Fifty-four years ago a low-budget horror movie called “Night of the Living Dead” was released. The director, George Romero, and everyone involved did not anticipate how this film would become a horror movie classic, inspiring endless imitations and homages through to the present day.
“Night of the Living Dead” was by no means the first zombie movie, but it did establish certain traditions that have stood the test of time – the slow, shuffling walk, the cannibalistic tendencies, and their vulnerability to fire and bullets to the head. Its plot is basic – a small group of people in an isolated farmhouse fight off the zombies as well as each other. But is this a good movie? Well, yes and no. (There will be some spoilers, so be warned.)
Let’s talk zombies. The film starts (appropriately) in a cemetery, and it starts small (with one reanimated corpse), an executed criminal that two workmen are about to bury. When he climbs out of his coffin the men (understandably) run away, leaving the zombie crim to stumble about until he runs into Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother. (It is interesting to note that the zombies are never referred to as such in this film. They are called ‘ghouls’ or ‘flesh eaters’). Information about them is mostly disseminated though the devices of radio and tv, though the apparent reason of radiation from Venus makes just as much sense as the character of the pastor at the end and his insistence the whole thing was demonic. (Fun fact – in the scene where they are observed munching on bits of barbecued people, apparently the actors are eating roast ham covered in chocolate sauce. Apparently, it was a bit of a joke on set that the actors required no zombie makeup because the concoction was so revolting it was making them ill.) There are inconsistencies with their depiction – on two separate occasions there are corpses that should be reanimating and don’t, for no apparent reason. They don’t seem to like light, and yet wander about in daylight. The character of Ben says they make no sound, and yet later in the film they are moaning and groaning. But are the zombies really the main point, or are they just the catalyst for a very different discussion?
Barbara’s flight from the graveyard to the farmhouse leaves her in a catatonic state, so when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, he can not get her to communicate. (It was one of the first films to star an African-American actor). Ben is a smart man who thinks on his feet. They soon discover that there are five people hiding in the cellar. Harry (Karl Hardman) shouts that they must all go back to the cellar, an idea immediately vetoed by Ben who does not want them left without an escape route. Harry is more concerned about himself than anyone else, and he is antagonistic and resentful. Tom (Keith Wayne) has followed Harry’s lead, but now agrees with Ben, and seems to be easily swayed by whoever is the strongest personality. Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) seems unimpressed by her husband’s bluster, and Tom’s girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley) believes that no action is the best action. The child Karen (Kyra Schon) is sick. The bloody bandage on her arm tells the audience she has been bitten by a zombie long before it is mentioned, and I think even at the time the film was made this would have been an obvious red flag. When it is necessary to work together to survive these characters are quite incapable of doing so, which seals their fate. Had they kept their heads and worked together, they could have escaped, which in my opinion is the real story of this film, that people are their own worst enemies.
A visit to IMDB will give you an alarmingly long list of technical mistakes made in this film, so I won’t go into that here. Romero’s direction is excellent, but the main let downs in this would be in the script and the acting. Romero, along with John Russo, wrote the script, and the characters are not as well fleshed out as they could have been. The female characters especially do not fare well. We get little feel for Helen and Judy beyond what I have already mentioned. All we know about Harry is that he’s angry and scared. We know nothing about him other than this. Tom is a nice guy who does what he’s told. He’s brave. Again, that’s it. Barbara starts well. We know she and her brother are there for their family, we know she is devout, and we know she is smart (releasing the handbrake on the car and allowing the slope of the road to help her get away from the zombie is good thinking.) While her shock reaction is psychologically sound it has the unfortunate effect of turning her into a body on the couch for the remainder of the story. She is wasted. Ben fares the best of all the characters. We know he’s very intelligent, he thinks on his feet and under pressure, he’s a leader, and he’s a decent man (the moment where he finds shoes for Barbara indicates this). There are inconsistencies in his character though, as he is shown to be very smart and yet does some obviously dumb things, such as failing to shoot zombies in the head even though he knows he needs to shoot them in the head.
The acting is very uneven. Judith O’Dea as Barbara is quite wooden in the opening scene. She improves after the attack of the zombie, and her escape from the zombie and journey to the farmhouse is an excellent sequence. However as previously stated she is then consigned to the couch, so O’Dea has very little else to do. Keith Wayne and Judith Riley (Tom and Judy) are terrible, very wooden. It’s hard to tell whether Marilyn Eastman as Helen is any good or not as she has so little to do, and Karl Hardman as Harry has only one thing to do, which is to be angry and scared, making his performance very one note and without nuance. Duane Jones as Ben is the best performer here, though he has more to work with than everyone else. I will mention Russell Streiner, who plays Barbara’s brother Johnny, as in his one speaking scene he is far more animated than O’Dea, and he is of course the character who utters the oft-quoted line “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” This is also a lovely example of irony, as moments after uttering this a zombie does, in fact, come to get them.
SPOILER ALERT! Ben is the last man standing after the zombie attack, only to fall victim to friendly fire when a group of civilians and police arrive, shooting the zombies and burning the bodies. Romero always insisted that this was not intended as a racial statement. It makes such a good statement that it is hard to believe it was not intentional. After all, the black character is smarter than the white characters, outlasts the white characters, only to be shot by the ‘establishment’. The closing credits roll over stills of Ben’s body being dragged out with meat hooks to be burned with the other bodies, a tragic and horrifying image. I do have an issue with the logic of this moment. Surely someone as smart as Ben, hearing the men outside and the gunshots, would shout out to them that he was there and not a zombie, instead of peering out and making himself a target. It’s an example of a character being written inconsistently to advance the plot, whatever the intent.
“Night of the Living Dead” certainly deserves its status as a classic. It has had a huge effect on horror films in the fifty years since its release. It has a great many flaws, but it remains a horror cinema icon.