Synopsis: Dead bodies are returning to life and eating human flesh! A group of survivors seeks refuge in a farmhouse, hoping to protect themselves from the hordes of advancing zombies. Trapped and alone, they fight for their lives…hoping this horrible nightmare will come to an end. Who will survive the Night of the Living Dead?
When George Romero unleashed this low-budget black and white horror film on the masses, little could he -or anyone- imagine the impact that it would have on pop culture and on cinema in general: not only has it inspired other filmmakers, but it basically created the rules of the modern-day zombie film (pre-’28 Days Later’), generated a bevy of sequels/remakes/tributes, and is constantly represented in North American media in various forms. It is so iconic, in fact, that in 1999 it was even selected for the National Film Registry.
But, how does it hold up some forty year later?
In my mind, despite its numerous flaws, NOTLD holds up very well. The fact that it’s shot in black and white, thereby making it somewhat timeless, and that the filmmakers made the most of what they had (without making the rookie mistake of aspiring the film to be something it’s not) really helps the film to retain some of its credibility after all this time.
Also helping it cross boundaries and generations is the fact that the film is viewed by many as being filled with social commentary. The reason I note it this way is because the director has claimed that it was never his intention to comment on the state of affairs at the time. However, critics and fans alike see reflections of the Cold war, Vietnam war and the racial divide in the United States at the time – and these elements add much meat to NOTLD’s bones.
Aside from this social commentary, one of the core strengths of the film, in my mind, is the powerful performance of Duane Jones. I can’t remember a stronger black American lead in any film prior to 1968 (granted, this is post-Sidney Poitier, but I haven’t seen most of Poitier’s works – thus, Duane Jones’ role stands out, in my mind, to this day). In this film, Jones plays a very self-assured character with as much brains as he’s got guts. He’s imperfectly human, but he is played with a tremendous amount of class by Jones (who, it is said, asked for script rewrites so that his character would sound more educated).
Sadly, the rest of cast is a mixed bag and few can match his intensity and/or skill. Particularly horrid is Judith O’Dea, who manages to make someone suffering from severe shock sound like a mentally-challenged 3-year-old. Considering that the film was an über-low budget production and couldn’t afford a more talented group of actors, I think it’s fair to give the film some slack in this case: after all, its core -the writing and the ideas conveyed in the film- is still top-notch.
Taken in such context, it’s also possible to ignore the many noticeable errors in editing. There are issues, certainly, but they are probably due to the fact that the filmmakers had limited resources and experience – it’s not something that continues to be a problem with Romero’s future endeavours (at least, not in the ones that I have seen – and I have seen quite a few at this point!).
Romero’s career is wholly indebted to ‘Night of the Living Dead’, even if it has also been mostly impossible for him to break away from its ghastly shadows. Still, NOTLD is incontestably a classic – and very few directors can claim to have made a film that has a life of its own (undead or not!). Surely, knowing that your film has become a “must-see” is enough to make anyone proud – despite any reservations one might have about it.
‘Night of the Living Dead’ falls into the Horror-genre by virtue of the fact that there are zombies in it. But it’s so much more: it’s a tense drama taking place inside an abandoned country home – a small shelter for a handful of mismatched characters who are desperately trying to survive a chaotic situation that they don’t quite understand.
That, alone, is worth the 90 mins. Throw in the unpredictability of zombies, and you’ve got a clear winner.