*Originally written in 2004
The beginning of the modern horror film, and along with Psycho, the most influential horror movie ever. Drawing on many of the early monster movies of the 1930s, with a seemingly unstoppable beast tracking down prey, it enhanced the atmosphere of those films for the new wave audience. Aside from that, NNOTLD is a breed apart from anything else released at the time. Tonnes of gore, shocks the cinema goer had never experienced, unexpected twists and turns, downbeat, scary, with unusual protagonists and new ways of story telling, the world didn’t know what had hit it.
It was the late sixties. The Vietnam War was proving that North America was not all-powerful, and asking questions about who were the good guys, about motivation, about the human race as a whole. Anti-war protesters were being beaten and gassed for what they believed, while America was attempting to destroy another place…for what they believed. Hippies were spreading a message of love, new ideas were flourishing in all areas, from making peace to making war, and technology was becoming more important and influential. The result was that the good guys were often over-looked, good deeds were mostly forgotten, and many lives were thrown away aimlessly and without purpose. Those who survived wondered why, and had no clue why they were still here. It seemed like outside, bigger forces were at play, and that unseen beings were controlling the public. NOTLD was released.
A brother and sister are travelling to their parents’ graves in the countryside, a trip that has become an annoyance rather than a mark of respect. Johnny taunts his sister Barbara like he used to as a kid, scaring her, saying the infamous line ‘they’re coming to get you, Barbara’. A man walks towards them and attacks without warning. Johnny is killed and Barbara flees to a nearby farmhouse,entering a near comatose state. Another man arrives, Ben, and begins to board up the doors and windows, telling Barbara that he too was attacked by a number of people, and witnessed a town coming under siege. The attackers seem to have no regard for their own safety, and feel no pain. Soon people who had been hiding in the basement appear, and together the group try to figure out what to do. The TV says the attackers can be killed by a heavy blow to the head, and seem to be scared of fire. It seems that, inexplicably, the dead are coming back to life and eating the flesh of the living, who in turn become zombies. The group argue over the best solution, tensions arise, and all the while, the number of zombies outside grows, waiting.
The film has great depth and terrific acting from amateurs. No-one is safe from harm here, and it seems that the group’s downfall is because they are human and cannot work as a group – personal interest and opinion always interferes. The zombies do not argue, they will happily wait for their chance and strike with stunning force, as a unit. If you take down one, there are 10 more closing in. The group could have escaped earlier, by running past the few zombies, but it seems the house will become their coffin. If they had not fought among themselves they may have had a chance but even then, where would they have gone?
Ben as the main character is seen as revolutionary because he was an African American, but this was not in the script -he just happened to be best for the part. Romero has since become a champion of the disenfranchised – women, children, other races. Duane Jones’s performance is strong. Judith o’ Dea as Barbara does not have much to do, but is good, and the other stand out is Karl Hardman as Cooper. Cooper has a wife and injured daughter and feels Ben is endangering them with his schemes. Tom and Judy are a local farm couple, innocents who try to think clearly and are punished for it. Indeed it seems that when a good plan comes around, it is stopped in its tracks with devastating results. Though human error is the major mistake in a darkly ironic twist.
Although it was filmed in BW, the gore is there. People are eaten and burned, flesh is chewed on the full screen, bullets are driven through chests. The shocks are genuinely shocking, and the film’s atmosphere is claustrophobic and we sense the dwindling of hope. The overall tone of the film is stark, and it seems the future only holds violence – the news reel footage echoing what American housewives and kids were starting to be exposed to on the news. The film struggled to find distributors, and was shown in matinées to unsuspecting youngsters – we can only imagine their reactions. Truly a horror classic, and one of the most nightmarish films ever made, with a view of the world as a terrible place filled with pain and stupidity. We cannot overcome creatures which cannot think. Death is shown as a creeping inevitability, and the good guys almost always lose.
Hmm, for one of my old half-assed reviews, that was actually pretty good, and reminds me again how prescient the film is in today’s world. Almost fifty years since its release and we still haven’t learned. Let us know in the comments what you think of Night Of The Living Dead!