“If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em.”
The story of Night of the Living Dead stretches far behind and beyond its 96 minutes. It goes back to Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend which tells the apocalyptic story of the last man on earth, locking himself away in his house and defending himself from swarms of vampires. It is well documented how much of an inspiration Matheson’s book was to George A. Romero when writing his debut film. With Night of the Living Dead, Romero took I am Legend‘s theme of hellish revolution completely consuming humanity, and brought it back to the beginning, back to the very first moments of the apocalypse where it’s not quite certain what the odds are. How many humans are left? And how many monsters?
The story also stretches far beyond the 1950s and 60s. With his first horror, Romero changed forever the way that zombies were to be portrayed in film, on television, and even in video games. His ‘ghouls’ were no longer victims under the thrall of some higher power, magic, hypnotism or alien possession. They were now the dead risen; animated, rotting corpses that could not be saved, only destroyed. It had become more about the corporeal, about the physical body and the pure animal instincts that drove it to search unrelentingly for food. From the Resident Evil series, to The Walking Dead, to the recent Naughty Dog game The Last Of Us (where our antihero Joel throws molotov cocktails at the infected much like Harry Cooper), this humble black and white film’s influence is crystal clear. Made for a mere $114, 000, it is often rightfully labelled the Godfather of the modern zombie movie.
And what a simple and unassuming story it seems now, almost half a decade later, and in the unavoidable shadow of so many more complex and overwrought zombie flicks. Seven people are trapped in a farm house in rural Pennsylvania, surrounded on all sides by the undead. They scream, they cry, they plan, they kill, and ultimately the film is about each individual’s reactions to a deadly situation. Barbra (played by a laughably comatose Judith O’Dea) is first to enter the house having escaped from the clutches of zombie S. William Hinzman. Interestingly, she is desperately active only until she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who takes charge of the situation from the minute he bursts through the front door. In his presence Barbra becomes hysterical, is struck dumb by her own fear, and spends the rest of the film as a mute. Ben is resourceful and intellectual, finding wood to board up the doors and windows, and sets up house with a television and radio, as Barbra lies on the sofa with blank eyes. What the audience is shown through these two characters are two very different emotional responses to fear. Jones is brilliant in the leading role, lending his character a level-headedness which was arguably not present in the original script (Ben was initially imagined as a ‘simple truck driver’). His logical determination to survive is offset by Barbra’s illogical lack of effort.
The two soon find that they are not alone, as Harry and Helen Cooper, played by real-life producers of the film Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, are introduced as a husband and wife hiding out in the house’s basement, along with their sick daughter Karen (played by Hardman’s daughter Kyra Schon) and young couple-in-love Tom and Judy. When they surface, tensions rise between Ben and Harry, as the former believes staying at ground level is best, whereas the latter wants to retreat to the basement. Together the group try to make the best of their situation, but thanks to conflicting television news reports that at one point tell everyone to stay inside, and at another tell everyone to leave, characters begin risking their lives by venturing outdoors. From here things take a turn for the bloody.
For a budget film, Romero sets up some brilliant shots that are lit gorgeously in film noir style. The black and white not only gives the zombie makeup more power and mystery, but also makes the shadows and blackness of night seem all the more deadly. It is interesting to note that home distributors wanted to colour the film, and in 1986, 1997 and 2004, various colourised versions were released with the zombies appearing either green or grey. What these distributors clearly didn’t understand is that to colour Night of the Living Dead is to take away from its macabre nature, to paint over its Gothic heart. Each close up of a character’s face belongs in monochrome, for their expressions are pure melodrama: fear and pain encapsulated.
It is the film’s small-scale that allows it to have so much power. Hiding away in a house that with each wooden plank against the windows becomes more and more like a coffin, the characters create a microcosm of society. The stereotypically fearful girl, the good leader, the bad disturber of the peace, the naive lovers, the headstrong wife. And yet, what makes Night of the Living Dead, if not the best zombie movie in existence, then at least one of them, is its breaking of boundaries, its acknowledgement yet disregard for the norm. The gruesome death visited on a mother by her own daughter. An unhappy, un-Hollywood ending. It is script choices like this, along with an effortlessly impressive visual style, which make Romero’s debut so groundbreaking, and so completely and utterly unforgettable.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★