Filmsite Movie Review
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
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Night of the Living Dead (1968) was director George Romero's most notable genre-defining, classic zombie horror film -- it quickly became his calling card, and was responsible for making him influentially known as the Master of the modern 'zombie film' (although the term 'zombie' was never explicitly used), featuring the mysterious reanimation (or reactivation) of the recent-dead. The 96-minute film was considered ground-breaking for its explicit violence, rawness, cannibalism, and somber ending.

Romero himself defined the creatures as average-Joe "blue-collar monsters," who lumbered stiffly out of their graves to indiscriminately attack - a metaphor for a lifeless and dehumanized society. His low-budget, independent debut film, a milestone 'splatter' film, also marked the debut of the 'modern' zombie film that portrayed zombies as resurrected, cannibalistic 'flesh-eaters' or 'ghouls.' (Previously, zombies were portrayed as mutants, or as trance-like undead slaves magically produced by voodoo rites and thereafter obedient to their sorcerer-masters.)

This movie's simplistic but relentless plot of claustrophobic horror began with a haunting, opening sequence set in a remote cemetery about 150-200 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where a flighty and uptight female was teased by her brother Johnny: "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" before they were actually attacked by one of the 'living dead' who mysteriously rose from the grave. Re-animated corpses had been transformed into shuffling, hungry, ravenous flesh-eating 'zombies' - basically for no known or confirmed reason - although there were vague references to the theory that a radioactive NASA Venus space probe-satellite returning to Earth was deliberately exploded and spread a dangerous amount of mysterious radiation, and possibly caused recently-deceased corpses to rise up from their graves. The terror amplified during a relentless assault on seven innocent strangers - fugitive survivors who were hiding out in an isolated, barricaded house in rural Pennsylvania to escape being infected by zombie bites.

Soon, the horror threat was coming from inside the farmhouse as well as outside, during a struggle for power between a resourceful, capable and calm black man (it was remarkable that the lead character was African-American!) and an impulsive, older white family man. The competent black man assumed leadership as the army of corpses repeatedly tried to enter the house during a terrifying siege, although the group became mostly dysfunctional. They vainly tried to escape by acquiring gasoline from a nearby pump to fill a pickup truck, but had to fight off dozens of hungry zombies. The most seriously affected was the traumatized female from the graveyard who became catatonic after seeing her brother die.

Unspoken racial and generational tensions were exhibited, especially when a zombified little girl cannibalized her father, and then committed matricide when she killed her own mother with a garden trowel and also consumed her (often taken to be a social metaphor for the late 1960s youth of the nation rebelling against their elders). Violated bodies and families were torn apart by the 'living dead' creatures, illustrating how nothing was sacred in contemporary society. Meanwhile, news and radio reports from the mass media emphasized the panic and threat of attack by mindless hordes. The tragic ending came from the actions of real mindless zombies -- living lynch mobs. In the film's futile and bleak conclusion, one of the townsfolk in a redneck posse mistakenly shot and killed the sole-surviving black hero after his desperate fight for survival. Audiences were struck by the film's downbeat, tragic, dehumanized and ironic ending.

While initially considered perfect for drive-ins or as a 'midnight movie' after its debut in October of 1968, it was soundly criticized as grindhouse schlock and unredeeming gory trash. But the uncompromising film slowly grew in popularity and critical respect, and raised Romero to great heights as a horror filmmaker. The ultra-low budget, nightmarish film was shot in grainy 35 mm black-and-white with natural lighting and hand-held cameras to accentuate the visceral fear facing the besieged farmhouse occupants. It featured an unknown cast - and reinvented the genre with its crude and uneven "drawbacks" and frequent technical mistakes - that actually improved the film since they lent a documentary feel and reality that made the film all the more horrific and menacing.

The film's most prominent poster tagline was:

  • They Won't Stay Dead!

A further description forecast the horrors of the coming film: "They keep coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for HUMAN FLESH!... Pits the dead against the living in a struggle for survival!"

Romero ushered in the modern era of graphically violent and gory, flesh-eating zombie pics in the waning years of the 60s decade. It was part of a continuing series of "Dead" films (that extended for four decades from 1968-2009). This film was Part 1 of Romero's original zombie trilogy - the first of a canon of zombie classics, and it marked the rise of independent horror. Romero's first three films in a so-called Dead trilogy told about flesh-eating zombies who walked slowly and stiffly (due to the effects of rigor mortis), in a 'cult of the dead':

Romero realized that his archetypal zombie narratives, with extreme blood, violence and gore, could also provide worthwhile sub-textual commentary on societal themes. He recognized that the ultimate in horror was humanity itself ("I also have always liked the monster-within idea. I like the zombies being us"), allegorically presented during turbulent times as mobs of mindless reanimated 'living dead' creatures.

Romero's first Dead film, unintentionally racially-charged, appeared at the same time as civil unrest, Black Power and student protests, the Vietnam War, fear of nuclear annihilation, the gruesome assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the breakdown of the family - all coupled with the idealistic innocence of the previous year's Summer of Love. In fact, the film's editing and voice-over dubbing was completed on the day of MLK's murder on April 4, 1968. Romero's choice of a black lead actor was due to his low budget, but was still revolutionary - the character was the first African-American to play the heroic lead role in a horror film.

The amateurish, allegorical film with a small crew on a shoestring budget was made haphazardly in about six months. The screenplay was taken from an unpublished short story Romero had written called Anubis, so-named after the Egyptian god of the dead (and embalming - or mummification). [Note: One of the film's working titles was Night of Anubis, but was then given the title of Night of the Flesh Eaters.]

Director Romero and co-writer John Russo acknowledged that Richard Matheson's 1954 novella I Am Legend (adapted into the film The Last Man on Earth (1964)) was an inspiration for their apocalyptic sci-fi script. Early zombie films slightly before this 1968 classic with some similar plot elements included Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Zombies of Mora-Tau (1957), and Invisible Invaders (1959). (See Filmsite's extensive feature on the history of Zombie Films.) Other influential films included director Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) and Hitchcock's The Birds (1968). AMC Networks' two popular television series The Walking Dead (2010- ) and Fear the Walking Dead (2015- ) were greatly influenced by this film.

This first film (in a long series) had a production budget of only $114,000, but grossed $12 million (domestic) and $30 million (worldwide). It was remade as Night of the Living Dead (1990) by gore F/X expert turned director Tom Savini, with a revised screenplay written by George Romero (with a reworked beginning and ending). The film was also remade in a 3-D version by producer/director Jeff Broadstreet as Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006).

Plot Synopsis

Barbra's and Johnny's Cemetery Visit:

The notorious film of brutal and relentless horror began, under the credits (omitting cast names for the largely unknown group of performers), with two bickering siblings: blonde Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner). They were impatient with each other and tired after their long 200 hundred mile round-trip journey from Pittsburgh. The two were arriving after a three hour drive in their two-door Pontiac at an abandoned cemetery in rural western Pennsylvania to visit their father's grave. It was almost 8 pm on a Sunday evening, but still light outside due to the onset of daylight savings time. As they got out for their annual trek to the remote gravesite with a memorial cross or wreath of flowers on the stark spring day, thunder and lightning threatened.

After only a few minutes at the tombstone after they placed their cross of flowers on the gravesite, Johnny was restless and impatient with Barbra, who was taking time to ritualistically pray - to keep the dead one's memory alive. He cynically mocked her prayers: ("Hey, I mean, praying's for church, huh?"), and then confessed the uselessness of it all: ("Well, there's not much sense in my going to church"). Johnny recalled their childhood play when he scared Barbra in the same exact location when they were younger, and realized that she nervously continued to admit a phobia about cemeteries and the dead. Knowing that he had behaved irreverently in the graveyard when his grandfather condemned him forever: "Boy, you'll be damned to hell" - he mockingly speculated, hinted or foreshadowed his own coming fate:

"Do you remember one time when we were small, we were out here? It was from right over there. I jumped out at you from behind the tree, and Grandpa got all excited, and he shook his fist at me. And he said, 'Boy, you'll be damned to hell.' Hah! Remember that? Right over there. Well, you used to really be scared here...Hey, you're still afraid."

In the memorable and haunting graveyard sequence, Johnny joked and teased Barbra about being afraid by using a creepy Boris Karloff-like (or Vincent Price) voice:

"They're coming to get you, Barbra... They're coming for you, Barbra...They're coming for you. Look, there comes one of them now....Here he comes now. I'm getting out of here."

Barbra took the prank seriously (she angrily reprimanded him: "You're acting like a child!") - and then Johnny's joke came true. Suddenly, a staggering, stumbling, gaunt and pale-faced figure (S. William Hinzman), looking like a drunk vagrant in a disheveled suit, approached. Then he actually grabbed Barbra - and also fought Johnny when he came to her defense. Johnny was killed as they struggled, when he fell and his head struck a tombstone, while Barbra watched in horror. Barbra fled to their car with the slow-moving, crooked-jawed man shambling after her. She lost her shoes after falling on the slick grass. It was not yet clear that the strange man was a reanimated, ravenous 'living dead' corpse (or zombie, although the term was never explicitly used in the film).

The assailant pursued the helpless victimized Barbra, first to their car where she found that she didn't have the key (later she kept calling out that Johnny had the key). She locked herself in for protection (until the man rocked the car back and forth and then broke the passenger-side window with a large stone). When he reached in to grab her, she released the car's parking brake and gears to coast downhill. She steered the car down the sloped driveway, but the car side-swiped a tree, with the man still in close pursuit. Barbra was forced to abandon it and run down the deserted road to a nearby, isolated two-story white farmhouse for refuge.

Barbra's Flight to a Farmhouse: Introduction of Ben

She entered through a back open door into the kitchen, and locked the door behind her. During her exploration of the empty house, she grabbed a large butcher knife in an open kitchen drawer for protection. She experienced a sudden fright when she entered the living room with mounted, stuffed animals heads on the wall. From the outside, she heard the attacker rattling around, trying to get in. Barbra raced to a phone to dial for help, but the line was dead. From a window, she noticed two more additional trance-like, stiff-legged individuals approaching the exterior of the house - it was now dark outside.

She fled up the stairs, and on the top landing, she viewed a half-eaten, partially-mutilated, bloodied body of a female with a gouged-out eyeball staring back. As she screamed, panicked and fled from the front of the house, she was flooded by the bright headlights of a pickup truck driven by another fugitive, although at first, she possibly thought he was another threatening mugger. The man was African-American (later identified as Ben) - he pushed Barbara inside to protect her, locked the door, and assured her (with a tire-iron in his hand):

"It's all right. Don't worry about him. I can handle him. Probably be a lot more of 'em as soon as they find out about us."

He explained how he had run out of gas with an abandoned pickup that he had found. He was forced to stop there when he thought the gas pump outside might help. When he asked twice: "Is there a key?", Barbra was so thoroughly traumatized that she appeared unable to speak. He also tried the inoperative phone, then asked: "Do you live here?" - she glanced up the stairs with fright. After he saw the female corpse, he told her: "We've gotta get out of here. We have to get where there's some other people." As the black man searched for food in the kitchen, Barbra noticed dripping blood in the hallway from the corpse above. He couldn't answer her repeated question: "What's happening?" - to explain the reason for the nightmarish situation they were facing.

[Note: It has been widely noted that it was inconsistent that the half-eaten female corpse never re-animated.]

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