The film opens on a long rural road. The audience has to wait some time before a lonely car winds it’s way along, giving a strong sense of isolation and immediately building fear. Barbara and Johnny are on a long drive to lay flowers at their father’s grave. Johnny remembers Barbara’s childhood fear of the graveyard and when they see a lone man slowing approaching them, Johnny begins to tease her. ‘They’re coming to get you Barbara’, he says in a creepy, horrifying voice. As Barbara goes towards towards the man to apologize for her brother’s behaviour, the man lurches forward, grabbing her. In the struggle, Johnny is knocked unconscious and Barbara finds refuge in a local farmhouse, where she waits with local man, Ben, as the house is attacked by hoards of the living dead.
Night Of The Living Dead opened to criticism in 1968 for its explicit violence. Being screened before the MPAA’s film ratings, the movie was shown to teens and young children. Featuring scenes of the living dead feasting on human corpses and dead bodies with their insides hanging out, it is not surprising that this audience was shocked and stunned. Roger Ebert describes the audience reactions in his article, ‘I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt,’ (read the full article here).
A number of distributers had turned down Night Of The Living Dead when the film’s producers refused to censor the film and alter the ending. Fortunately, Walter Reade distributed the film uncensored and the original ending survives to give some of the most powerful scenes in the film, including an undead child cannibalising her father and an atmosphere of total despair. Closing credits featuring still images of the undead hunters and their decomposing prey also make for a harrowing finish. But the criticism of the film’s violent nature may also have helped to make it one of the most popular movies of its time.
The inspiration for Night Of The Living Dead initially came from the James Matheson book, I Am Legend, in which a plague of vampires takes over the world. But Russo and Romero’s script adapted the usual portrayal of zombies at the time – from voodoo style mind controlled beings to the recent dead brought back to life. This opened the door to a new wave of zombie films and has given rise to numerous theories about what its plot symbolises, from society consuming itself, to the impact of capitalism. When cinemablend.com asked Romero about his longstanding tradition of making zombie films, he explained, ‘they could be any disaster. They could be an earthquake, a hurricane, whatever. They don’t represent, in my mind, anything except a global change of some kind. And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this. That’s really all they’ve ever represented to me’. Perhaps this emphasis upon characters and their coping mechanisms explains the continued popularity of Night Of The Living Dead.
While Romero used many techniques from the 1950s, his style in Night Of The Living Dead has been subsequently imitated and even parodied in films such as the popular Shaun Of The Dead. Barbara clutches a headstone as Johnny is murdered, the farmhouse is populated with stuffed animals and she finds a creepy old-fashioned music box to stare mournfully at. A large portion of the film – as Barbara runs to the farmhouse and locks herself inside – is without dialogue, backed by a soundtrack and background noise, giving it a suspenseful atmosphere that is also reminiscent of early silent films. Romero’s stationary camera also enhances the feeling of isolation and being held captive.
My favourite part of Night Of The Living Dead has to be the radio and television broadcasts that the bring us news on the status of the outbreak, from disbelief and confusion, ‘there is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins… a sudden explosion of mass homicide,’ to the plea to get everyone to a ‘rescue station’. These broadcasts also fuel the panic inside the farmhouse, bringing the terrifying outside world into their protected domain. As the announcer states, ‘the killers are eating the people they kill,’ Romero presents a close-up of Barbara’s stunned and bewildered expression.
Night Of The Living Dead, is the definitive zombie film that established George A. Romero as a horror director. There are some silly plot developments – including a rookie mistake with a truck, a torch of fire and some petrol – but his horror film has stood the test of time with a superb ending to top it off.
Have you ever played the card-style board game Zombies!!! from Twilight Creations Inc? I have to say it’s pretty awesome and if you love The Night Of The Living Dead and similar zombie movies, you’re sure to enjoy it. Check it out here.
WATCH MORE ZOMBIE MOVIES
Why not also check out Day Of The Zombie’s 25 Greatest Zombie Movies here?