Saturday, October 6, 2012

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review

Night of the Living Dead poster
Director: George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman
Genre: Horror

Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important films in the genre. Not only did it set the standard and the mold for all future zombie films, it also pushed independent film-making and gore to new limits, and managed to define an era all at the same time.

The film follows a group of people who take shelter in a farmhouse in an attempt to protect themselves from walking corpses who have rose from their graves.

It's a very simple story, and it almost completely takes place inside of one house, which greatly contributes to the film's claustrophobic feel. The film was shot independently on a low-budget, but that only helped the film. The black and white makes the film feel more gritty and hopeless, in a noir sort of way. The film, on its surface, is most definitely minimalism in just about every aspect, but beneath its surface there is plenty to be dissected and interpreted.

Analyzed by many viewers, critics, historians, etc, there have been many explanations to the messages behind Night of the Living Dead. It has been suggested that the zombies are a metaphor for capitalists or racists, among many others, or that the whole film is a statement on racism or on consumer culture. Many draw comparisons between this film and the war in Vietnam. I believe a certain level of truth holds true for most all interpretations. I have my own subjective interpretation, as I'm sure most people do. When it comes down to it though, the zombies are us, the darker side of us all.

The zombies in here, which are never actually even referred to as zombies in the film, aren't too scary. They definitely don't feel awfully threatening. For most of the film they just linger about outside the house, taking their sweet time in actually getting to the house. The real horror, the real threat is the people inside the house. It is, in the end, themselves that destroy each other. It is not a film about flesh eaters, that's not the film's focus, the film is about the people's reactions to the zombies and their psychology not just in dealing with the epidemic at hand, but their personalities overall. 

The zombies, referred to as ghouls, in Night of the Living Dead

All of the actors were, and are, unknown actors who never really acted in anything else. This contributes to the feel of realism and documentary-esque atmosphere. They aren't terribly good actors, that's obvious, and most of their lines were improvisational, but it all fuels the film's feel of average, everyday people in a horrific situation, and even though their acting isn't great, this actually helps us to relate to them and their characters are so believable we feel like we've met them before.

The film's main protagonist is a black man named Ben. It wasn't typical for a film, at the time, to cast a black man as the lead role, something that makes the film even more symbolic and powerful. Ben is stuck in a house with a bunch of mostly incompetent white people, the bigot Harry, the delusional and traumatized Barbra, and forced to try and survive it. (Perhaps an obvious statement on racial affairs?)

In the end (spoilers by the way) Ben is the only one to survive. Not only was it the zombies he survived, but he also survived the others who were in the house. The power struggle between him and Harry for example. But, int he film's final sequence, Ben is shot through the window by 'rescuers' who, we can only assume, thought he was a zombie. Perhaps they knew he was not a zombie, but actually just a black man. The rescuers did approach in a mob-like fashion, and were all rednecks. Not to mention the grainy images at the end had a very newspaper lynching look to them. An idea that resonated with many viewers at the time, being right after the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations.

The girl zombie feasting on her father in Night of the Living Dead
A stabbed mother in Night of the Living Dead

Ben, who was the smartest and best organized character, was not without flaws of his own. We see him lose it a few times and see him act in questionable ways. In fact all the characters are well developed and have pros and cons to their personalities. It's not whether or not we can survive a zombie attack, it's whether or not we can survive ourselves. 

The way I see it is the film's main message is that people die randomly and without good reason. There is no greater good. A very nihilistic message indeed.

One of Night of the Living Dead's best achievements is the fact that it's a B-movie, from more than 40 years ago, without any camp or cheesy-ness. Something that is hard to say for many films of similar nature.

Night of the Living Dead, though it set the mold for all future zombie films and changed the genre greatly, isn't really completely original. Many call it a rip-off of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, I Am Legend. Which it is true Night of the Living Dead is essentially based on, as George Romero has admitted. But hell, this type of zombie has been around since horror comics of the '50s, or even arguably since H.P. Lovecraft's Reanimator in the '20s. So no, George Romero didn't create the zombie we all know and love, but he definitely streamlined it and did a great job with it.

But I wouldn't call Night of the Living Dead a rip-off by any standards. It has its own style and artistic merit, and it is unique in its own right. Not to mention all the good it's done for films in general.

It's honestly hard for me to review Night of the Living Dead, it's just so good and my head hurts trying to do justice in explaining what makes it so.

Night of the Living Dead challenges capitalism, racism, and countless other various social and governmental problems. It presents a bleak message that doesn't hold back. A film that set the standard for zombie films and pushed the horror genre to new limits, all while creating a dark, chilling atmosphere, complete with feelings of claustrophobia, hopelessness, or even paranoia which is reflected in the twisted camera angles and  haunting imagery. An atmosphere filled with believable and thought-out characters, dealing with the psychology of each beautifully. A great example of independent horror done right. 

One of the best zombie films ever made, and one of the most realistic horror films of all time, which is what makes it so scary. A horror film set not in Transylvania, but in Pennsylvania, not with monsters of imagination, but with the monsters within ourselves. 

4.5/5 stars

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