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Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero's disturbing classic 1968 horror film about a zombie epidemic.

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The One Time the Living Dead were truly Terrifying

  • Oct 29, 2008
Rating:
+5
In 1968 George A. Romero took the world by storm with an incredibly violent, low-budget, horror film that introduced what would grow to be the modern day interpretation of the living dead (referred to as zombies by most modern day moviegoers). These creatures are the reanimated corpses of the recently deceased, they shuffle, moan and eat the flesh of the living, and the only ways to kill them being incineration and a fatal blow to the head (via gunshot or clubbing). Naturally these aspects would lead these monsters into being the most common form of canon-fodder in today's video games.

In recent years the zombies, due to their stupidity, and the fact that they are easy to kill, have made them nothing more than things for the heroes of a film to blow apart in increasingly gruesome manners (so long as they're zombies the MPAA does not care how the characters go about killing them). So what is it about Romero's first Dead film that makes these creatures so darn scary? Two out of the three sequels to this cult classic (the classic Dawn of the Dead, and the more resent Land of the Dead) have used these creatures to create socially satirical environments exploiting human nature, while never bringing real spine tingling moments, the concepts (at least in Dawn) were equally frightening to the horror of Night of the Living Dead, just in a more psychological aspect.

How do these pitiful excuses for monsters bring in the scares within this low-budget exploitation film? I'd have to place my bet on the claustrophobic atmosphere Romero creates within the farmhouse, where ninety-five percent of the film takes place. In films such as Dawn, and Day of the Dead the characters had a lot more maneuverability. They could run, they could hide, and easily out maneuver these slow, clumsy creatures. Here, there is no room to move about, and you can feel that there truly is no way out, and no place to hide.

The film starts as a brother and sister drive to apply the annual decoration to their father's grave. The two individuals are Barbra and Johnny, and as the two leave they are assaulted by a man. Barbra flees to a nearby farmhouse, and the story begins. Soon after she arrives she encounters a strong willed man by the name of Ben, who quickly establishes that Barbra is hysterical and must be taken care of. Taking responsibility for both their survival Ben soon boards up the doors and windows, preparing to sit the infestation out until help arrives.

During the stay they discover some more survivors living in the house's cellar. There's the eager to help young man by the name of Tom, and his loyal girlfriend Judy, and then the paranoid Harry Cooper, his wife Helen, and their ill daughter Karen. Mister Cooper instantly protests against the command of Ben, saying that they all should retreat to the cellar, because there's only one way in and out of the cellar, as opposed to the house with its many doors and windows. Ben denies this, not wanting to be enclosed in a death trap without any means of escape if things were to go badly (which you know they will). In the end it seems only ironic as to how each character meets his or her fate.

I must point out the Ben character played by Duane Jones because he is obviously the star of this film, and for good reason. Considering this was the 1960s, and racism was still a huge factor throughout the country it feels remarkable to see such a well done performance by an African American actor, with such great intensity, especially with such a low-budget. He is strong willed, and won't let people change his mind, even to the point of ignorance, but he does so with such passion we, the audience, can't help but side with him as the character, even when he is clearly wrong at times with his decisions. His survival techniques are not perfect, but with his strong attitude he is able to make the survivors inside the house side with him, over the over-cautious (yet, in all fairness, intelligent) Harry Cooper.

This film has rightfully earned its reputation as one of the best horror movies to date, and still beats out all of today's zombie films by a mile. Here the zombies really are scary, without resorting to being anything more than slow moving, clumsy beings (unlike the remake of Dawn of the Dead where they felt inclined to super power the creatures). Also, the setting is so normal it further increases the scare factor. How many people haven't been in houses like the one in this film? Imagine being trapped in one of these houses, surrounded by vicious flesh-eaters in the late hours of the night. This is where Night of the Living Dead succeeds where others of the genre have miserably fallen. If it wasn't for the original Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead (both of which have been remade with a less positive response from critics and audiences alike) zombies would be some of the worst movie monsters ever conceived. This film innovated and created the concept of the living dead which have been embraced by mainstream audiences, and it is fitting that it is perhaps the ONLY film involving the creatures that has legitimately frightened me. Maybe it was watching it at night with the lights turned off, but I can say that few films have actually scared me when I watched it. Let me put it this way, most classic horror films that truly deserve their status don't scare me when I'm watching them, but end up poking my mind later on in the day (Examples are The Shining and the original Nightmare on Elm Street). With this film I was constantly holding my breath, and looking about the room nervously.

The reason I was frightened (and surprised) by this film was due to its incredibly fast pacing, which is very similar to the way films are made today. This film just never has its dull moments (not to say I like all action, I was just surprised how quick it was). The plot is extraordinarily simple, and could've easily been covered in thirty minutes, but Romero was careful to grab the audience in the first attack scene, and keep their attention through means of suspense and violence.

Now that brings us to the violence, and there is nothing that the undead are more associated with then excessive amounts of blood and gore. For the 1960s this film is incredibly violent, especially when it shows the undead feeding on the flesh of their victims. Being low-budget the victims are not seen being torn apart like they are in the sequels, but you still are given some disgusting shots of flesh from the bones, or fighting over intestines, which in some perverse way reminded me of people fighting over a chicken wing at a local KFC buffet. The images are just truly grotesque, maybe not to the avid, modern day gore lover, but to the common moviegoer it still holds up as being disturbing.

This is the best film of the living dead subgenre, followed closely by its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, and certainly holds up in all regards to the modern, brainless horror film. The film goes out to scare, and manages to pull it off, even to this day. Though the zombies are most associated with gore, and for the 60s this film surely had it, this is a film with more brain than blood, and that's why it has terrified people for so long, and will continue to do so, even as the creatures continue to become even less threatening through video games and modern interpretations (which happen to be video game based, for the most part). With their decline as an actual icon of terror, at least we can still return to the gut wrenching human struggle, and terror of George A. Romero's definitive horror picture.

5/5 stars; a classic that has endured the test of time with more strength, emotionally, and in the form of pure terror, than many films of the same era which possessed a larger budgets, certainly being on par with some of Hitchcock's greats.

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More Night of the Living Dead reviews
review by . October 15, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
**** out of ****     Two siblings, a brother and a sister, visit a cemetery to place a cross and flowers at their father's grave. The sister seems happy just to do it, while the brother complains "I don't even remember what the man looks like!" He also whines about missing church that day, etc.; he is a rather selfish man. The two prepare to leave the cemetery, but not before they notice a strange man walking amongst the tombs of the dead. The distinctive feature is in the way …
review by . July 24, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
What Prompted You to write a Review?   This is possibly one of the best if not the best zombie movie ever made. Night of the living dead will always have a special place in my heart.        How was the Plot, Acting, Direction?   This is the classic story of what happens when the dead arise from the grave in search of live human brains to feed on. It was a very well written story, the acting has a bit of cheese factor but it works for this type of movie.   …
Quick Tip by . July 10, 2010
posted in Cult Cinema
Caption
Perhaps one of the greatest horror films ever made and a wonderful example of stylish indie filmmaking. Romero made a zombie movie that defined an entire sub-genre, shocked audiences and critics with its stark realism and violence, and has gone on to become a seminal cult classic. If you're faint of heart, then avoid this film as it is dark, gory, and designed to unnerve viewers. "They're coming to get you, Barbra!"    
Quick Tip by . July 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
a classic, we used to watch this on friday nights when i was in high school.
Quick Tip by . July 10, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
The original zombie movie. Quite a fantastic one also
Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
saw it as a kid and it still creeps me out
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
I love it
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
60s version needs more thrill
review by . May 13, 2009
What makes this movie work so well is that it relies on real scarry creatures, eerie direction and great use of black and white film while later versions relied on gory special effect body mutilations.  The movie starts right out with a funeral in a grave yard. A man and his sister are visiting their mother's grave and the woman is quite unnerved about being in the graveyard. The man starts to play on her uneasiness saying things like "Barbara, they're coming to get you Barbara." Suddenly …
review by . May 19, 2009
Night of the Living Dead is the one that spawned several sequels (some official others not) and hundreds of knock-offs. The movie takes place in the Pittsburgh countryside. Innocently enough a brother and sister are visiting their father's grave site when they encounter a strange individual. He attacks and kills the brother whilst the sister flees the scene. She stumbles into a country farm house that will later become a house of horrors. Meanwhile a young black man seeks safety inside the house …
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About this movie

Wiki

The first film of George A. Romero's Dead series and John Russo's Living Dead series.

John Russo wrote a novelization of the film.

The film is public domain because the filmmakers failed to put a copyright on the original film print.

John Russo produced a 30th Anniversary edition of the film that incorporated newly shot footage, edits and a original soundtrack replacing the previous stock music that was used as a soundtrack.  The new edition also spawned the sequel Children of the Living Dead.

The original budget was $114,000 and it was shot on 35mm.
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Details

Director: George A. Romero
Genre: Horror
Release Date: October 1, 1968
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 96 minutes
Studio: Latent Image, Good Times Video, Anchor Bay Entertainment
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