Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea
Plot: As the dead start to reanimate after a space probe gone wrong, a group of survivors shut themselves in a country home in a desperate bid for survival.
The most surprising thing about George A. Romano’s original zombie flick is just how hard-hitting and chilling the story still is. The problem with original ideas such as this one (in fact, especially as this one), is that copycat versions and sequels steal and, in turn, dilute the power of the original. For example, while the stumbling, groaning zombie is present here, it must be said that they have been refined in more recent years by gaming franchises like Resident Evil and, most recently, shows like the Walking Dead. However, as far as the narrative still goes, Romero’s original 1968 movie is packed with suspense and terror, something rare for a film as aged as this one. It proves that this film deserves its cult status, a film that has managed to stand the test of time and still provide a solid treat for new viewers, hoping to seek out where the infamous, iconic zombie began.
The story in itself is simple and almost stock zombie material. A group of survivors find themselves attacked by shuffling strange cannibals and hole up in an isolated village house as best as they can. It is the kind of story that might dissuade zombie purists as it has been mimicked so consistently throughout cinematic history. However, seeing as Romero was technically the first person to write up this set-up, praise must be given for the benefits of such an insular story. For one, it creates a steady, sensible pace to the story. Night of the Living Dead focuses on the group of survivors holed up in the house. The tension comes from the unknown, as Romero explores what zombies actually are. Bearing in mind, this is all new to the original audience, thrills like the monsters shrugging off a bullet to the chest and devouring the flesh of the dead must have been nightmarish twists, rather than the typical progression of events. It also helps us connect with the poor victims at the heart of the story. The two main cast members are interesting creations. Judith O’Dea starts the story as the main protagonist, the helpless heroine who introduces us to the threat of zombies. As the attack continues, she fades away into a catatonic and traumatised victim frozen in fear for the rest of the movie, her only dialogue mad babbling. Perhaps she might frustrate the new viewer, who might resent this childish, helpless female character, but it definitely gives Night of the Living Dead its edge. Realistically, it’s a sensible and natural reaction to have in such dangerous events and as she begins to burden the group, it becomes an interesting problem for the survivors to have. However, far more interesting is Duane Jones, the lead of the movie. This is mainly because he is a black character, something surprising for such an old movie. Romero says he was not cast politically or to make a statement, simply because he had the best audition during the casting process. Duane’s Ben is a logical, determined man desperate to survive. He is both merciless and kind, both sides shown as the climax builds up. He is the kind of hero that makes horrors like Night of the Living Dead easy to appreciate, because he is the kind of man you’d hope you would be in such a scenario. He is likeable in a heartbeat and seeing as we spend our time trapped with the characters (being an older movie, the rest are forgivably stereotypes – plucky red shirt, pretty blonde, aggressive father), it is reassuring to have people we can connect with.
Although the real draw to Night of the Living Dead is, of course, the monsters. Perhaps this is what separates the original from the follow-ups. As Romero’s version of the zombie was being toured for the first time in this movie, Romero allows lengthy segments where they are shown off. While most newer films focus on the characters, it is rare to see a movie take time to just show off their monsters. Yes, we have seen this all before, but it is astonishing to behold it in Romero’s purest vision. They are terrifying even in 1968, unstoppably hungry for flesh. As the movie progresses, we see zombies in more horrific forms. The first zombie passes for a stranger at first, but by the time we hit the finale, we get naked corpses fresh from a mortuary table and victims with half their face chewed off, still making their way to the cottage, full of trapped survivors. Something to praise Night of the Living Dead for is how few their red herring jump scares are. The zombies emerge their head surprisingly early, even if they don’t show their full capacity until the final third. There are only a few times, Romero fools the viewer with pointless surprises that don’t have an effect on the plot. And as a result, we get some iconic horror movie moments. The first time we see the zombies feasting on a victim is the stuff of iconic cinema. As a group of red shirts meet their untimely demise, the others peer out the window and see their assailants chewing on hands, intestines… Such a violent display of gore was unthinkable back then, but has laid the way for the true essence of zombie film-making. While that spooky scene is easily the most gripping visual in the movie, the most chilling for myself was the finale in the basement, when one of the survivors meets a particularly grizzly end from a reanimated relative. It is the unflinching brutality of the kill that chills, something that still hits home even all these years later.
Final Verdict: The true power of Romero’s original movie is how little the horror is diluted. He sets up one of the most iconic villains in movie history and it still wows even today.