Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Walter Reade Organization present Night of the Living Dead

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara, there’s one of them now!”

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When the Eastern third of the United States comes under the grip of an unknown phenomenon that causes the dead to return to life, a group of survivors struggle to survive the night after seeking refuge in a local farm house.

Starring Judith O’Dea as Barbara, Duane Jones as Ben, Karl Hardman as Harry, Marilyn Eastman as Helen, Keith Wayne as Tom, Judith Ridley as Judy and Kyra Schon as Karen.  Released in glorious black and white in 1968, Night of the Living Dead is directed by George A. Romero based on a screenplay by Romero and John A. Russo.

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What’s not to love about Romero’s classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead?  After the first five minutes of the film you already know that it’s Sunday, daylight savings has just begun, it’s 8:00 pm just before sundown, and that – thanks to the radio announcement heard moments before in the car – something has happened to cause a break in communication.  An event.  Something big.

Just then, something begins lurching toward the brother and sister.  Barbara’s brother begins to tease her – all of us sisters can relate, my brother taunted me with the phrase “they’re coming to get you” for years.  Didn’t yours?

Five minutes.  Romero has you in five minutes.

The Shining: spoiler alert

What better way to start a film, especially a film about the undead, than in a cemetery?  That the film is also in black and white only adds to its intoxicatingly decadent late night horror film vibe.  Would you be surprised to know that, in 1968 with the MPAA rating system not yet established, The Night of the Living Dead was shown during Saturday matinees and audience members of all ages were admitted? [1]

I know I was.

The Walter Reade Organization present Night of the Living Dead

Controversy!

Delicious, discussion-raising, thought-provoking controversy … and not just because the film’s lead actor (Jones) was black, which is notable today only when put into the context of the norms and cultural tensions of the 1960s.  Jones, who had been known as a stage actor, contributed most of his own lines, choosing to craft Ben’s dialogue and demeanor to more closely match his own.  The result is a character who is level-headed, intelligent, and extremely resourceful.

You care for Ben and his fate is felt deeply because of it.  It’s sad, then, that before his death, the actor worried he would only be recognized as Ben from the zombie movie.  After all, it is Ben’s death in Night of the Living Dead, after so much death, as the worst of it seems to be subsiding, that is the most heinous and unforgivable.  I’d say being remembered for Night of the Living Dead is only a reflection of the strength of his performance, not because his subsequent work was somehow less important.  And, at any rate, I love Jones in this film.

The Walter Reade Organization present Night of the Living Dead

What remains surprising about Night of the Living Dead, is that – by keeping the dialogue, sets, costumes, and effects low key – everything still works.  Even after more than 40 years.  Night of the Living Dead conveys a strangely beautiful, building hysteria caused by the unfolding macabre events of this one, seemingly never-ending night.

It does so by creating an irreparable tension among the survivors who find themselves trapped inside the farmhouse.  Instead of being able to pull together, to rally and help one another, the group – under tremendous pressure and constant threat of attack – tears itself apart.  The Night of the Living Dead is an allegory for a Vietnam War-era culture, losing faith in its authority figures and each other.

The Walter Reade Organization present Night of the Living Dead

The fact that the word “zombie” is never (to the best of my knowledge: correct me if I’m wrong, please) used in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead means little to the legion of fans who consider it one of the first “true” zombie classics.  It remains so not because Night of the Living Dead was the first zombie film, but rather because of its influence on the “modern pop-culture zombie archetype.”[2]

Loosely based on the concepts behind  Richard Matheson‘s I Am Legend, Romero liked the concept but decided “Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit.”[1]  By doing so, Romero takes the audience along for the ride, forcing them to see how quickly everything could unravel.  A mechanism that has become a standard storytelling device in many modern day horror films.

And of course, Matheson’s vampires are nowhere to be found, having been reimagined as something far more dubious – creatures who return from the dead and desire the consumption of human flesh.

I hadn’t seen Night of the Living Dead in years and was glad to have the opportunity to revisit the film as I edged my way through the top 10 films contained on the  50 Scariest Films of All Time list.  Night of the Living Dead makes an appearance at #6, a position it unarguably deserves not only due to the impact it had on generations of storytellers, filmmakers, and fans, but for its lasting cultural significance in the realm of horror and zombie-centric cinema.

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Did Boston.com get it right?

1.) Yes.  Work together to stay alive, and don’t box yourself into a corner.

2.) Yes.  The zombies in Night of the Living Dead are sophisticated enough to be able to open doors and use tools.

3.) Yes.  The opening sequence in which the first zombie attacks Barbara and Johnny is enough to give you a taste of what’s coming your way.

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Trailer:

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Updated trailer:

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They’re coming…

there's more to explore

Wiki facts: Night of the Living Dead

Is Night of the Living Dead rotten or fresh?

Watch or buy Night of the Living Dead on Amazon

Related: Women Killing Zombies

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REFERENCES:

[1] ”Night of the Living Dead” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Feb. 2013. Web.  20 Feb. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Living_Dead>

[2] “Zombie Movies” in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. John Clute and John Grant (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 1048, ISBN 0-312-19869-8

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One response to “Night of the Living Dead (1968)

  1. Pingback: The List to End All Horror Film Lists | c.taylor·

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