Night of the Living Dead 1968

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When the dead begin to rise a small but desperate group must survive the night in a farm house or risk becoming members of the living dead themselves. The original George A. Romero classic.

The movie that launched an entire genre, the undead zombie (though they are never explicitly stated to be zombies). Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies were the result of Haitian voodoo, nuclear fallout, alien intervention, or unrequited vengeance. Some of these movies are gems no doubt, (the Boris Karloff classics The Walking Dead and The Ghoul come to mind), but many were used for either cheap scares or absolute hilarity. It wasn’t until Night of the Living Dead that zombie cinema truly came into its own, turning from mind control and not so subtle racism to the walking, shambling corpses we know today. This is the true birth of the ghoul (which is actually what Romero was going for, a cross between the Arabic Ghul, no O, and the vampires from I Am Legend). Humorously, though our lesser cousins the voodoo zombies got their screen time first, we, the undead variety, have been around much longer. We’ve walked the Earth since time immemorial, since the first humans started leaving their caves and realized there were far worse things than lions, and tigers, and bears (and ground sloths, those things were fucking terrifying back then). We’ve gone by many different names over the years, but the zombie menace has always been here. We just owe Romero for bringing us to the silver screen. Not only was it nice for us to get some much deserved screen time, but damn it if the increase in zombie fandom didn’t swell our ranks.

I’m pretty sure that by this point I don’t really need to explain the plot, next to Jesus’ crucifixion it’s one of the most well-known stories of all time. Maybe in its early days it might not have been so well known, but I’m pretty sure today there are people living in the remotest of villages that have heard of it, they don’t even know what a movie is but they’ve heard of Night of the Living Dead, so I’ll just give it the briefest of descriptions. When Barbara and Johnny go to visit their father’s grave site, a strange, sickly looking man attacks and kills Johnny, sending Barbara fleeing while a few undead stragglers chase her. She starts out driving but quickly crashes her car (something thought up on the fly as the car they were using for filming became damaged) and has to flee on foot, eventually finding a nearby farmhouse where she is joined by the more level headed Ben who has also been escaping the chaos of the living dead. The pair are soon joined by a small group that had holed up in the basement and together they all listen to a radio broadcast. They are shocked to learn that what they had believed to be crazy people are in fact the walking dead. Together they must fortify the house and survive the night or join the undead outside their walls.

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{Zombies don’t like walls}

This is a hard movie to do a review for, not because it’s hard to make an opinion on, you’re either going to like or you’re not, but because of its iconic status among, not just zombie fans, but horror fans in general. It’s not the first zombie movie ever made nor it is the first fictional account of undead zombies if you consider H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Reanimator, but it is the movie that jump started a worldwide love of everything zombie. It’s one of those films that people hate to criticize because they feel it’s too important to the genre. Criticizing Romero has become akin to trying to criticize Charles Dickins. Personally, I disagree with the sentiment because everyone knows that Dickins is so incredibly boring. Also, Romero should be held to the same standards as any other director, and while Night of the Living Dead is most assuredly a milestone for the walking corpse, it’s still just a movie. The main problem comes in that iconic status. How does one do a review of a movie that nearly everyone has already seen at one point or another? Hell, my mother despises horror and she’s seen it. Still, I can’t do a Year of the Undead and not discuss Night of the Living Dead and the half a dozen movies it spawned, so let’s get on with it then shall we.

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{Please no shotgun blasts to the face}

The story is nothing spectacular. A group trapped in a farmhouse must survive the night or become ravenous zombies themselves. Fairly simple right? I was going to give it points on being original at the time, but I don’t think it was even original then, with the exception of having undead ghouls attacking the house. George A. Romero has even admitted to more or less ripping off I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, changing just a few things in order to make it more to his own way of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the man straight up plagiarized Matheson, but that much of the story is lifted from Legend and updated to fit the theme Romero was going for while remaining a very basic story. So why do I still think the film is a success? There are a few reasons I think Romero succeeded.

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{Again, please no shotgun blasts to the face}

The first is his ideas for a revolution and need for change that are represented within the film. There have been a lot of theories as to what this movie stands for, racism in America because of Ben’s inglorious end, the uselessness of the news media because of their constant streaming of shocking facts that are of no help to anyone during the zombie siege, and the need to move away from consumption of meats and dairy because of the zombie’s desire to consume the flesh of the living, but the simple fact is Romero had an entirely different theme in mind, change. He was telling the story of a revolution of sorts that was sweeping across the country, consuming or integrating everything it came in contact with as it made its unending march across the land while a few holdouts fight against it. It worked perfectly for audiences back in 1968 and works for those of us living in a post 9/11 world. It resounded then and resounds now. The second part of his success were the news reports the group is constantly hearing as they struggle to stay alive. A steady stream of news reaches the survivors at different times, and, while none of it is particularly useful, they at least get a little bit of knowledge about what is going on. It adds something to the film to hear and see these newscasts, making you feel almost as if you are there in the building, holed up with them. This was of particular interest to audiences of 1968 since they were constantly getting news reports of the Vietnam War, news reports that weren’t very helpful but kept them up to date on details many didn’t want to hear. The last part was the brutality Romero was unafraid to show in his film. Today Night of the Living Dead isn’t considered a very brutal movie as most of us have already been so desensitized to the brutality we see in the world around us, both in cinema and in the real world. Forty seven years ago that wasn’t entirely the case however. The Vietnam War was one of the first America was able to see in so much detail, and there weren’t many films willing to go so far in what they would show. Night of the Living Dead was much different however. It showed a great amount, and in ways that would shock audiences for years to come.

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{He was very in your face about it}

Romero also got some help in the form of a few very talented actors, most notable among them being Duane Jones. His performance is absolutely amazing and pulls you into the film so completely. Contrary to popular belief he wasn’t cast to give the film a racial undertone either. Romero simply felt that he was the best man for the job after originally intending to cast the character as a white trucker type. Jones auditioned though and was given the job, which is very good for the film. I don’t think it would have been quite the success it was without him. The one actress I didn’t care for, actually, let me rephrase that. The one character I didn’t care for was Barbara. I don’t think it was actress Judith O’Dea’s fault at all, so I’m not blaming her, but damn it that girl was annoying, screaming throughout most of the film like a hysterical mad woman. Every time I watch the film I just want her to shut the fuck up already. I get it, she’s supposed to be losing her mind because of what’s going on around her, but her screaming gets on your nerves quick.

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{This gets old fast}

I think the one thing that surprised me the most was in how well the effects have aged. Are they amazing feats of technical wizardry? Not by a long shot. They’ve aged well, but they’ve still aged. That being said they are still some great practical effects for the time, going well above much of what you’d find around that period. Instead of using cheap props the zombie actors were tasked with eating roast pork covered in chocolate sauce. Though unconventional it translated well to a black and white screen, looking very much like the torn apart remains of the humans who had become their victims. The zombie make up looked great as well and was done in such a way that while some looked newly dead, others appear to have risen weeks or even months after their deaths. The zombified actors get very much into their characters, shuffling and shambling at a slow pace but still remaining terrifying reminders of what could be a quick death (or a not so quick reanimation). The zombie I didn’t understand was the little girl in the basement. In case it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie, she’s bitten before we’re introduced to her but turns later in the film. After turning she picks up a garden trowel and stabs her mother. Never quite got that. Why didn’t she try and eat the mother? My only guess was that there was some remaining resentment left over from all the forced gardening she must have been put through.

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{The look of a little girl that really, really hates gardening}

Night of the Living Dead remains as enjoyable now as it was so many years ago, and a definite must watch for anyone just getting into zombie cinema. You know a movie that had Reader’s Digest warning of cannibalism and Christians all over the country preaching about the satanic inspiration behind its creation has to worth the watch. Let me just give you one word of warning. If you have to buy the special edition DVD, for fuck’s sake do not watch The Night of the Living Bread short. It is a sad attempt to make a funny short about bread stalking a group of people and it is one of the worst fucking things I’ve ever seen, seriously just awful. You can thank me for the warning later.

 

The Undead Review

 

Directed By: George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead {1978}, Bruiser)

Starring: Duane Jones (Ganja & Hess, Beat Street), Judith O’Dea (The Pirate, Claustrophobia), and Karl Hardman (Santa Claws)

Released By: Image Ten, Laurel Group, Market Square Productions, Off Color Films, and Continental Distributing

Release Year: 1968

Release Type: Theatrical Release

MPAA Rating: Unrated

About The Undead Review

When I was alive I was an asshole and after I died remained pretty much the same, if not a little worse. You’d think becoming a member of the walking dead would mellow a person out, no more worrying about awkward small talk with people, no more having to be politically correct, and the entire world is your upright, bipedal buffet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun as hell to be a zombie, just somewhat irritating at times, especially those times you have to watch a lame movie or read a lame book. Thankfully, when I am forced to watch these films or read those books, I’ve got places like The Undead Review to bitch and moan to my heart’s content. {When he’s not devouring the living or sinking his teeth into a good film The Undead Review (Andy Taylor) spends his time writing his own stories or hunting down the paranormal. Oh, and did we mention his blind dog once saved the world?)
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One Response to Night of the Living Dead 1968

  1. Pingback: Night of the Living Dead (1990) | UNDEAD REVIEW

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