In a 2017 discussion of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, Chicago based film critic Josh Larsen offered some food for thought: can a young modern film fan watch this horror classic for the first time and have the same reaction as moviegoers did during its original 1968 release? Could it possibly have the same impact today as it did then? This has been such an intriguing question to me.
As contemporary viewers we have had the zombie sub-genre clearly defined for us. We know what they are, how to kill them, and we certainly know not to get bitten. The very concept of a zombie no longer carries any shock value. But imagine in 1968. Sure, the idea of the reanimated dead had been around, but the concept of a zombie as explored by horror legend George Romero in “Night of the Living Dead” was both shocking and terrifying.
While I may not be old enough to have seen it during its original release, my own first experience with “Night of the Living Dead” left a similar mark. It was in the early 1980’s during the first wave of VCR rentals. I’m guessing I was no more than 13-years-old. At that time there was no zombie sub-genre. Zombies had not become the staple of pop culture that they are today. For me they were a new experience – an utterly frightening first encounter that I still remember to this day. Perhaps that is why Romero’s classic is still my favorite horror movie ever made.
Romero’s chilling vision is made even more spectacular when considering his miniscule budget. Made for around $114,000, the money restraints not only shaped the production but also the story itself. Romero and company knew they couldn’t spread their shoot to multiple locations. Instead his story brought the horror to one place – a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. This serves as the central hub for the conflicts to come from both inside and outside the walls; from the flesh-eating dead and the ___ human characters.
The group of people barricaded inside the farmhouse have no idea what is happening. Much like his characters, Romero leaves the audience in the dark, only feeding us tiny morsels of information as the story progresses. Imagine it through the eyes of a 1968 moviegoer who has no preconceived notions of zombies or their mythology. They can only guess along with the characters who testify to what they have seen with their own eyes and take guesses as to the cause.
One of the most effective means of information (for both us and the characters) comes from a television found upstairs. The group of six watch attentively as emergency newscasts sift through reports and interview ‘experts’ in an attempt at relaying information to the audience. There is also an eerie effectiveness to how the television plays in the background.
While the zombie threat gathers outside of the house the dynamic inside grows equally tense. Romero’s assortment of compelling characters add an extra layer of drama to the story. It starts with the star Duane Jones who plays Ben. He serves as the backbone, the brains, and in many ways the moral compass of the film. But what is most significant is Romero’s casting of Jones, an African-American, for such a heroic and assertive role. It’s significance may not resonate as much today, but in 1968 it most certainly left a mark.
Film historians and critics have found all sorts of ways to interpret “Night of the Living Dead”. They’ve seen it as representing the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, even a critique of capitalism. All of those are compelling readings, but for me it works best as ground-breaking horror movie that laid a foundation for a sub-genre that is still being built upon today. And each glorious 35mm black-and-white frame represented a bold new step for independent filmmaking and for horror movies in general. Most remarkably, it still holds up as a horror flick and a groundbreaking cinema classic.
VERDICT – 5 STARS