For those of you that know me, you know that I am going to really enjoy the next couple of movies I watch. I honestly don’t think anyone had any idea just how much of an impact George Romero would have on the movie industry when he released this movie in 1968. First and foremost, even though they weren’t actually called zombies in the movie, it basically redefined the definition of the word as prior to this movie, a zombie was generally the term used for someone enslaved by a Voodoo witch doctor but now stands for the undead, flesh eating monster that everyone knows. It also changed how people made horror movies as some of them would begin to have more gore in them, eventually giving rise to the slasher genre. So given my love for horror movies, this would naturally be something I would want to watch and I fell in love with Night Of The Living Dead after my first viewing of it and I have been a fan of Romero’s films ever since.
The plot: Barbra and Johnny have driven up to a rural Pennsylvania cemetery to visit their father’s grave on behalf of their mother, though Johnny complains about it the entire time. As it starts to thunder and lightning, Barbra starts getting nervous and Johnny teases her about it, saying “They’re coming to get you , Barbra.” Noticing a man approaching them, Johnny pretends he is a monster and leaves Barbra alone but as Barbra follows Johnny, the man attacks her. Johnny pulls the man off of Barbra and struggles with him but is knocked unconscious when he hits his head on a grave marker. The strange man continues after Barbra, who gets back into the car but when she is unable to start it, she releases the emergency brake and the car starts rolling down the hill. When it crashes against a tree, she sees the man still pursuing her and starts running, eventually reaching a nearby, and seemingly deserted, farmhouse. Heading inside and locking the door, Barbra starts to explore the house and tries to use the phone to call for help but finds the phone lines are dead. Seeing more strange people approaching, Barbra heads upstairs only to see a dead body at the top of the stairs and she runs outside, but runs into Ben, who rushes her back inside. Ben starts asking Barbra questions but she is starting to go into shock so when she doesn’t answer, Ben decides to try and find some food in the house and then they can leave. When two of the creatures start smashing the headlights on Ben’s truck, Ben runs out and hits them repeatedly in the head with a tire iron, killing them, then heads back inside and kills another one that had been sneaking up on Barbra. Ben takes the body outside and, seeing more creatures approaching, sets it on fire, which seems to keep the creatures at bay. Heading back inside, Ben finds some tools and tells Barbra to help find some wood they can use to board up the doors and windows so they can hold out until help arrives. As they are working, Ben starts talking about his first encounter with the things and how they attacked a diner he was at and Barbra talks about the cemetery and then starts demanding they go look for Johnny but after Ben tells her Johnny is dead and slaps her to get her to stop panicking, she passes out. Ben turns on the radio and continues working on securing the house, while the news broadcaster talks about the murders, with people calling the killers assassins, and Ben pours some lighter fluid onto a chair and takes it outside and sets it ablaze to keep the creatures away from the house. Finishing securing the house, Ben looks around and finds a rifle and some bullet and tells Barbra, who is coming around, that he is going to check upstairs but to scream if she sees anything. After Ben heads upstairs, Barbra notices the cellar door opening and screams when two men, Harry Cooper and Tom, come out and tell Barbra to calm down. Ben comes downstairs and yells at the two men for hiding in the cellar and not helping them but Harry argues that they were safe down there and didn’t want to risk those things getting them. After explaining the situation, Harry says they should all head back to the cellar where it is safe but Ben argues that it is a death trap since there is only one exit and that they should stay upstairs and only go to the cellar when there is no other choice. When a zombie manages to reach through one of the boarded windows, Ben shoots it but it keeps trying to get them until he manages to shoot it in the head. Harry again says they should go in the cellar and says that he won’t open the door again but Tom decides to stay with Ben and tells his girlfriend Judy to come upstairs as well. Harry goes back in the cellar, despite Tom pleading with him that they stand a better chance working together. He talks with his wife Helen, who was tending to their injured child Karen, and when Helen hears that they have a radio upstairs, she argues that they should go upstairs and finally convinces Harry to do so when Tom says Judy can watch Karen for a while. Ben finds a TV upstairs and has Tom help him bring it downstairs, where they watch a news broadcast about what is going on. The news reporter says that people are coming back to life and killing and eating people. Speculation starts to form among the reporters about if a space probe that was detonated in the atmosphere when it was detected to be contaminated with a strange radiation. When the reporter announces that safe houses are being set up for people to seek shelter at and Ben says that if they can get the key to the fuel pump in the back, they can fill up the truck and head to the safe house. Ben and Tom head out to the fuel pump while Harry tosses moltov cocktails at the zombies from a second floor window. As Ben and Tom head out, Judy decides to go with them and they make their way to the fuel pump. At the pump, Tom accidentally sets the truck on fire and as he tries to drive it away from the pump, the truck explodes, killing Tom and Judy. Ben makes his way back to the house only to find the door locked and Harry unwilling to open it so Ben is forced to kick it in, then he and Harry work on securing the door. Once finished, Ben proceeds to punch Harry for leaving him out there while outside, the creatures begin feeding on the dead bodies of Tom and Judy. As they watch a news report, the reporter tells them that destroying the brain or setting the ghouls on fire is the only way to kill them as the news then goes to a mobile reporter who is talking with a police chief leading a hunting party that is going through the area killing the ghouls and searching for survivors. When the power suddenly goes out, the ghouls start swarming the house and trying to get in and Harry panics and grabs the gun but Ben struggles with him and ends up shooting him in the gut. Harry stumbles downstairs into the cellar while upstairs, the ghouls start breaking through the barricade. Barbra snaps out of her shock long enough to rescue Helen but when she sees Johnny has become one of the ghouls, she starts screaming as Johnny grabs her and drags her outside to be swarmed by the rest of the creatures. Helen heads downstairs and finds Karen feeding on Harry before she approaches Helen and kills her then heads up the cellar to try and attack Ben. Ben is forced to give up on the house and heads to the cellar and barricades the door, then kills Harry and Helen as they start to come back to life. The next morning, Ben wakes up to the sound of approaching dogs and gunfire and he cautiously makes his way upstairs to see if help has arrived but ends up being shot in the head when one of the rescuers mistakes him for a ghoul and his body is tossed onto a bonfire with the rest of the ghouls.
Night Of The Living Dead met with some criticism when it was first released but has since become considered a film classic as shown by a certified fresh rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. The critical consensus on the site is that, “George A. Romero’s debut set the template for the zombie film, and features tight editing, realistic gore, and a sly political undercurrent.” The movie was notable for several things, including being the first movie to have an African-American as the main lead in the movie as well as the last movie to be screened before the MPAA rating system was put into effect. The movie was a box office success, earning $30 million worldwide off of a $114,000 budget and is considered one of the most profitable independent horror movies of all time. The movie has always had a spot on all time movie lists and was preserved in the National Film Registry in 1999 for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The movie would go on to spawn five sequels, several remakes of the film as well as remakes of some of the sequels.
Night Of The Living Dead wasn’t without it’s share of controversy when it was first released. The movie premiered a month before the MPAA rating system was put into effect and so when it was shown, lots of children wound up seeing the movie in theaters. Roger Ebert chided parents for letting their children watch this movie, saying, “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else.” Some Christian fundamentalist also protested the movie, saying that filmmakers were “Satanically-inspired ” for their portrayal of the undead eating flesh.
This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a must see movie for anyone, even if they are not a fan of horror movies. The acting was really good, with Duane Jones doing a fantastic job as Ben and Karl Hardman (Harry) turning in an equally impressive performance. I know some people might criticize Judith O’Dea’s performance as Barbra but I thought she did a good job of showing someone that is almost completely shut down from shock over everything that is going on. The story is very dark and grim, and encompasses a lot of social tones that were going on at the time, whether that was intentional or not. Having Ben being shot by an all white posse without being given the chance to prove if he was human or zombie probably had a bigger racial tone than intended since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr was still fresh in people’s minds. The special effects were pretty good involving the zombies makeup and body parts that were being eaten and while this was considered a very gory movie when it was released, it would probably be considered pretty tame compared to more recent films. So if you want to see a great movie from one of the great horror directors, than definitely watch this movie.
Rating: 5 out of 5