Skip to main content

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. 



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …