Night of the Living Dead unleashed the zombies into the world of horror.
Night of the Living Dead isn’t the first zombie film ever made, but it had a new fresh approach to what zombies are, that now still is the common concept and usage of these all too human creatures. Although in this film they aren’t called zombies yet but ghouls. Zombies originally were people or dead people under the influence of a voodoo priest who controlled them. But now these ghouls are rising from their graves, due to an unknown force or event and started to attack and eat the living. The film was based on the novel I Am Legend written by Richard Matheson in 1954 and became a legend of its own. Night of the Living Dead is not only a horror classic but a film classic in general.
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Barbra and her brother Johnny go visit their father’s grave but when they get there, the dead are rising from their graves and start to attack them. Only Barbra manages to escape and flees with her car until she crashes it but finds a safe place in a house with other people. Ben, Tom and Judy, and Harry and his wife Helen and daughter Karen try to find out what’s going on while they are holding off the many ghouls that gather around the house. Meanwhile Karen is ill and hides with her mother Helen in the basement.
Why you should watch it
Night of the Living Dead is a classic that probably will never be outdated. It was the first horror movie where the people themselves were the monsters. Either reduced to the ghouls they have become or the way they treat each other and especially the ending with Ben. It was also the first film in which a black man played the principle role. While films already could be shot in color, George A. Romero chose to shoot it in black and white, emphasizing the horror and the themes. Like he himself said, at that time every film had a message and so Night of the Living Dead has many metaphors. The Vietnam War, racism, the numbness of people and the failing believe in the government, the fear of the cold war, a nuclear threat, this were all social issues that were paramount at that time and served as themes in the film.
This first film led to a franchise in which the humans were reduced to the monsters threatening and eating others. Zombie films are therefore hardly ever about the zombies, but are used as metaphors for the social issues that are important in different decades.
Night of the Living Dead as a film is beautifully shot with great atmosphere and suspense. It has a very nihilistic style that increases the realistic feel. The fact that it’s never explained why the dead are rising from their graves, or why it suddenly ceased, makes it all the more dreadful. The more incomprehensible or terrifying things are, the better it induces fear because when you don’t know what it is, you can’t fight it. That feeling of being powerless or helpless, locked up in a closed environment with other people who might not be trusted, results in a horrific experience.
The premiss might be very simple, but all the more effective. Each character is fleshed out enough to create a suspenseful dynamic within the group who doesn’t know each other. The fact that Karen is ill, creates a threat coming from the supposedly safe place itself. Indicating even more that the threat always comes from within and is always close by and not created by some horrific creatures that aren’t human, it’s us.
The zombies look amazing. Their make-up effects are more prominent in black and white and despite their dead eyes, they still look human enough with their burial clothes but acting strangely absent. They don’t like light and hunger for human flesh. It is hinted that a satellite or probe from Venus with high radioactivity is crashed on Earth causing a disturbance, but the film leaves it at that. The story doesn’t focus on the how and why, not even on the zombies or ghouls but the focus is on the people trying to survive this night.
Mostly the horror comes from the idea and the atmospheric suspense, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some graphic and brutal scenes. The scene with Helen and Karen is one of them. But the last scene when everything is already over and the ghouls are gone, then the real evil is about to rear its ugly head and delivers a very harsh and cruel ending that is quite shocking.
My favorite part
When they are all hauled up inside the house, then it even becomes a psychological horror where people can’t hide behind white picket fences anymore, but show their true nature. Also the fact that they watch tv and listen to the radio to find out what’s going on gives it a very realistic and nostalgic touch. That Karen is lying ill in the basement is a great foreboding feeling that things are about to spiral out of control.
Thrill factor: ★★★★★
Scare factor: ★★★★☆
Gruesome factor: ★★★★★
Originality factor: ★★★★★
Cast and crew
Night of the Living Dead is based on the novel I Am Legend written by Richard Matheson in 1954. The film is directed and written by George A. Romero and cowritten by John Russo. It stars Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O’Dea (Barbra), Marilyn Eastman (Helen), Karl Hardman (Harry), Judith Ridley (Judy), Keith Wayne (Tom) and Kyra Schon (Karen).
Duration: 96 minutes. Cinematography: George A. Romero. Edited by: George A. Romero. Produced by: Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner. Production company: Image Ten. Distributed by: The Walter Reade Organization, Continental Distributing.