Night of the Living Dead (1968)


*. The most influential horror film ever made? It has to be up there. Perhaps Psycho beats it out, but otherwise this was a true watershed.
*. In the first place because it was an ultra-low budget gore movie that went on to do spectacular box office, prefiguring the later success of films like Halloween and Friday the 13th. And second because of its originality.
*. Yes, it has its borrowings — I think most prominently of the Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth, which was an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend — but the bottom line is that Romero basically invented the modern zombie. And this wasn’t just a franchise being born but an entire mythology. The Romero zombie meme spread like a virus through the media. Not right away — the zombie virus took a while to incubate — but by the end of the twentieth century we would all be living in Zombieland. There would be books, comic books, TV shows, and even mass “zombie walks” in major cities around the world. And it all got started right here.


*. It all begins with a wonderful opening shot. I’m not sure why I like this road out in the middle of nowhere so much, but I do. It seems so quiet and peaceful, but also off-kilter what with the rubbery licorice twists in the road and the strange tilt the poles have. That oddness prefigures the heavy use of the Dutch tilt in the camerawork we’re about to see.
*. The makers of the terrible 2006 remake Night of the Living Dead 3D must have liked it too, as they chose to begin and end their film with it.
*. This a movie I never get tired of watching, and I guess I’ve seen it a dozen times now. That’s a testament to just how good it is, since heaven knows this material has since been gone over endlessly (including one very good remake directed by Tom Savini).
*. On the other hand, it’s a movie that’s no longer much fun to talk about. It’s been talked to death. The story of its production on a shoestring budget (the blood was chocolate syrup) and then its lapsing into public domain due to a technical oversight (they left the copyright notice off the print) is well known. The racial and Freudian perspectives have been pointed out endlessly. And while Romero went on to direct a series of increasingly political zombie movies, I don’t see this one as being particularly political or allegorical, or at least only in the fuzzy way Romero himself has described it (he “meant to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves,” whatever that means).
*. That’s not to say a political reading is out of bounds. David Skal offers up one such, seeing the movie as “a primal allegory of haves and have-nots (the ‘living’ and ‘dead’) struggling over the control and occupancy of an emblematic house.” An interpretation offered up before the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown.


*. Why doesn’t the graveyard ghoul (played by Bil “Chilly Billy” Cardilie) eat Johnny? He’s a fresh kill.
*. As with any successful movie, it was the result of a combination of talent and luck. Casting Duane Jones was catching lightning in a bottle. Not because he gives such a great performance but because he’s so right for the part. Ditto for producer Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper. He doesn’t get as much credit as Jones, but he’s just as essential in making the movie work and the two play off against each other well.


*. It’s a film put together inexpensively but with real talent, evidenced most obviously in the photography and the speed and precision of the editing. I think it’s very well shot, with an effective use of odd angles and some great lighting, especially in the basement. It has a rough feel to it, but as with the mostly amateur cast this only adds to the effect.


*. What draws the Coopers upstairs? Television! Oh boy! We’re coming right up! Hey, it even brings Barbra out of herself for a minute.
*. Everyone wants to watch and see . . . what? I guess they’re looking for an explanation of what’s going on, but the radio was already giving them that. No, what they want to see is the horror that’s just outside their door. They’re like modern crowds at concerts and sporting events who spend all their time hunched over their phones, watching on a small screen the show that’s going on right in front of them, or holding their cameras up to take pictures.
*. Yes, a black man is the hero. But there’s a negative side to the ledger. Racial progress is balanced by stereotyped gender roles. It’s not just the uselessness of Barbra (where is that a common spelling of Barbara?), who sits in a catatonic state throughout most of the picture. Note also how Tom says to Harry that if he helps to board up the house there will be “three of us” to do the work. It’s just assumed that the ladies are useless.
*. The one part of the movie I wish they’d left out is the street interview in Washington D.C. That doesn’t work and it makes no sense at all.
*. If the phone is “dead out” then how do you get a recorded message, Tom?


*. Originally the character of Ben was to have been a truck driver, but Jones wanted to play him as a more educated type. Which worked out well, but I’m not sure I understand Tom explaining that he has to be the one to go out and get gas because Ben can’t handle the truck (that is, the truck which Ben had driven to the house in the first place). And are we to believe that Ben doesn’t know how to operate a gas pump?
*. Was this the first movie to use squibs (the exploding packets of blood used to represent gunshot wounds)? The DVD commentary suggests it was, but I’ve heard the same claim made for Bullitt (released the same year). According to other sources the 1955 Polish film Pokolenie (A Generation) beat them both. I guess the Poles win, but I’m still not sure what the first American film to use them was.
*. The final montage of still photos is brilliantly effective, marking the final transformation of a newsreel-type documentary into photojournalese. And yet we know that the real story behind the photos is one that will never be told. As grim as they are, they’re a media lie.
*. My own take on the ending is that it underlines the central, apocalyptic message of all zombie horror: that those living dead out there are us, that hell really is other people. You can call them the Other, or mindless consumers, or a subhuman proletariat of have-nots on the rise, but the fact is that in a neo-Darwinist universe we’re going to have to kill everyone else or be destroyed by them. That’s life (and death) in a dog-eat-dog world. And so when Ben comes up from the basement it makes no difference that the zombies have all been killed off. There are still a bunch of other people outside looking to kill him. Not just strangers, but neighbours, co-workers, perhaps even family members. So get a gun, build a bunker, and head for the hills: they’re all out to get you.


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