George Romero’s 1968 piece of art, Night of the Living Dead, tells a gripping tale of a group of survivors fighting against a horde of “living dead” zombies encroaching the house they’re hiding in. However, the real, more insidious enemy plaguing the group are their ideological divides. The film feels so much like a social commentary and, surprisingly, seems incredibly pertinent to the status quo.
The first scene into the bait-and-switch into the lead character was unexpected and genuinely surprising. We start off with a view of Barbra (played by Judith O’Dea) and her brother walking towards the cemetery to pay respects to their father. From there we go on an almost absurd journey, as Barbra tries to escape an undead chasing her. As she finds shelter, we get introduced to the real main character, Ben, played by Duane Jones. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and I can only count on one hand how many black leads I’ve ever seen. Especially thinking about the fact that this movie was released in 1968, Duane’s portrayal of a strong, steady, calm, and resourceful black man taking charge and holding off the undead is incredibly subversive.
Eventually as we’re introduced to the rest of the cast, we see the signs of ideological fracture among the group. Harry, played by Karl Hardman, serves as the chief foil to Ben and they both represent different outlooks on relation and responsibility. The clashes between them serve as a kind of commentary on the costs of survival and the extent of our obligation to our fellow people.
Romero is phenomenal at showing and not telling. Yes, there are exposition dumps woven throughout the movie, but the a lot of the information describes events that we, as the audience, have already seen. This helps create a really dynamic viewing experience which is only amplified by the use of slanted camera angles and amazing lighting choices. The shadows are really accentuated which ramps up the tension, but more importantly the constant use of fire and flames through the movies really pops and creates an impact. Special effect design is also great – the gore effects are visually disturbing and accentuate the depravity of the creatures enough to make them scary even now. However, despite using so many of the above to create a scary spectacle, never once, does the focus of the movie feel like it’s too “away” from the protagonists. The monsters are there – but they’re there to highlight issues and serve as catalysts – the focus is always clearly on the characters.
I would go into more but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything so I’ll end the spoiler free section here.
TLDR: Night of the Living Dead is a dark take on humanity’s response to an terrifying threat. Although it’s a zombie movie on the outside, on the inside it’s a fascinating journey through the darker canals of the human mind.
Final Rating: 9.5/10. If you’re someone who keeps up a lot with social issues and the news, watch this movie. It’s surprisingly though provoking now, five decades later. Anyone who likes psychological films or zombie films should also give this a go.
Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!