Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Zombies have been a movie staple for some time, but Night of the Living Dead completely changed the whole idea of what a zombie is. In the movies of the 1930s, and even through the 1960s, being a zombie was a living death rather than being part of the living dead. It was based off of the idea that a certain mixture of chemicals could render a person into a catatonic state to where they were obedient and could work, but could do little else. The horror of this was portrayed in movies like The Walking Dead and White Zombie and countless others of varying qualities.
George Romero's debut film specifically never mentions zombies, and that is for good reason. Zombies were still human and, in most cases, removing them from their drugged state returned them to their normal selves. Romero's creatures are actual corpses, risen from the dead and imbued with an overwhelming urge to consume living creatures - largely human beings. Not only that, but a mere bite could cause an infection that would cause the victim to die and turn, and anyone who died of any cause other than severe brain trauma would return to life. Due to that fact there was only one way to kill Romero's creatures: shoot them in the head.
While ever the politically conscious director, Romero meant for this just be a tense and frightening film. He worked locally in advertising in Pittsburgh, knew a number of people that were local actors and newscasters, and used that network of friends to make a movie that often looks and feels grander in scale than it usually is. Partially he was inspired by Herke Harvey, who had written and directed the movie Carnival of Souls, who did something similar with a small budget and a few investors. The cast, largely unknowns outside of the Pittsburgh area, and Romero never had any idea that their little film would someday result in additional sequels, influence a number of comics, films and television shows as well as songs and toys. Unfortunately, due to a slip-up with the copyright notice and some bad distribution deals, Romero saw little money from what would be one of the most successful independent pictures ever.
On a day in April Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their father's grave. When Johnny starts teasing her about being afraid of the cemetery she initially brushes it off, and goes to apologize to a man (S. William Hinzman) that she thinks may have taken offense to Johnny's teasing. When the man grabs her Johnny tries to defend his sister, but is overcome, and Barbra barely gets escapes to a farmhouse nearby. She starts seeing other strange people advance, and she slowly begins to lose her bearings as things escalate.
She is ultimately saved by Ben (Duane Jones), a man who arrives looking for gas for his truck so he can get somewhere safe. He boards up the house to keep the others out, but soon discovers that there was someone in the house the whole time: young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) as well as a boisterous, but cowardly, man named Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). With radio and television reports growing more desperate, and with what are now known to be flesh-eating corpses besieging the house, the group tries to both survive the dead and themselves as the promise of rescue approaches.
Night of the Living Dead unintentionally became another first in the movie industry: the first horror film, and in fact one of the few actual movies of any type at the time, to have a black man as the lead. The role had never been intended that way, and what was rewritten was done specifically because Jones was an experienced stage actor and could do more with the role than it originally demanded. For that reason, although Ben the first black lead in a film like this, Romero never concentrates on his skin color, but rather on his actions. For a man known for his political commentary, particularly as the series went on, Romero to his credit didn't trumpet this achievement but rather just let it happen.
Since most of the cast had acting experience they are not as stiff as one would expect. Hardman does overact a bit, but the character of Harry Cooper kind of needs it. Marilyn Eastman is probably the best here after Jones, although Judith O'Dea sells a shell-shocked Barbra while not falling into delivering a campy, over-the-top performance. Keith Wayne is the only one that stands out as being particularly bad, but he goes back and forth in competence when it comes to his role. Romero cowrote Night of the Living Dead with Jon Russo and, though a good portion of the dialogue was improvised, the writing is often quite sharp. It helped that Hardman and Eastman where a married acting couple that worked well together.
For the limited budget the makeup (done by Eastman) is pretty good, the scenes of gore are revolutionary for the time (including one of the first uses of squibs when it came showing people getting shot) and the uncomfortable angles and different combinations of light and shadow add to the mood. At one point Romero and Russo did get enough money to possibly film in color, but because it would mean refilming some of the scenes they decided to stick with black and white, and it really helps hide some of the flaws as well heighten the tension. That doesn't mean that the movie doesn't show its budget and get a bit rough at times, with harsh jump cuts where scenes were trimmed and sound and dubbing that is frequently out of sync.
This was one of the last movies before the MPAA rating system kicked in, so a number of young children in 1968 got exposed to this as a Saturday matinee, much to their parents' chagrin. However it also became a drive-in staple, and it was a film that stuck with audiences. While the films of Herschel Gordon Lewis and a few others anticipated modern horror, Night of the Living Dead is truly the dividing line between the creature features and monster films and what the genre would become over the next few decades. Despite the fact that its quick fall into public domain meant most of the prints out there are still questionable, it has endured, and in many ways still seems quite fresh today despite it looking every bit of its age.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Time: 96 minutes
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon
Director: George Romero