Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a zombie movie classic

Poster for Night of the Living Dead

Today’s zombie movie craze seems to have passed. For the moment. After the successful launch of AMC’s The Walking Dead in 2010, the zombie genre seemed to have a revitalization. You couldn’t browse Redbox or Netflix without swarms of un-dead films lumbering towards you.

My first two features (never to see public eyes) were zombie movies. Doesn’t everybody make a zombie movie when they’re starting out? I moved on to better stuff anyways.

But where did the craze really start? Well, just like any analysis of cinema “firsts”, the answer is highly debatable. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi was possibly the first “zombie” movie. Even Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) beat George Romero’s first film by nine years.

What sets Night of the Living Dead apart is the lasting legacy it impressed on cinema for generations. The roots of a Hollywood-style zombie can be directly traced to this film. Elements such as zombies requiring a shot to the head or incineration to kill them appear in the film. They eat living human flesh and do not eat each other. They moan with a distinct hollow sound. Therefore it’s no wonder we still remember this film.

So the film started some staples of the genre. But what about the viewing experience itself? Does the movie hold up today? Well I’m here to say, this is definitely one that requires a flexible mind.

Video review

The plot is straightforward: Barbara, played by Judith O’Dea, gets attacked in a cemetery by a shuffling, violent man. She flees to a nearby house and takes shelter where she meets Ben, played by Duane Jones. With a small group of more survivors, they reinforce the house as the zombies (here called ghouls) surround the house overnight.

Cinema audiences today are spoiled. The Internet, specifically social media, has re-trained our brains to not just seek, but expect, instant gratification. But don’t take my word for it, just look at the numbers: Romero made his film for a measly $114,000, and grossed $30 million. That sort of return on investment doesn’t happen on accident.

Yet today, I’ll admit, the film is a very slow watch. The plot shuffles along, much like the baddies that attack our wooden, two dimensional characters. With the exception of Ben every character is pretty awful. Even Ben falls prey to some ridiculous decision making, such as sticking around to help dead-weight characters. And he shoots a rifle at a gas pump to unlock it. Barbara meanwhile becomes a couch decoration for the majority of the film, and the other characters don’t do much either.

As if that weren’t troublesome enough, large swaths of the film rely on lengthy television newscasts to explain what’s happening. This sort of writing isn’t common any more, unless you want to scream “my movie has an amateur plot” to the viewer. Again, we’re spoiled today – we know what zombies are, so these exposition scenes largely fall flat.

A zombie movie ahead of it’s time, in 1968

None of this is to say the film is bad or not worth watching. Well, maybe if you’re a general cinephile, you can skip it. But if you’re a student of cinema, specifically horror films, it’s definitely worth studying. You just have to study it through the lens of its time.

For a low budget first-time filmmaker film, there are quite ideas that are still impressive today. The shot of Barbra’s eye through the music box is very contemporary-feeling, and the lighting choices bring a moody, dark atmosphere. Seeing the “gore” of human flesh consumption was likely shocking in ’68. Even the soundtrack is rather disturbing in places.

What I find most interesting about the film are the themes it explores. The interpersonal relationships and the politics that develop within the house seem to be the film’s deeper problem. Human problems like who’s in charge, who to listen to, what to believe – these are far more interesting than the top-level problem of the film’s premise. Don’t kid yourself, it’s a B movie, but as far as B movies go, this one toys with interesting ideas.

Keep in mind that this film came before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Halloween (1978). Perhaps Hitchcock’s Psycho, released in 1960, was the only equally shocking film to come before Night of the Living Dead.

It’s likely the film was shot on black and white film for budget reasons. A colorized version was later released, but I haven’t seen it. Judging from the screenshots, I’d say the original version maintains an atmosphere that the colored one loses.

Now…the rating

I always go into a movie review with one question at the forefront: what did this film attempt to do? Did it do it well? Night of the Living Dead was meant to scare people. It’s not scary today. It’s creepy, it’s atmospheric, and it’s well done. For a $100k movie from 1968. It just isn’t special anymore.

Now before people jump down my throat, understand this: at any given time, a film’s rating can change. Think about it. In 1992, Windows v3.1 was the hot new thing on the block. Do you think it’d be as successful if it released tomorrow? Of course not.

The same applies for films – that’s why the best ones are called “timeless”. If Night of the Living Dead came out today, I doubt it’d be received well.

5/10 – Worthy of historical preservation, but unless you’re a hardcore zombie movie fan, I’d say skip it.

Author: Karland Paez

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