Shot in black & white and released in 1968 during the height of The Civil Rights Movement, Night of the Living Dead became a classic.
This eensy-teensy, low budget film about flesh-eating zombies and bickering human beings, was selected by the Library of Congress for safe-keeping in the National Film Registry. It’s been remade, colorized, sequelized (coining that new term) and copied – but never, ever duplicated.
Not too shabby for a film which cost $114,000 to make.
For reasons unknown (with some speculation present), the recent dead are returning to life to attack and feed upon humanity. Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (co-producer Russ Streiner) are visiting a family grave in the Pennsylvania countryside – when they’re attacked by one of the “ghouls” (the term zombie was never used in the film). Barbara flees on foot and finds “safety” in a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. Once a stranger named Ben (Duane Jones) also takes refuge in the home, they become surrounded by dozens (hundreds?) of flesh-eaters. When they discover other survivors in the building’s basement, the danger of the zombies becomes practically secondary to a barrage of bitter arguments, debilitatingly poor communication and flaring egos – culminating in one of the most ironic endings in film history.
The film was the first in a long series of “undead” films from the late George A. Romero (thus christened “The Zombie Godfather”). There have also been three remakes of the property (including a Tom Savini-directed 1990 version, with a screenplay by Romero himself).
Some of the performances present are a little underwhelming, while others are simply over-the-top (enjoyably chewing the scenery was the late Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper). The rest of the ensemble cast finds varying qualities somewhere in the middle. But my personal faves for performance here?
Duane Jones and Russ Streiner.
Jones brings us an engaging lead character. His Ben is no-nonsense, intelligent and feisty. It’s been the topic of conversation in the decades since the film’s release, that the fact that he is an African-American actor – was somehow groundbreaking. Romero has been quoted in numerous interviews, including this one from thewrap.com and an article by Joe Kane:
“Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like The Defiant Ones. Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script.”
So even after all of the endless essays on the significance of casting a black man in the lead – that a black man’s presence was incidental. He was simply the best man for the job. And it’s a fantastic choice. Jones brings an immense amount of authenticity to Ben. He’s just a regular Joe in a dangerous and surreal situation. And even though he’s resourceful and smart, he’s also flappable. One of my favorite acting moments from Jones, is when he loses patience with Barbara’s catatonia and uselessness, snapping at her and then catching himself.
And to see Ben take control of the situation, even with the equally strong personality of Harry Cooper opposite him – makes you instantly like Ben. He’s easy to root for, and so much of that credit goes to Duane Jones’ acting abilities.
And then there’s Streiner as Barbara’s smart-ass brother Johnny. He doesn’t have a ton of screen-time, basically appearing in what is a prologue, but he leaves such an impression – perfectly natural in every line delivery, my favorite being his reminiscences of when he and Barbara visited this same cemetery when they were kids. And of course, he stunningly delivers the chilling and iconic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
Judith O’Dea does a fine job as the shell-shocked female lead. The thing is, it’s a poorly written character, so she has so very little to do. It’s a wasted opportunity to engage us with a strong female presence, but this would ultimately be remedied with the 1990 remake, and Patricia Tallman’s “Ripley-esque” version of Barbara.
There are plenty of memorable sequences in Night of the Living Dead – many of them creepy, frightening and grotesque.
But for me, nothing quite digs into the primal well of unease, like the moments involving young Karen (Kyra Schon) and her on-screen mother Helen (Marilyn Eastman). The idea of the scene and the way in which it’s carried out (soundtrack and cinematography) has made for an ever-lasting moment in horror – which one could conceivably rank in some sort of top-ten list: The Nastiest Moments of Horror, perhaps joining Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene in 1960’s Psycho and the “crucifix masturbation” sequence of Friedkin’s The Exorcist. These images stick with you.
Night of the Living Dead also contains some of the most unsettling images of flesh-eating – certainly for this time in cinema. Current audiences may find this grisly sequence tame – when compared to the gut-munching of something like The Walking Dead. Frankly, I would have loved to have grown up in that era – to experience these scenes of cannibalism first-hand and in a “simpler” time. As is, however, the entire “let’s go get the gasoline” scene is harrowing and disturbing.
With okay to great performances, a gritty, almost documentary aesthetic and our first introduction to Romero’s vision of a flesh-eating monster apocalypse, Night of the Living Dead holds up beautifully – even 50 years after its release.
A classic and a ground-breaker (from the depths of the very graves themselves) – it’s always a good time for a revisit with these bickering humans, their senseless in-fighting and the threat of ghouls just outside the window.
The film is available almost anywhere and in countless versions (plenty of credit goes to the now-legendary copyright snafu prior to the film’s release) with the elite Criterion Collection putting out its most recent incarnation. I’ve yet to pick up this latest version – but my collection will not be complete until I have it in my grubby, rotting little hands.