First, we see a car making its way up a road. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother, Johnny (uncredited, played by Russell Streiner) are driving to a cemetery in rural Pennsylvania in order to lay a memorial and flowers at the headstone of their grandfather. As they get out of the car, the radio mysteriously turns on, then turns off. In the distance, Johnny sees a man approaching them. He seems to be moving strangely.
And so begins George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which came out the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey. While it was not the first zombie movie ever made, it defined the genre for years to come, and it did so by injecting social commentary into the horror movie format.
Now, all monster movies (in particular) have their roots in the societies that created them. Whatever vampires were before Dracula, that book by Bram Stoker redefined them as a sexual fear, though you have to read between the lines to get the message. Frankenstein was about the dangers science can unleash when it pretends to play God. With Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies (or “living dead” movies, since traditional zombies are tied to witchcraft) connected themselves to social commentary.
In order to fully understand Night of the Living Dead, one has to understand the political and social landscape at the time the film was released. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that April, the anti-war movement reached its high point, and the women’s lib movement had just begun. While the film, on the surface, is about a group of people having to defend themselves against a group of undead corpses, the ending deftly leaps from fictional horror to realistic horror, invoking the times in which it was made.
In the graveyard, Johnny argues with Barbra about having to come all the way out there, just to lay down the wreath. He then begins to tease her, saying, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” in a creepy voice. As the man approaches, he kids her that he is coming to get her, too, then runs away. She walks by the man, but as she looks up at him, he grabs her. She yells for help, and Johnny wrestles with the man until the man hits Johnny’s head against a tombstone, killing him. Barbra runs to the car, being chased by the man. She is only able to escape by releasing the emergency brake, and then running out of the car when she sideswipes a tree. Seeing a farmhouse in the distance, she runs inside. Except for some news bulletins on TV (where the film takes us to Washington, D.C., and other locations shown in the broadcasts), the rest of the film will not stray far from this house.
She is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), and here is our first hint that this will not be our typical horror film, for Ben is black. We also have an interesting dynamic in the house: the young, blonde, fair-skinned (and scared speechless) Barbra, with the young, black Ben. He can attack these creatures if there are only a few of them and has learned that they fear fire. After killing three of the creatures, he begins boarding up the windows and doors, while listening to the radio to find out what is happening outside.
Eventually, Ben and Barbra realize that there are others hiding in the house. They include a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), and an older couple, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman). The older couple’s daughter (Kyra Schon) is injured. The weakest moment in the film is probably during Tom and Judy’s “moment” upstairs, where they are preparing to get gas for Ben’s truck near the barn. She is way too dependent on him, and the moment, meant to be heartfelt, plays like melodrama (the music doesn’t help).
Everything else about this film, however, is excellent. From the pacing of the broadcasts on radio (and later on TV), we only slowly come to understand what is happening (note to M. Night Shyamalan: THIS is how your newscasts should have been done in Signs). By focusing on the people inside the house, Romero makes a much more interesting film than if he had focused merely on the walking dead themselves.
As a horror film, the genius of this movie is that Romero will show us things that the characters don’t see, such as when the camera shows us one of the living dead walking through the front door in the background, while Barbra is in the foreground, watching Ben battle creatures out back. In another scene, we see a door that Ben has forgotten to board up. Therefore, the fear generated in this film does not come from the belief that something is going to pop out at us (especially since the creatures move so slowly), but rather from our awareness of the danger before the characters in the movie are, which made my movie-watching experience a nerve-wracking one. This mood is helped by the camera angles used in the film: all looking up at faces from above, with light striking the middle of their faces, in many cases. Also, the quiet. Once Barbra enters the house, the pounding soundtrack stops. Only twice does the music swell soon after, in both causes due to creepy discoveries. And then we hear the zombies groan outside, in the silence, and it reminded me of the Resident Evil series, which uses some of the same techniques that Romero used in regards to camera placement and silence (except that, in those games, things do jump out at you).
[WARNING: HUGE SPOILER ALERT]
And then there’s the social commentary aspect of it. While everyone else is killed by the undead, Ben survives the night, only to be shot dead by a member of a police posse the next morning (seeing movement in the house, he mistakes him for one of the undead). The grainy newspaper photos at the end of the film, as well as the use of police dogs leading up to the shooting, remind one uncomfortably of race relations at the time, particularly between Southern police officers and young black men (and photos like this one), and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Interesting note: Romero himself has said that there was no significance in casting a black actor as his lead (go here to read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Living_Dead) , yet to see Ben slap Barbra when she’s hysterical, or punch Harry after he dawdles in letting him in the house — not to mention shooting him when he goes for the gun — must have been shocking for white audiences.
[SPOILER ALERT ENDED]
Even if it hadn’t injected social commentary into the horror film format, Night of the Living Dead remains one of the most effective horror films ever made. Still as scary today as when it was released, it is on my short list of the greatest horror films ever made, alongside films like Halloween, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and King Kong. If you’ve never seen this movie before, now is a perfect time to watch it.
Here’s the entire film online: