Night of the Living Dead
Dir. George Romero (1968)
Survivors hole up in an old farmhouse during a zombie apocalypse.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Let me start off by saying that I came to watch this film quite late in the game. I mean, obviously it would’ve been late compared to the general public, because I was far from being born in 1968. I mean more that I don’t think I watched this movie until I was maybe 25 or so, when I had seen way too many shitty zombie movies and decided that it was time to finally watch the one that started it all. It feels derivative to say that the movie is amazing, or scary, or any other descriptives that have been used 1000 times to describe it, but it’s all those things and more. It is, quite simply, a foundational horror movie for not only every zombie movie that came after it, but every horror movie that came after it.
Even the beginning of the movie is scary. It’s got a hauntingly scary score, and it puts you at unease right from the beginning, as our characters are driving to a cemetery to leave a wreath at a grave. One of the characters is scared of the old cemetery, and the other decides to mock her and pretend that the man they see on the other side of the field is coming to get them. However… he is coming to get them, because he’s just a part of the zombie horde that we eventually learn is ravaging the country. It’s an iconic scene, and it’s still effectively terrifying all these years later. It’s so rare that such an old movie can be truly scary, but this one is in spades.
The acting is outstanding, the pacing holds a wonderful tension throughout the entire movie, and it is difficult (almost impossible) to believe that this was a first-time film for Mr. Romero. It’s also one of those films that is so important to the genre of horror as a whole, and zombie films specifically, that it is impossible to quantify the extent to which it affected the films that came afterwards. Every single movie you have ever seen about zombies is a direct derivative of this film. No matter how each storyteller explains the origin of their walking dead, or whether they walk fast, slow, or at medium speed, their zombies are the children of Romero’s.
The movie was important for other reasons as well. I’m sure that I don’t need to recount here the racial implications of having a Black lead character, and a hero nonetheless, in 1968, but this movie was still pending theatrical release when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Romero has talked at length about how there was no intention of creating a racial hero, and that Duane Jones was simply the best man for the part. While there have been countless societal critiques of NotLD since its debut, it is easy to believe Romero’s version of events because Duane Jones is fucking amazing as the hero, Ben. The end of the film, where Ben is shot and killed by the lynch mob-esque team of people trying to hunt down the zombies, holds more impact because he’s Black, but it would have been impactful to most of the movie-going public had he been white as well. The fact that he was Black, and that he was killed by a mob who didn’t check to see if he was one of the dangerous creatures they were after, has meaning for the Black community (and America as a whole) that reverberates even today. While it was not Romero’s intention to critique race within the country that he lived, his film has had a resounding impact on the way that Black characters are represented within film, especially in horror.
A strong black man told white folks what to do. In 1968.There’s an awesome documentary on Shudder called Birth of the Living Dead that is absolutely fantastic, and it goes more into detail about how the film was made, its production and release, and the after-effects of the film than I can put into words in the limited space I have, but suffice to say the film has had an impact on society and horror of which dissertations could be written and doctorates could be earned. It’s a hugely important film for so many reasons, but beyond that, it’s a damn good film. So many people overlook that when breaking down the movie because there’s just so much to say about it, but Night of the Living Dead is probably the best zombie movie ever made when simply looking at it as a film. The fact that this was made by a group of first-timers out of Pittsburgh, and that it was made on a shoestring budget, it incredibly impressive. George Romero had such a legendary career in horror because he fucking earned it, and it all started with this movie.
Who this movie is for: Classic horror fans, Classic American film lovers, Horror fans who need to appreciate their history
Bottom line: Night of the Living Dead is, quite simply, one of the best horror films ever made. George Romero is a master, and this film is way scarier than it has any right to be. It’s importance to the entire genre of horror cannot be overstated, and it is a sacrosanct film in the horror genre that deserves the canonization that it has received. It’s incredibly well acted with brilliant cinematography, and it has a score that is truly terrifying. Sadly, its status as a public domain movie has lost Romero millions, but it does make it easier to find and you can always watch it for free on the internet. If you haven’t seen this, are you really a horror fan?