Night of the Living Dead

(1968)

Directed by George Romero

Written by Romero & John Russo

Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardeman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley

PURCHASE


The Millennium Edition DVD

Horror Film Retrospective

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
The classic film that launched the modern zombie genre 

By Steve Biodrowski

With this film, director-cinematographer-editor (and co-writer) George Romero set a new standard for horror with the low-budget opus, which launched a trilogy later continued with DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD.

The film’s limited budget actually enhances the effectiveness, as the limited locations and cast create a sense of claustrophobic dread in the face of the living dead onslaught. The symbolic impact of the home under assault from outside is immense, and the disintegration of the group within adds immeasurably to the tension. The black-and-white images convey the horror in stark detail; the camera work and editing and perfectly suited to the subject matter. It’s hard to imagine how this film could be improved on with bigger production values and/or color photography (a fact born out by the competent but uninspired remake in 1990). There’s something intense and unrelenting about this film, which deliberately violates taboos and expectations, leaving the audience with no comfort level. A cynical, downer ending perfectly caps off this long, moody masterpiece. Guaranteed to give you the creeps.

Despite sequels, remakes, and rip-offs that would seem to have run the idea into the ground, the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD holds up quite well today—in some ways, even better than when it was originally released. The marauding ghouls remain as frightening as ever, thanks to black-and-white photography that retains its atmospheric impact. Equally impressive, repeated viewings reveal the effectiveness of the internal conflict between the human characters, as they argue endlessly about how to face the menace, instead of coordinating their efforts to confront the common enemy. What’s interesting in retrospect is the way the film invites you into identifying with Ben because he seems to be the traditionally heroic man of action, while subtly undermining his heroic status. He’s at least as belligerent as Harry Cooper, whom we’re obviously supposed to dislike; and although we assume that Ben is taking his position because it’s the right one, it could just as easily be that he likes getting his way and doesn’t want to hear what anyone else has to say. And of course, despite all his protestations to the contrary, after all his attempts to secure the house and escape have resulted in the deaths of the other characters, Ben finally does what Harry advocated all along: he locks himself into the cellar.

RELATED ARTICLES: Read a Retrospective of the Making of this film at CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE. Read a review of the stage adaptation, which made its debut in Hollywood in October 2006.


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