I am completely exhausted of the zombie craze, and it’s not an overstatement to suggest that others are too. For years the zombie has become increasingly embedded in our culture, with an influx of television shows, movies, and video games all about them. Many use the same plot formula and clichés, while others try to add their own blend of creativity to this oddly wide-open genre.
In the wake of the zombie craze, I feel it’s important to go back and understand where this obsession with the undead first started, or at least when it became popular.
Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first film to use a zombie. In fact, I remember several zombie-ish films like White Zombie and The Last Man on Earth. Despite that, Night of the Living Dead did give us the modern interpretation of a zombie. They’re actually not even called zombies in the film, rather they are referred to as “ghouls”.
Released in 1968 and directed by George Romero, Night of the Living Dead is known for its explicit gore and grainy realism. It stars Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones as survivors immediately thrusted into a random apocalyptic event. The undead have risen, and our everyday heroes are trapped inside a small farmhouse surrounded by cannibalistic evil. Who will live and who will die?
Our characters aren’t completely void of intelligence. They argue and squabble over the situation they’re in, and what the best course of action will be for the group. Should they stay and barricade the house, or take their chances outside on the road? At one point the argument goes so far it results in a woman being punched directly in the face (not unprovoked, of course). The characters all think for themselves, and therefore feel like real people trapped in a real situation.
Some sequences are leisurely paced by today’s standards, yet there’s a certain level of charm to this I admire. You must remember that Night of the Living Dead established many of the zombie tropes and clichés that we take for granted. How a zombie behaves, how to kill one, and even how to protect yourself; all common zombie movie scenarios that Night of the Living Dead pioneered. In other undead films these aspects are all assumed and therefore glossed over, whereas here everything comes as a slow realization that must be explained through exposition and televised emergency broadcasts. All of which adds to the terrors of the unknown.
The most uncomfortable, disturbing scene is when the ghouls pull the mangled guts and remains of a couple from a truck. The ghouls then precede to hunch over and gruesomely devour what’s left of them. Apparently, Romero obtained large quantities of real meat from the local butcher for the specific scene, and its authenticity pays off. This moment (as well as many other tense scenes) is accompanied by vile, minimalist sound effects that really drive home the horrors.
Each of Romero’s zombie flicks have an overarching theme that to some extent lingers over the film. Like American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or the birth of internet culture in Diary of the Dead, relevant social satire persisted (and to varying effects).
In Night of the Living Dead, it’s all about race. To a modern viewer it would not immediately appear so, at least not until the surprise ending that’s as tragic as it is shocking. To those who saw Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, the racial message was much clearer and more obvious. Casting Duane Jones as a Black man in the leading role was revolutionary and bold for the time, and his unjust demise is rightfully upsetting. My own realization of the film’s true intents wasn’t until the credits, where we see Duane dragged out of the house by hooks, and his limp body thrown onto a bonfire.
Some people retrospectively call Night of the Living Dead boring, but I believe it maintains its spot as one of best, and most important horror films to date. I honestly find myself much more scared of it now than when I was younger, and I think that’s attributed to my appreciation of the genre. Night of the Living Dead utilizes its unique plot and style, mixes it with creepy sights and sounds, and gives the audience one truly frightening experience. It’s a film I continue to go back to time and time again and gain a little more respect for it with each viewing.
The Verdict: A