97 min., 1968
Written by George A. Romero/John A. Russo
Directed by George A. Romero
My rating: ★★★
The most important horror movie to me.
* * *
Back before the slow zombies versus fast zombies argument began, we had Night of the Living Dead. A movie that (pretty much) started the modern zombie film. Have the years been kind and does it still stand up? Kinda…
Our story opens with Johnny (Russell Streiner) and his sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea) going to their father’s grave. They drive 6+ hours every year to put flowers on the grave for their mother. But they picked a really bad day to do that. Not long after being there Johnny starts making fun of Barbra and we get one of the greatest lines in horror,
“They’re coming to get you Barbra.”
Russell Streiner goes from goofing around to deadpan serious with that line. It’s an unsettling delivery especially looking back. From there Barbra is attacked by a zombie (Bill Hinzman). Well we didn’t know it’s a zombie because the name is never used. He just seems to be some crazy guy that attacks her and Johnny. Killing Johnny in the process. He then gives chase to Barbra where she ends up in a house. There she meets the rest of the cast. Level headed Ben (Duane Jones), Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and young couple Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). It breaks down to, Ben is the smart guy, Harry is the asshole that just wants to stay in the cellar with his family, Helen is scared of her husband, Karen has been bitten, Tom and Judy just want to help and Barbra is in a state of shock.
They board up the house and start to try and figure out exactly what happened. All they learn from the TV is that there was a probe that went to Venus and came back with some strange radiation. They also learn that bodies are coming back from the dead and eating the flesh of the living. The creatures don’t like fire and destroying the brain kills (or rekills…) them. We get some more in fighting and in the end they decide to try and fill up Ben’s truck with gas (there is a pump in the backyard) and get moving. The plan doesn’t exactly work all that well and…
So there are a dozen things about this movie that I still love and it does have a handful of flaws, but first let me go back to the days of a young Drudgeon. Go back to the wonderful year of 1982. I remember watching my favorite cartoons of the time, mainly Thundarr The Barbarian, The Herculoids, The Beatles and Godzilla…all sprinkled with segments of Schoolhouse Rock in-between. But one night I couldn’t sleep so I came out to the living room, turned on the TV and looked for some cartoons. Not realizing that cartoons don’t run that late I just kept changing channels (all 10 different channels if I remember right). What felt like an eternity later I come across a black and white movie where a guy is taking and breaking “stuff”, then he pushes a chair out the door and lights it on fire. I was blown away. You don’t put chairs outside! The idea of setting something on fire…just because…had never entered my mind before this. Of course I didn’t realize why he was doing this, I just thought that he was crazy for doing it. So I sat and watched about another ten minutes…I think. Suddenly hands started jutting into the house and started grabbing at the people. I got really scared and then then I finally saw them. FUCKING DEAD PEOPLE WALKING AROUND! Not even turning off the TV, I ran to my bedroom, hid under the covers and didn’t get any sleep that night (or the rest of the week). It would be another couple of years before I found out what the movie was called and finally watched it from beginning to end. But that’s the exact moment in time when I turned into the person I am today. In those two years I stayed up late (actually I snuck out of my room) to find the movie and in the process of looking I watched a bunch of great and terrible movies. But none had as big of an impact as Night of the Living Dead did. That being said, I do not look at this movie with rose tinted glasses. I see the flaws and problems that plague it, but I also can still see why it’s such a classic.
First I’ll bring up the problems. One that I have is that there are time where it’s pretty darn slow. Now this is a problem that I have with a lot of George A. Romero movies. I love a long slow burn movie, but this is not a slow burn movie, so there just seems to be a bit too much downtime in the movie.
The second problem that I have is with the acting. The funny thing is that the main cast is great, except for Keith Wayne who just didn’t feel sincere. It felt that at any point he was going to look off camera and ask for a coffee. The overall acting problem I had was with the extras. The guys on the TV were just so…blah. That’s the best way for me describe it. They don’t even feel like they’re trying. Yes there are some memorable lines they deliver, but that’s more the lines and not them being good actors.
The last flaw that I’ll bring up is the overall dialogue. Yes I know that writing style was different “back then” but that doesn’t mean that it sounds good. The main cast delivered the lines great, but at the same time, they just felt very weird at times and that can really take me out of a great movie.
Now I know that there are more flaws that I’m not going into but these are the ones that really bothered me the most.
On to the good stuff. First off is the main cast and their acting. All of them (with the exception of Keith Wayne) pulled off the sometimes great, and often times silly, dialogue with real emotion. Of the my favorite performances is from Judith O’Dea. Now people might say that she isn’t a strong female or that her character didn’t have much to her, but to me her performance was spot on. Way too often in movies a tragedy happens and no one really seems fazed by it. Yes there is shock and sadness but it’s almost always turned to anger within a matter of minutes. Barbra is a character that has truly been traumatized. Even when she starts to becomes more accepting of what’s going on, her brain really doesn’t allow her to come back to full reality. Just think about how long it takes for someone to get over the loss of a loved one. Days? Months? Hell some people can never truly get over the loss. Some people turn to violence, alcohol or drugs. The movie takes place over the span of one night. Johnny and her seemed pretty close and if she bounced back from a loss that sudden, not to mention that she was also chased by the crazy man that killed her brother, it just wouldn’t be believable to me.
The other character that I really enjoyed was Ben. Another problem that I have with modern movies is that if you have an Asian/Black/Latino/Gay/etc. character, then they are going to be written as said type character. Ben was a character that was written and they didn’t care which race filled the role. Duane Jones was the best actor (playing the part perfectly) and it didn’t matter at all that he was black. The character of Ben isn’t black, white, gay, straight, Asian, etc. he’s just a human being that happens to be black. I wish there was more writing that had “human” characters and not “race” characters.
I also really liked some of the interactions between the characters. When Helen tries to talk to Barbra but nothing comes out, was great. What do you really say in that situation? Another is just how twitchy Harry is. If you’re not really paying attention then it doesn’t really matter because it’s just so normal. In a lot of movies the cast is standing there stiff as a board or if someone is twitchy, they shine a giant spotlight onto it. In this case I love the subtlety.
Other non-character, things that I really enjoyed had to be when Barbra first enters the house and the music just cuts out. It’s a feeling that the terror is over, but then it hits you that it’s so quiet. Too quiet. Another thing I really enjoyed about the sound, was the crickets. Yes it’s a small detail, but including it adds another feel of realism. Lastly I’d have to say that when Karen kills her mom it’s another thing that took me off guard.
On to other things, like fan stuff. There have been a handful (okay probably more) of fan made movies and one of my favorite has to be Night of the Living Bread. I first saw it on the Millennium Edition of Night of the Living Dead, and it’s super fun. It’s directed by Kevin S. O’Brien and was released in 1990. Great stuff.
Now before I go I just want to bring one other thing. The FAST/SLOW zombie war. There is a huge (okay, it’s only really amongst horror fans, and even that is questionable as most don’t really care) argument over slow zombies or fast zombies. Most will bring up the “original” zombies from this movie, but there lies the problem. Have these people even seen this movie. The first zombie we see ends up running, okay not like the more modern movies, but he’s keeping up with Barbra. Throughout the rest of the movie there are other fast moving zombies that people just choose to ignore. If it matters so much to someone that zombies should be slow, than I would hope that they’d actually watch or read whatever they are bringing up as examples. But I really don’t think that’s the case. It’s also really funny because George A. Romero himself says that slow zombies are the “real” zombies, even though he’s the one that has fast zombies in his own movie.
In the end this is still a fun movie. There are parts that still get under my skin, but I think that also has to do with my connection to it and not necessarily it still being scary. That aside it’s still worth a look. Again there are people who talk about the movie like they’ve seen it and it’s painfully obvious that they haven’t, so don’t be one of those.
P.S. – Support horror in all its forms. Even if I didn’t like the movie you might want to check it out and yell at me about how wrong (or right) I am.
And for your viewing pleasure here is the trailer.
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