Written by: George A. Romero and John Russo
Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"The unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims."
In the late 60s, a small-time director of commercials for local television got together with a group of friends with the intention of making a horror film. They were able to convince a local production to scrounge up about $114,000, and thus, production began. Such a story has become as cliche in and of itself within the horror genre; however, the ending to this story is anything but cliche, as the then-unknown George A. Romero would go on to create one of the most influential horror films of all time in Night of the Living Dead, which virtually spawned the zombie genre as we know it today. While this wasn't the first time the world had seen the undead on the screen before, many of the conventions that we've come to know began right here.
The film opens with a brother and sister, Johnny and Barbra, visiting the grave of their deceased father. This visitation is quite innocuous until a strange looking guy begins wandering around the graveyard. It soon becomes clear that he has a malicious intentions when he attacks Barbra and Johnny; even worse, this guy is apparently a walking corpse that knocks Johnny out, leaving Barbra all alone with the ghoulish predator. She ends up narrowly escaping and finding what appears to be an abandoned house until another fellow survivor, Ben, shows up and takes charge. Barbra and Ben are not the only inhabitants of the house, however, as five other survivors have taken refuge in the house's cellar: Harry and Helen Cooper, their daughter, and a teenage couple, Tom and Judy. As the ghouls descend on the house, these survivors (particularly Ben and Harry) must find a way to manage the chaos sweeping the entire country, lest they destroy each other before the gathering undead do the job.
40 years after the film's release, I find it difficult to say anything that hasn't already been said about this film. If you haven't experienced the film, it most definitely is everything you've heard, and, while the film might not affect you the way it affected audiences in 1968, it should instill a sense of appreciation, especially given its production history. Perhaps the most often-cited praise is for the social and historic commentary that pervades the film at every turn. While many will point to Romero's choice to cast an African-American in the film's "hero" role as an example of such commentary, Romero claims that Duane Jones simply gave the best audition. Besides this, reducing the film to simply black and white stereotypes does not do the film justice because this film is full of grey areas. Without spoiling the film, I will just say that the film feels quite ambiguous as it pertains to the "hero" and "villain" of the piece. While Ben's actions paint him to be the former, Romero doesn't allow the Cooper character to simply be a one-dimensional, bumbling "bad guy," as each character makes compelling points throughout the film.
And this gets to the heart of the true commentary that's at the heart of not only this film, but each film in Romero's Dead series: if we all just got along, we'd be able to survive this zombie apocalypse. Though it's hard to imagine that Romero didn't have racial tension on his mind in 1968 (especially with the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X), he makes it clear that the human propensity towards self-destruction knows no racial bounds. It's never the zombies themselves that are the true villains in these films; instead, it always comes down to some sort of bickering or complacency that end up destroying our protagonists.
The film itself is very subversive from a cinematic perspective for this reason. Though the film is stylistically reminiscent of sci-fi and horror schlock from the 1950s, the film is ultimately a grim anticipation of 1970s nihilism. Indeed, Night of the Living Dead explodes any sense of hope, naivete, and innocence, and the film is grounded in its era's disillusionment. It's hard to deny that 1968 was one of the worst years in American history, as the country not only endured the aforementioned assassinations of Malcolm X and King, but also of Robert Kennedy; combine this with the growing unrest over Vietnam, and you begin to see why Night of the Living Dead was released at just the right time.
However, this is not to say that the film only works as a product of its time. While it is no doubt richer when set in its historical context, the film is still timeless to a certain extent. Cinematically speaking, it seems rather dated, but this is more due to Romero's limitations at the time. For example, the film has a staged quality, which is probably due to the fact that the two leads (Jones and O'Dea) were primarily stage actors, while the other characters had no prior acting experience. Remarkably, I've always felt that Karl Hardman gives one of the stronger performances in the film despite this fact. Furthermore, I would guess that most of the film felt dated even when it was first released because it truly does feel more like a film from the 50s rather than the late 60s.
The black and white photography contributes is a major factor in this, of course; however, it is not the only factor (Psycho, for example was shot black and white 8 years earlier, yet feels more "modern" than this film). There's also the film's score, which is composed entirely of stock music from various sources, including a 1950s science fiction film. This gives the film a B-movie feel, but it actually works well, and the various sources are appropriately stitched together to give the film a weird, off-kilter vibe. Romero's gritty, guerilla style direction, however, feels a bit novel here, as, while the acting feels staged, the film feels like a documentary at times, capturing the chaos as it happens. When all of these elements come together, you have quite a unique piece of cinematic history that feels like something old, yet oddly new as well.
As a horror film, Night of the Living Dead is tame these days; however, during its release, the film was condemned for its excessive gore and disturbing images. Modern audiences won't be shocked because they've seen so much more (and Romero himself even pushed the envelope beyond this in his own Dead sequels). These days, I think we're so used to seeing violence unfold on the screen that we don't truly stop to think how horrifying something can be; however, if you stop to truly consider what happens in Night of the Living Dead, it's horrifying indeed because Romero truly captures an apocalyptic and despairing feel. This is best achieved with the film's ending, and I must advise you to watch the entire credits sequence to feel the film's impact, as any perceived sense of hope or optimism goes up in flames. While the film certainly features its share of violence (a woman being stabbed to death, zombies eating body parts, etc.), Night of the Living Dead is ultimately a very haunting film whose despairing tone will linger with you longer than the film's violence. In this sense, the film is timeless because it gets to the root of what horror can be: disturbing, chaotic, and thought-provoking.
Amazingly enough, this landmark film is part of the public domain as a result of the film's theatrical distributor neglecting to claim a copyright on the film's title screen. Thus, the film has nearly two dozen DVD releases from various companies. You can find it as a part of compilations and on its own from both major studios and small-time companies. The DVD featured here is from Legend films, who distributed it via Fox/MGM. As you can see, this release features a colorized version of the film along with the original black and white version (here presented as a "special feature"). I'm sure there are many purists who decry the very existence of the colorized version, but, as a purist myself, I don't mind that it's here since the original is also presented.
While I will of course recommend the black and white version, the colorized version is there as a curiosity for anyone who wants to see it. As a side note, there is also a "30th Anniversary" version of the film that features a new score and new scenes (shot 30 years later by co-writer John Russo) that is by all accounts terrible and does far more damage than colorization. This version is not presented on the Legend DVD, which is a nice release all around, as both transfers are nice and look much better than most public domain presentations I've seen. The film also gets a 5.1 remix that really does nothing for the film considering it was originally mono, but it gets the job done. There is also a feature commentary by Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame, so fans of his will want to track this one down. With a film as monumental as Night of the Living Dead, I think you owe it to yourself to seek out a release from a major studio in lieu of a public domain DVD, and the Legend release is as good as any. No matter the release, however, there's no doubt that this is a film that should grace every horror fan's library. Essential!
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