Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.
The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.
The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.
Romero’s zombie apocalypse rewrote the rules of horror
By today’s standards, director George Romero’s disturbed 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, looks downright antediluvian, a rough, raw, black-and-white horror hewn from primitive equipment, unremarkable locations, a game but amateurish cast and gore effects that are, measured by the grotesqueries paraded across movie screens in the decades since, quaint.
Yet there is subversive genius amid the sometimes sketchy performances and long-winded newsbreaks. You can argue that Dawn of the Dead is sharper, slyer, more nuanced. Sure. You can point out the ferocious sociopolitical satire of Land of the Dead. Absolutely.
But none of those films cut to the gristle and bone that Romero and his crew of hungry young Pittsburgh filmmakers accomplished with their original, budget-starved masterpiece. This little seat-of-the-pants regional production chewed up and spit out taboos like raw meat in a feral feeding frenzy.
Like the shambling, dull-eyed predators that instinctively swarm about their warm-blooded prey, the original Night of the Living Dead is a slow starter (at least after the shock of the graveyard scene, where our “zombie patient zero” stumbles through the background until it turns out he really is coming to get you, Barbra). The next hour is all about the desperation of survival and the terror of a world suddenly gone hostile and predatory. The unstoppable army of flesh-eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation: They literally come from nowhere.
The strains of panic and helplessness twist the tensions of human survivors to the breaking point. It’s like low-rent Samuel Beckett snuck into an exploitation thriller. There are echoes of Vietnam in the imagery and reflections of America’s volatile race relations in the increasingly savage state of conflict within the house, where the survivors turn on themselves as they fend for their lives.
But it’s still the primal kick of the flesh feast that gives this grisly spectacle, of society feeding on itself and the nuclear family devouring its own, a place in our collective nightmares.
It’s the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the gothic horrors that defined the ’60s, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture. Night of the Living Dead changed the face of American horror movies: for better (it blazed the trail for the transgressive horror renaissance of the ’70s, seeded Romero’s own sequels and inspired Shaun of the Dead), for worse (all those crappy copycat zombie knockoffs) and forever.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.