Night of the Living Dead (1968)

“Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”

Night of the Living Dead Poster

Synopsis:
A woman (Judith O’Dea) whose brother (Russell Streiner) has just been killed by zombies seeks refuge in an abandoned house with other refugees — including a determined young man (Duane Jones), a young couple (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), and a middle-aged man (Karl Hardman) with a wife (Marilyn Eastman) and an infected daughter (Kyra Schon).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of George Romero’s cult horror classic by asserting that it “no longer scares the daylight out of viewers because the films it spawned have been much more graphic”, but he notes that “you’ll still be impressed by Romero’s style, wit, and themes”. However, fledgling film fanatics (and those like myself, who don’t tend to seek out horror flicks on a regular basis) will surely find themselves genuinely frightened, at least during the third section of the film, when the situation builds to a feverish pitch, and it becomes increasingly clear that most members of our ensemble cast are not long for this (living) world. Peary calls out “a couple of jump-out-of-your-seat moments featuring ghouls unexpectedly shooting their hands through windows and trying to grab someone”, and these are indeed twitch-inducing — but I find myself even more deeply disturbed by the scenes taking place down in the basement (an inherently scary location, IMHO).

Peary notes that this “pessimistic and unsentimental” film taps into our most “basic fears: monsters that won’t go away, darkness, claustrophobia”, with “even blood relations [turning] on their loved ones when infected by a ghoul’s bite”. He offers numerous other titles for comparison, noting that NOTLD has “much in common with Invisible Invaders, Carnival of Souls, and, the most obvious influences, Psycho and The Birds;” he points out that in both NOTLD and The Birds, for instance, “people congregate in [a] house for one reason only: fear”. He notes parallels between the literal attacks perpetrated from the outside of the house by the “ghouls”, and the internal verbal sparring between Jones (interestingly, the “script never mentions that [he] is black”) and boorish Hardman — and points out the ironic fact that “Hardman’s plan for survival… turns out to be superior to the implemented plan of Jones”, something apparently not noted by any other critics at the time.

Be forewarned: for first-time viewers, the powerful surprise ending is sure to make you go, “Now wait a minute!!!” It comes as a visceral shock, and was a bold move by screenwriter John A. Russo.

P.S. Peary notes that this “low-budget independent picture… was saved from obscurity … due to word of mouth and critics’ raves” — so it goes, always and forever, in the fickle world of indie cinema…

P.S.S. Why does Peary call the zombies “ghouls” throughout his review? I’m really not sure.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective high-contrast cinematography
    Night Living Dead Cinematography
  • Dramatic editing and camera angles
    Night Living Dead Angles
  • Some truly frightening images
    Night Living Dead Scary
  • A brutally startling ending, with creative closing credits
    Night Living Dead Ending

Must See?
Yes, as an undisputed horror classic. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Night of the Living Dead (1968)”

  1. A no-brainer (as it were) must – and one that holds up unbelievably well on repeat viewings. As far as that goes, I disagree with Peary in that I have seen this film many times and, each time, it scares the crap out of me (subsequent, more graphic films notwithstanding).

    To answer the question posed, a ghoul – by definition – is someone who feeds off dead bodies. But I understand the question because zombies are somewhat different than ghouls. We don’t think of ghouls as the walking dead.

    But anyway…

    Having just rewatched the film, I’m amazed by what was achieved on such a low-budget. Serving as his own DP, Romero’s camerawork alone is perfection – capturing, as it does, not just the horror aspect but the psychological aspect of all that plays out.

    Essentially, this was the first screen appearance for the entire (main) cast. Putting aside the issue of whether or not any of them come off as amateurish, what *does* read is that these actors replicate astonishingly well that they *are* these people in this specific situation….which elevates the film’s sense of stark reality.

    I’m impressed by the film’s structure. It’s a little over 90 minutes – built as 3 roughly-30-minute sections and a short epilogue:

    1) The exposition that firmly and cleverly lays the groundwork (esp. for the pay-off to come) by focusing on just a few characters.
    2) The simmering to the boiling point, by bringing in the rest of the characters and establishing unrest inside as well as outside the house.
    3) The explosion.
    Epilogue: During which your heart is likely to be broken in the film’s final 3 minutes.

    It could be nearly impossible (and probably unnecessary) to determine which film is King of cult films. But, for me, ‘NOTLD’ is definitely King of the Midnight Movies (with ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ in an almost-photo-finish second place). I first saw ‘NOTLD’ at the Waverly in Greenwich Village in NYC. In the pot-infested balcony. (Ahh…memories.) Its power as the ultimate midnight flick remains, I think, supreme.

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