One of the best and most influential horror films ever made, George Romero packed Night Of The Living Dead with shocking horror, brilliant filmmaking, complex themes, and a controversial social commentary of the times.
Night Of The Living Dead opens up with a classic scene, where Barbara and her brother are visiting a grave. As a man stumbles towards them Barbara?s brother taunts her with “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”, and “There’s one of them now! They’re coming to get you!”. Little did he know, the man really was one of “them” and he really was coming to get Barbara. The man, one of the most infamous zombies ever created played by Bill Hinzman, attacked the two killing Barbara’s brother. Barbara escapes to a nearby farmhouse, where the rest of the film takes place and Romero would escalate the already tense atmosphere.
As the numbers of living dead grow, more people make their way to seek refuge in the same farmhouse as Barbara. The next character we meet is Ben, an African American, whose character provides a foundation for one of the more prevalent cultural and political themes found throughout the movie. Ben contradicts the norm of the time for black roles in films. His character is a strong, intelligent, and well-spoken black man, who ends up taking lead of the 7 strangers who arrive at the farmhouse. By casting a black lead, Romero takes a stand in the Civil Rights movement, which was escalating and growing tenser at the time. It also is a way for Romero to defy the norms of Hollywood where Night Of The Living dead would never have been possible, and a black man would never have been cast as the lead. Two more couples soon arrive, one with a daughter who has been bitten by the zombies and is growing sicker. Together they try to figure out what is happening and how they will stay alive. Nobody really knows where these creatures came from. All they have to go by are uninformed radio reports of a crashing space probe and meteor dust harboring a deadly virus. Eventually they realize the only thing that will help them is to come to terms that this IS happening, and they have to figure a way to save themselves.
Cooper, a middle aged white man and father of the bitten daughter, argues with Ben about their plans to stay alive. He insists that hiding out in the basement and waiting it out is the best thing to, while Ben wants to fuel up his truck and find a safer place. When the rest of the group sides with Ben, who is taking charge of the situation, Cooper becomes obviously pissed off about being told what to do by a smarter black man. Not willing to rationalize, Cooper takes his family and hides out in the basement. Ben and the rest of the strangers search for keys to the locked fuel pump outside the house that will fill up his truck and allow their escape. All the while more and more of the walking dead surround the house trying to force their way in. They finally find a set of keys and frantically run through the hordes of zombies gathering outside, only to find that they have the wrong keys and won’t be getting out of here any time soon.
Ben is stuck trying to handle a helpless Barbara, timid housewife, a desperate and rash young couple, and a headstrong Cooper. The inability of our group to work together leads them through a disastrous and horrifying night. Romero’s zombies are not very intimidating, after you get over the fact that they are the living dead. The zombies are slow and not too bright, which would lead you to think that a group of seven people would easily be able to form a plan of escape. It turns out that the living and their inability of working together and unified efforts becomes the real threat. This theme makes itself more apparent in the next two installments of the dead series, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead. Romero sent out a message to the world as a whole, we are our own worst enemy. When day finally breaks we have a dramatic and emotional ending as Ben emerges from the house, only to solidify that message.
Romero hits you hard with other political themes which can be analyzed forever, but it was more than just a political commentary dressed in a horror movies skin, it is at is foundation true horror movie. The world is being overrun by zombies, and the only way to stop them is to destroy their brain. To me zombies are one of the scariest ideas ever. Imagine children devouring their parents, your friends and family tearing at your flesh. Imagine having to unload a shotgun into the head of someone you once knew and loved. Let’s face it, zombies are scary, and Romero’s zombie took them to a whole new level of horror. His army of the undead wasn’t under the control of someone else or given their powers through voodoo, these creatures “thought” for themselves and they had only one thought on their mind, dinner. Romero redefined the rules for zombies, much how Bram Stoker rewrote the vampire and evolved it from the early Nosferatu into what we know today. There was a shocking level of gore and violence in Night Of The Living Dead for it’s time, and the uneasy atmosphere Romero creates is still just as strong today as it ever was.
Even though Romero lacked professional support normally found in higher budget films, he created a masterpiece that would live on far longer than most of it’s Hollywood adversaries. It was one of the earliest success stories in do-it-yourself filmmaking, and set the way for countless other independent horror filmmakers.
Night Of The Living Dead is a masterpiece, still holding strong today. Romero took his views of the world poured them into 96 minutes of film, creating one of the most important and widely recognized revolutionary films of it’s kind, without which I would be scared to see where the horror film would be today. If you haven’t seen it, go get it now! If you have, watch it again, there is something new lurking around every corner for you to discover in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead.