Retro Review: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
A Film Review

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 29 October 2010
Category: Screen > Film > Reviews
Tags: #horror, #zombies Comments View Comments

The zombie apocalypse will be televised as the dead rise and begin to feast on the living in Night Of The Living Dead, a classic zombie horror movie that shocked audiences when it was first released and, decades later, continues to resonate with contemporary audiences and have a heavy influence on pop culture.

Night Of The Living DeadIn 1968 director George A Romero released a small, independent, low-budget movie that, 40 years later, is an iconic piece of filmmaking. Not only did it set a benchmark for future zombie movies and determine one of two templates for what we have now come to understand as typical "zombie behaviour" but, due to an error by the original distributors, who forgot to place a copyright disclaimer on the prints (a requirement at the time that was necessary to secure copyright), the film fell into the public domain, allowing it to be stored, copied, given to friends, remixed, and reinterpreted at anyone's leisure. The result is an important work that has remained in the public consciousness, rather than dropping into a forgotten B-movie pile, and has also moulded pop culture in the process.

Night Of The Living DeadThe story begins with siblings Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) driving to a graveyard in rural Pennsylvania in the US to visit their father's grave, which is several hours' drive away from where they now live. Their mother is too old to complete the journey, which has become an annual family ritual, and the siblings discuss their late start on this particular occasion, the increasing purposelessness of the ritual, and the fact that they will now be returning home in the dark. At the graveside, Johnny teases Barbra about her fear of graveyards and the potential of "them" coming to get her, which becomes foreshadowing as a pale stranger drifting nearby soon attacks. Confused and distraught, Barbra flees and is pursued by the stranger. She eventually finds herself at a farm house, and is soon joined by another character, Ben (Duane Jones), who arrives at the house at high speed in a truck as he's fleeing his own collection of what the film later names as "ghouls". (The term "zombie" is never uttered in the film.)

Night Of The Living DeadIn the house, Barbra collapses in shock and Ben is left to board it up and defend them both. They are later joined by more characters who add extra dimensions to the strong character-driven scenes as there are arguments and intense clashes of wills and personalities, which is a great reminder that these people are still only human and prone to pick fights at the most inappropriate moments, which is a great contrast to the undead horror that is mounting outside.

The casting of Ben is interesting, as he is a black man and it's a lead role (and a "hero" role), which is something that was almost unheard of in the 1960s. George A Romero has repeatedly stated that he chose Duane Jones because he was the best actor for the role, but that choice had notable consequences for the movie and the story, and these consequences continue to resonate to this day, making this film a fascinating historical artifact, as well as a surprisingly poignant piece of art. This is especially so in a few places in the film, including how one can interpret the ending, which is unexpected and incredibly clever, and which also becomes a form of social commentary due to the fact that Ben is black. I don't imagine that it would have had the same kind of impact had he been white.

Night Of The Living Dead

The entire movie is shot in black and white on 35mm film, and the story plays out in a largely deserted setting. These choices were made for budget reasons but the result is gritty, stark visuals and a sense of isolation, all of which help to heighten the tension considerably. One must also remember that this film was made long before gratuitousness became normal and we became desensitised, so the few moments of horrific action interspersed among the slower character-driven scenes would really have been shocking to audiences at the time of the film's original release. Even now, though, there are a few climactic moments, if you are not expecting them, that build true terror, which is a testament to the skill of the filmmakers.

Night Of The Living DeadThe sound is crisp (or certainly was on the version that I downloaded) and "mundane" sound effects - footsteps, objects and furniture being moved around, and so forth - are very clear and noticeable, in contrast to most movies where this is dampened somewhat. I found this complemented the movie well and added to the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a quiet house in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, in a "things that go bump in the night" kind of way. The music is largely stock music, also for budgetary reasons, but the choices are excellent and they are used effectively to heighten tension to complement action, but not in an overblown way that is customary in contemporary movies.

The film is not without its problems, although on the whole it's a solid piece of work. At the beginning there are a few moments that utilise cheap scares, though this thankfully doesn't continue through the rest of the film as it settles into a combination of strong character-driven scenes and realistic action sequences. There's also a point at which the electricity to the house is switched off, yet there's enough light in the windowless basement for us to see the characters and for them to see each other.

Night Of The Living DeadOn a more controversial note, which over the years has been the subject of countless feminist essays, I found the female characters - Barbra especially, in her "catatonic" state - to be annoyingly passive and ineffective as people in a terrible situation who need to utilise their wits to survive. The - at times terse - dynamic between the married couple the Coopers (played by Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) is great but even Helen Cooper suffers at times from "dramatic, swooning ineffectiveness", as I'm choosing to call it, which is so contrary to how she is otherwise portrayed as a smart, emotionally strong woman. This all bothered me greatly and it makes the film hard to watch because you just want to shout at them to stop behaving so weakly and pathetically.

This aside (as well as the constant smoking that goes on every time a character gets upset, which comes across as amusingly anachronistic for modern audiences), Night Of The Living Dead is an outstanding film that remains relevant and topical, even as it explores otherworldly themes. It should be on the must-watch list for serious horror fans as well as film aficionados interested in examining how tight filmmaking and well constructed character-driven work can result in a lasting, polished product.

Night Of The Living Dead is in the public domain, and therefore can be downloaded and watched legally for free. See the links below for more details.

Watch Online Night Of The Living Dead (1968) Share
Streaming Video Watch Online: YouTube
• Full movie, streaming, HD

Download Download: Internet Archive
• Various options for PC, DVD, and iPod
Download Download: Internet Archive, Blu-Ray Version
• Various options for PC, DVD, and iPod Opinion
Rating: 8/10
    They come for the brains
    Rural Pennsylvania
    Is best avoided

Key Facts: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Year: 1968
Running Time: 96 minutes (approx)
Genre: Action, Drama, Horror
Format: Feature; Full screen 1.33:1; Black and white
Language: English
Country: USA
Director: George A Romero
Duane Jones ... Ben
Judith O'Dea ... Barbra
Karl Hardman ... Harry Cooper
Marilyn Eastman ... Helen Cooper
Keith Wayne ... Tom
Judith Ridley ... Judy
Karl Hardman ... producer
Russell Streiner ... producer
John A Russo ... writer
George A Romero ... writer
Cinematography: George A Romero
Bruce Capristo ... hair stylist
Karl Hardman ... makeup artist

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