Night of the Living Dead (1968)
by Steve Habrat
You almost never come across a list of the scariest films ever made that doesn’t contain George A. Romero’s 1968 claustrophobic skin-crawler Night of the Living Dead. To this very day, the film still manages to be a Halloween night tradition that sends it’s first-time viewers away unnerved and scarred for life. Much has been written on the horror classic and every critic that is armed with a laptop has analyzed it to death. There is not a frame of this classic film that hasn’t been combed over. Perhaps it was seeing this film for myself (along with the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead) that made me realize that there was quite a bit more going on in movies than meets the casual viewers eye. The film created quite a stir over its stanch, stationary scenes of gore and it’s is-this-really-happening? authenticity. To this day, it still is widely discussed and it is the Dr. Frankenstein to the Ziti Zombie films that started rising from their graves over in Italy (famed Italian film critic turned horror auteur Dario Argento reportedly loved this film). While there is some fun to be had at the Ziti Zombie buffet, they mostly descend into gory guilty pleasures which features dim characters, gratuitous nudity, and enough entrails to please the most bloodthirsty gore hound (I personally love the Ziti Zombie offerings, especially films like Burial Grounds, Zombie, and Hell of the Living Dead). Yet Night of the Living Dead’s violence is just understated enough and is more disquieting in black and white. This film’s use of black and white elevates it from minor to mighty. It shifts it from campy to coarse. It’s borderline too real for words. It resembles a newsreel that has been stored away in a dark, damp basement, away from the public’s eye. You feel as if we weren’t meant to see this film.
While I could just repeat what almost everyone knows about this film—how it evoked the images of Vietnam that ran across television nightly, the controversial casting of an African-American in the starring role, the Cold War comparisons, etc, I could instead explain to you why the film scares me. Why it grabbed me at an early age and never let me go. It scares me because it feels realistic, it’s in black and white, it’s claustrophobic, it never slows down, and it leaves more to the imagination than makes this viewer comfortable. This is quite an intricate film for the uninitiated. There’s the reason to see it because, yes, it is immensely entertaining and is quintessential for any horror fan. And yes, the gore is extreme and comes to a head in the form of a young girl eating her poor father’s arm off. I feel as though everyone who sees Night of the Living Dead is spooked by it for different reasons. It could play on the what-would-I-do-in-that-situation? or the planting of the idea that when the chips are down, the worst in people will come out.
The number one quality that has made Night of the Living Dead endear after all these years is it’s aesthetic. Due to the lack of a large price tag, the film, which boasts granular camera work, feels voyeuristic. The whole time, you feel as if you are a fly on the wall watching this group fight for their lives. Even the rag tag group the story follows feel like real individuals. You have levelheaded Ben (Played by Duane Jones, his head help high), the dazed Barbara (Played by Judith O’Dea), snappy Harry and fretful mother Helen Cooper (Played by Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), the Cooper’s daughter Karen (Played by the iconic Kyra Schon), and boyfriend and girlfriend Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). The lack of a prolific star within the film and the fact that the faces of these thespians look strikingly ordinary, add to Romero’s obtained authenticity and nightmarish vision. They look like people we could bump into on the street. Most empathetic is Barbara, who viciously looses her teasing brother Johnny (Played by Russell Streiner, who gets the film’s best line—“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”). Romero never allows her to grieve her loss. She instead has to fight for her life against a staggering zombie in a chilling graveyard sequence. Whenever she does get a moment to catch her breath, she is reduced to hysterics. It never once feels silly and its stone-faced tone always feels like what would really happen if a disaster of this magnitude ever occurred.
Night of the Living Dead feels like a film you would find locked inside a chest in the basement of a sinister log cabin in the woods. The black and white helps conceal the cheap make-up effects and makes the gore seem all the more gruesome. Near the beginning of the film, Barbara stumbles upon a ripped-to-shreds corpse that looks a bit slapdash. It makes the zombie make-up more disturbing (Is that decay or a fresh wound?) and terror inducing. It also adds to the setting and the use of the darkness. Some shots of the film would make the German Expressionists crazy with envy. A shot at the end of the film is shrouded in shadows and turns an already ominous shot of Karen munching on her zombified father’s arm all the more horrific and otherworldly as Karen’s white dress contrasts with the black shadows (the power has been knocked out) around her. Her pale white face smeared with blood, she lunges out of the darkness, as Ben, also hidden in the shadows with a shotgun (his world has been consumed by darkness), readies himself to dispatch the ghoul. It makes our blood turn to ice. It also sends shivers when Karen dispatches her mother, shown only to us in shadows (In cinema heaven, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the director of Vampyr, was beaming when this scene played for the first time) on the basement wall that is also being spraying with her blood. It’s effervescent, redolent (old fashioned horror meets the bloody new school of the genre), and unforgettable.
The film also acts as a merciless adrenaline rush as it speeds by you. You barely have time to catch your breath in between the zombie attacks. They smash through windows and grab at Ben and Barbara, the lunge across the lawn, smash car lights, and pull their victims into their countless hungry hoards. What makes this agonizing and frightening is the fact that there is nowhere for anyone to go. Do we stay on the first floor or retreat to the cellar and barricade the door? The battle stews the entire film and I won’t reveal what is decided upon in the last blood soaked act, but it’s a doozy. Once the zombies get wise to the fact that there are survivors in that seemingly abandoned farmhouse, the action is cranked up full blast by Romero. The rush of action and the claustrophobia act hand and hand. You almost feel yourself losing your mind along with the panic-stricken Barbara. You may feel distressed when a fistfight between the survivors breaks out. You will feel your stomach drop when Ben gets locked outside the house and a group of growling ghouls closes in on him. The film is emotionally draining from its cramped setting and aggressive action sequences. It’s borderline paralyzing.
Night of the Living Dead is a film that also instills fear in us through its lack of a clear, rational explanation for the events at hand. We, as a society, always need an answer. Whenever there is a catastrophic event, our first question is “Why?” We need to drive home some form of ease because the unknown is something that we simply cannot grasp. The film generates real panic because the survivors trapped in the farmhouse have no clear elucidation for why the dead are returning to life. Even the revelation of the cannibalistic tendencies of these monsters comes at the survivors and the viewer as a curveball thrown by the devil himself. It’s just too much to bear. Barbara is already a character that is reduced to blubbering hysterics and shock and Cooper is already defensive and on the prowl for a fight. The idea of not knowing brings out the worst in people, even when they should be sticking together and attempting to device a plan to stay alive. Romero suggests that the unknown will ultimately be our collapse, another dour touch to a film that is already grim enough by the story alone.
Night of the Living Dead has shuffled on through the years, lived through multiple remakes and a senseless color version that looks like it was filled in with pastel crayons. No other film has ever or will ever be as long lasting as the original. No one will ever capture the trepidation that runs rampant through the film, the pessimistic tone, or the resentment that flows from it. No one can clock in a performance like Duane Jones did way back when. The despondency, the growing frustration, and the ultimate defeat will live on in the cinema history books from now until eternity. No film has ever and will ever be as era defining as Night of the Living Dead is. It truly is one of a kind and influential beyond words. A classic horror film that will continue to be passed down, all we can do is thank Romero for it. This is the granddaddy of zombie films and should be revered as one of the scariest films ever made. Grade: A+
Posted on October 1, 2011, in REViEW and tagged 1968, 1978, burial grounds, dawn of the dead, duane jones, george romero, halloween, hell of the living dead, horror films, judith o'dea, judith ridley, karl hardman, keith wayne, kyra schon, marilyn eastman, russell streiner, vietnam war, zombie. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.