Night of the Living Dead is a flashpoint in film history, one of the most successful and influential horror movies of all time. The success of Night of the Living Dead can be credited with the horror boom that followed in the decades after it was released. For the first time, Hollywood executives, especially those in the world of film distribution were forced to sit up and take notice of the horror genre for the first time since the heyday of the Universal monster movies of the 1930’s.
What George A. Romero did with a few thousand dollars, some chocolate, some ham and a few really good friends, changed the horror genre forever. He made the genre vital again beyond the grindhouse and the drive in. He paved the way to bring horror back to the mainstream and inspired other film directors to use the genres tools to explore social issues just as he does with the extraordinary ending of Night of the Living Dead that still feels bracing and vital 50 years later.
Night of the Living Dead stars Judith O’Dea as Barbra. Barbra is at a cemetary with her brother Johnny when the dead begin to rise from their graves and menace the two of them. Johnny is killed and perhaps consumed by the zombies while Barbra makes a hasty escape. Arriving at a farmhouse nearby a shell shocked Barbra is then rescued by Ben (Duane Jones) who uses a shotgun to keep the bellowing undead at bay.
Locking themselves inside the farmhouse, Ben begins to barricade the windows only to be confronted by the Cooper family. The Cooper’s arrived at the farmhouse not long before Ben and Barbra and planned to hide in the cellar, their daughter was bit by one of the creatures and has fallen ill. Ben refuses to join them in the basement fearing being trapped without escape. The group is soon joined by a young couple, Tom and Judy ((Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley) who help Ben by fortifying the upstairs area.
Eventually, a radio and a TV are located and we are informed that the dead have risen and are feasting on the living. Shelters are being created in nearby towns and it is decided that the group will attempt to get treatment for young Karen Cooper at one of these facilities but when that plan results in a fiery death for two of our friends, the claustrophobic terror of Night of the Living Dead truly comes into focus.
George Romero made Night of the Living Dead on a shoestring budget using nameless actors and simulating the eating of flesh by covering ham in chocolate and having zombie extras take a big bite for the camera. It’s all low tech charm, good makeup and exceptionally smart direction that keeps the tension high at all times so that the low budget effects are barely noticeable because you’re more terrified by the anticipation of the zombies than you are of actually seeing them.
Romero ratchets the tension up and down before settling into an oppressive and fearsome third act that rarely lets up. Karen Cooper is an especially ingenious creation, she’s like a ticking time bomb of zombie terror. She goes from on the brink of death to full on zombie killer and when she is revealed finally as a zombie the shock comes as much from the visual as from our anticipation of the moment. We knew this was coming but we’re still in awe of the moment.
Then there is that incredible ending. Ben, an African American man, holed up with a lot of dead people around him finds himself thinking he’s about to be saved only to find that even the zombie apocalypse can’t keep the racial tensions of the late 1960’s from rising up from the ugliest depths of American society. It’s a powerful moment and one that many have tried to pretend isn’t meant to be political but I find the message and the impact impossible to ignore.
Night of the Living Dead may look cheap and a tad silly by today’s standard but if you accept it for the limitations of budget and effects, it’s impossible not to recognize just how awesome the movie is and why it has remained such an influential and essential part of popular culture. Zombies existed before George Romero but he perfected the concept and his legacy lives on in every subsequent zombie movie, and even television where The Walking Dead wears the influence of George Romero in every episode.