Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.
Release Date: December 4th, 1968 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George A. Romero Actors: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig
he title may be sensationalistic, but the simple setup, stark black-and-white photography (full of ominous shadows), limited resources (making excellent use of a small budget), and eerie music (basic, synthesized sounds, like something from John Carpenter, mixed with classic Hollywood horror movie notes) give “Night of the Living Dead” an effectiveness not often found in such minimalist ventures. Writer/director George A. Romero, often considered the founder of the modern zombie, borrows a style and mentality reminiscent of the sci-fi thrillers from the ‘50s, fearful of atomic disasters and foreign invaders (here, it’s even suggested that the cause of the re-animated corpses is radiation from Venus) and daring to showcase an unresolved mystery and undeniable bleakness. But more prominent than the origins of the mutation are the glassy-eyed stares, the slow gait, the guttural moans, the outreaching appendages, and the bloody violence of “Psycho” – which lend to almost every zombie picture since this film’s 1968 release.
Siblings Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea) drive almost six hours outside of Pittsburgh to visit a rural graveyard to place some flowers at Barbra’s father’s headstone. When they arrive, it’s 8:00 P.M., but the sun is still out. Just after Barbra places the wreath and Johnny reminds her of the childhood fears she had of the place, a tall stranger hobbles over to their location – and attacks. Johnny is thrown to the ground while Barbra flees to their car, managing to drive away just before the crazy man climbs through the window. Panicking just a few feet down the road, she crashes into a tree, forcing her to run through the forest on foot to a seemingly abandoned house.
As more of the possessed, emotionless creatures start sauntering around the grounds, Ben (Duane Jones) comes to the rescue, handling himself capably with weapons of defense and in hand-to-hand combat. Clearly, he’s had experience battling the zombies before; as he eventually divulges, earlier that evening he fled from Beakman’s Diner down the road, taking off in a truck that was unfortunately low on gasoline. Making the best of finances, Ben’s story of survival (involving witnessing the truckstop get overrun, seeing countless people die, and plowing through hordes of the things with his escape vehicle) is merely told instead of enacted. Similarly, the widespread onslaught by masses of assassins (or entranced cannibals) is detailed over radio transmissions, establishing a striking premise and a sense of foreboding without visualizing much at all. Later, when a television set is discovered, military advisors and NASA scientists chronicle possible sources for the outbreak and the methods necessary for fighting them – again, without having to show extensive action.
Additional survivors soon surface (literally, having hid in the cellar), creating more victims for the mindless murderers. The walking dead aren’t embellished with the greatest of costumes or makeup, but the imagery is nonetheless entirely effective. Gunshot wounds, decomposed bodies, the lopping off of groping fingers, and the feasting on rubbery entrails are all arresting sights (partnered with grisly sound effects). Comparably, the agitations of anxiety, hysteria, and opposing views on staying alive prove – in cinematic fashion – that humans tend to exacerbate an already trying situation. Law enforcement is bewildered, help isn’t coming, and tensions remain high. The characters make classic mistakes like dropping weapons, ignoring their surroundings, and underestimating the speed and strength of the clamoring adversaries, though such errors are necessary to increase the terror (and, perhaps, for the sake of realism in a most outlandish scenario). Barbra is the worst offender, appearing so mortified (understandably) that she’s barely able to function. When she does finally speak, she gets so worked up that she ends up in tears. But, in the end, the acting is as sufficient as the other components, with believable apprehension and a threat that is impressively convincing.
– Mike Massie