Jones portrayed the only competent, strong, resourceful, and brave role in the film made a bold statement in a tumultuous time during the civil rights movement.
While the film was made for pennies, with most of the cast and crew assuming multiple production roles, it has gone on to become a goldmine both critically and financially — even though Romero has nary made a penny back from the film due to being young and naïve, failing to copyright the film upon initial release, and allowing it to slip into public domain. While Romero has remained an independent filmmaker for the majority of his career, his greatest feat doesn’t even belong to him. Ouch.
I have watched “NOTLD” more times than any other film — ever. Romero caught lightning in a bottle with “NOTLD”: a solid concept, a strong story, credible characters, and a frightening enemy — us. While the undead provide the catalyst of the threat, the real threat is humanity, and how, in desperate situations, humanity tends to turn on itself, with the most primal instinct — self-preservation — taking over and destroying what would seem to be the ultimate goal: survival of the species.
The zombies take on a pack mentality, overpowering their prey through strength in numbers. And, while their prey would be stronger if they took on that pack mentality, humans in Romero’s world devolve into individuals.
The zombies will win.