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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - # 397: George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is the zombie movie that started it all. Although it was made back in 1968, its influence can be seen in such films as “Shaun of the Dead,” “Resident Evil,” “28 Days Later,” and a few Simpsons and South Park Halloween specials. It set the blueprint for the zombie epidemic genre, even though that word is never once used in the movie. Critics were initially disgusted by the gory content, but eventually the American Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry for being culturally significant. Politically its scenes of violence in rural America were seen as a backlash against the war in Vietnam. Also significant was the casting of actor Duane Jones as hero Ben, for in the 60s it was bold to cast a black man in the lead. His ulterior motives aside, Romero’s goal was to scare people, and decades later he still achieves that goal.

It would have been awesome to see this movie in theatres and see people scream at the sight of the first zombie invasion, but since I was born in the 80s that’s impossible short of a time machine. Instead I saw it the same way many people have seen horror classics: late at night in October during a horror movie marathon. I had already seen the 1990 remake by Tom Savini, which is pale by comparison. It’s more or less the same as Romero’s version, except that the Barbra character was more fleshed out. The original was the first to place the flag on Mount Zombie, so why bother with a remake? In fact, the black and white photography of the 1960s adds to the atmospheric dread as the characters huddle up in the farmhouse.

Before getting to said farmhouse, the film opens at a Pennsylvania cemetery where siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) have come to visit their father’s grave. The place makes Barbra nervous so Johnny teases her by repeating the phrase “they’re coming to get you Barbra!” Wouldn’t you know it; somebody ends up getting him instead. A strange man stumbling through the cemetery attacks the siblings and shoves Johnny on a tombstone.

Barbra flees to an empty farmhouse where she finds a half-eaten female corpse. Running back outside she sees similar rambling figures coming towards her, when a man called Ben (Duane Jones) arrives in a pickup truck. Duane takes control of the situation and by dragging Barbra inside and barricading the house. Inside the cellar he discovers other survivors. Married couple Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) fled their car after attackers turned over their car and bit their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). Also with them are teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Reily).

As night falls these disparate people struggle to survive as the mysterious attackers gather outside. Unfortunately things are not exactly safer inside. Ben and Harry butt heads over whether or not everyone should hide out in the cellar. There is only one rifle in the house, so whoever gets its hands on it literally gets to call the shots. Meanwhile television news reports explain that the recently deceased have reanimated, possibly due to radioactive contamination from a space probe returning from Venus. Sure, why not? It could be that or a virus from a Sumatran rat monkey.

Either way, this is when some of the first rules of zombie survival are explained. The reanimated dead are after the livings’ flesh. One bite is enough to contaminate you. The ghouls are slow and unintelligent, but in a pack they are deadly. The only way to kill them is to either burn them or shoot them in the head. Guns are useful in a situation like this, but bullets run out. Knives on the other hand, last as long as you don’t drop them.

Romero’s first movie is a horror movie in every sense of the word, in that horrible things happen to people, most of whom don’t deserve to die like this. It is also horrifying that in an emergency situation like this one, people will often turn onto each other. Who needs flesh-eating maniacs outside when you already have human beings inside the house?

Given the film’s cheap budget, small setting, and simple storyline, it is impressive how much of an impact it has had on the horror genre. It all began at a small cabin in rural America, and now you have movies and TV shows about global zombie pandemics. Even crazier, there are books that seriously tackle the subject of surviving the zombie apocalypse, such as “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brooks. But beneath all of the books, zombie walks on Halloween, big Hollywood remakes, and video games where you blast away zombies with a shotgun, lets not forget the man who started it all in 1968. 


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