Night of the Living Dead (1968)

  • Director: George A. RomeroNOTLD.jpg
  • Writer: John Russo, George A. Romero
  • Main Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea

‘They’re coming to get you Barbra!’

After an unprovoked attack at a graveyard, during which her brother is killed, a woman named Barbra takes refuge in a nearby farmhouse. There she is joined by Ben, who starts barricading the doors and windows whilst unsuccessfully trying to get some help (or sense!) out of the catatonic Barbra. Five more people join them there, and the group alternates between bickering amongst themselves and listening aghast to news reports of the swathe of murderous attacks that are taking place…followed by reports of cannibalism…and finally reports of the dead returning to life. The group try to decide how to deal with the hoard that has gathered outside the farmhouse, with the hope that they can make their escape to safety.

It was the passing of the horror master George A. Romero in July that provoked me to start this blog, as I found myself badly wanting to wax lyrical about his works. So, it is only fitting that my first real entry is dedicated to his masterpiece.

One of the things I love most about horror films is that they frequently show human nature at its worst and most raw. Not necessarily through the caricature baddies – your serial killer or your mad scientist – but through the reactions of the normal, everyday folk who are placed in extreme and horrific situations. The best sub-genre for this, in my opinion, is zombie movies. Frequently we start off fearing the Big Bad brain-munchers then, more often than not, its other humans that end up being the real threat. 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead are excellent examples of this, but it is Night of the Living Dead that really establishes this concept. You reach a point where the ghouls outside are almost background noise, against which the desperate living produce more on-screen tension and nasty shocks. The seven people in the farmhouse spend more energy fighting with each other, than trying to fight the ‘ghouls’ who are after them. The authorities trying to deal with the situation become little more than a careless and detached mob.

The sense of an underlying issue of race and racism in NOTLD plays a big part in provoking feelings of fear and disgust towards some of the non-zombie characters. The hero of the film, portrayed by Duane Jones, is a black man in rural America in the 1960s, surrounded by white locals. In an interview with BFI in February 2014, Romero stated that any racial subtext was unintended. In fact, he says he wished he’d realised the potential and made more of a statement in the film at the time. I find this lack of awareness a little hard to fathom, but you can contemplate this for yourself when watching. Where possible I will be trying to avoid spoilers in this blog, so I cannot elucidate my views fully here, but it is extremely difficult to watch the culmination of this film without the race of the main character resonating strongly, within the context of the period and locale.

Night of the Living Dead was not the first film to feature zombies (that was White Zombie in 1932), but NOTLD did initiate many of the zombie tropes which are accepted as movie lore now – undead cannibalistic zombies, brought back to life by some mysterious force, whose bite turns others into zombies, and who can only be truly destroyed by a significant wound to the head. It also firmly established a number of – what are now – classic horror film motifs, like a group of strangers in a remote farmhouse surrounded by the enemy, and the visual of countless grasping zombie arms breaking through boarded up windows and doors to snatch characters away. The NOTLD zombies aren’t quite as braindead as those we are perhaps used to now – they are intelligent enough to use tools and weapons, and to fear fire – and they are not actually called ‘zombies’ at any point in the film, but nonetheless Night of the Living Dead pretty much set the rules for zombies and zombie films for decades to come.

-HM

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