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Review: “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

The brutality of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has little to do with gore and everything to do with atmosphere. While there are scenes of violence (heavily concentrated in the fim’s last act), they pale in comparison to the bare-bones, almost clinical camerawork and matter-of-fact story and acting. What causes the dead to rise, though hinted at, remains uncertain. The only certainty in Romero’s world of the living vs. the undead is that survival depends on pragmatism and brutality. There is no room for sentimentality or nostalgia; those who waste time on either are goners. Only the drive to survive — by any means necessary — remains.

Romero does not let his camera recoil from this ruthless reality; he takes no mercy on his characters and no mercy on his audience. Tension hovers in the air in “Night of the Living Dead” — the zombie movie that defined the genre — from its opening shot, an unbroken take of a car puttering down a long, winding road toward a rural Pennsylvania cemetery. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) have come to visit their father’s grave, and Johnny can’t resist poking fun at his sister’s fear of cemeteries. (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra” has not aged at all.) Barbra’s fear becomes real when she’s attacked by a ravenous stranger. Johnny dies during the struggle, but Barbra escapes to a farmhouse. There she encounters not only half-eaten bodies but Ben (Duane Jones), who’s run out of fuel and needs shelter. Ben, intent on surviving, barricades them in the house. He refuses to hide in the cellar, and butts heads with another survivor, Harry (Karl Hardman), who wants to stay downstairs with his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). Ben finds an ally in Tom (Keith Wayne) and his girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley), who devise a plan to escape to the shelter in nearby Willard. Their plan, however, goes wrong in ways both unpredictable and tragic.

Don’t get the wrong idea from the word “tragedy,” though — “Night of the Living Dead” is the opposite of melodrama. As the film spirals into the hellish sucker punch that is its final act, the histrionics are kept to a minimum (with the possible exception of O’Dea, whose overwrought hysteria, then catatonia, prove grating). With its grainy black-and-white footage, “Night of the Living Dead” has the gut-churning immediacy of a home movie, a nice touch that amplifies the tension and the horror tremendously. Several close-up shots of the ghouls — they’re never called “zombies” here — grabbing desperately at Ben through gaps in a hastily boarded window are marvelously effective. Also ghoulish is the shot filmed in the burned pick-up truck, with the walking dead frantically eating the corpses smoldering inside. The entire escape attempt sequence, with Ben and Tom making a mad dash to a nearby fuel pump and Judy running after them, is a burst of pure desperation-fueled adrenaline that’s held up remarkably well. Possessing none of the bells and whistles of later efforts like “Dawn of the Dead” or “28 Days Later,” it’s still a nail-biter, and it’s still scary as hell.

It’s the unrelenting bleakness of “Night of the Living Dead,” really, that wins in the end. The film’s last act may be action-packed, but the action does not detract from the conclusion, one final act of violence that somehow tops all others. Twists of fate don’t get any darker than this, or more hopeless. But Romero is not interested in selling hope or providing a tidy ending, so he does neither. (This decision is just one of the many reasons why “Night of the Living Dead” shocked critics and moviegoers alike, and why it holds up more than 40 years later.) Read it however you want — as a criticism of 1960s America, or consumerism, or the horrors of the Vietnam War. The film lends itself to many interpretations; it works on many levels. Not surprisingly, though, the film works best as a plain old horror film — one that doesn’t go in for short-term shrieks or lazy gotcha bits. Romero deals in the kind of elemental scares you can’t shake no matter how much you want to.

Grade: A