Night of the Living Dead (1968)
June 4, 2018 5:04 PM - Subscribe

There is panic throughout the nation as the dead suddenly come back to life. The film follows a group of characters who barricade themselves in an old farmhouse in an attempt to remain safe from these bloodthirsty, flesh-eating monsters.

Empire: [I]t’s such an important movie that it runs the risk of disappointing first-time viewers who’ve seen all the later films that copied its licks – part of its strength is that it’s not a glossy, predictable Hollywood horror and so it has a grainy, semi-amateur, black and white look which gives it a dread sense of conviction. The shambling dead besiege a group of squabbling wannabe survivors in an isolated farmhouse, eating the entrails of those too inept to see them off with a bullet to the brain.

Many of its plot strands were unprecedented: a heroine who reacts credibly to an appalling situation by becoming a useless catatonic, a black hero who finally has less to fear from the zombies than from the ghoul-hunting posse combing the countryside as if on a Vietnam search and destroy mission, news bulletins that include expert advice (‘kill the brain and you kill the ghoul’) from the men on the ground, a relentlessly pessimistic ending.

Slant: The hero of the film is a resourceful, quietly intense black man named Ben (Duane Jones). After he boards up the house and delivers a searing monologue about his narrow escape from the creatures outside, he has to deal with Barbara’s increasing hysteria, and even though the movie never overtly comments on racial or sexual tension, it’s unavoidable when you have a scene where he has to slap Barbara into unconsciousness (and, as an act of atonement, finds her a pair of slippers for her bare feet). While our survivors deal with the nightmarish situation at their doorstep, they also have to deal with each other, and that subtle discomfiture between Ben and Barbara lends an eerie frisson to their scenes together. Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, and the troubled partnership between Ben and Barbara is as much a sign of the times as the zombie invasion. There’s much more going on here, and much more reason for this horror classic’s timelessness, than a straightforward Vietnam allegory. That said, as impassive creatures lay siege upon the rickety house, the characters find themselves in a situation as hopeless, devoid of reason and criminally unfair as the political climate of their era.

There’s a brute force in Night of the Living Dead that catches one in the throat. As other survivors gather in the farmhouse, they come up with plans of escape that continually go awry. No matter how many times they shoot the zombies, throw homemade fire bombs at them, wave torches in the air, and board up the windows, the monsters keep coming. Once you tally up the carnage, however, only two of the six principal characters die in zombie attacks; the others are wiped out by their own kind through short sightedness, stupidity or blind rage. Human error remains a chilling X-factor here, and the notable sequence where survivors attempt to flee in a truck is a series of blunders that’s painful to watch. Romero shot the sequences plainly, without operatic fanfare, and their effect is downright numbing.

As for the ending, it’s notoriously downbeat. The farmhouse survivors end up in a calamitous mess, with almost all of them killed in the onslaught. When help comes in the form of police helicopters, attack dogs, and a posse of good old boys with shotguns, Romero subverts the notion that authority figures know best. When they arrive at the farmhouse killing off zombies in the fields and searching for human survivors, the outcome is hardly what you’d expect. Audiences of the time felt emotionally seared and vindicated at the same time, remembering the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as the hick sheriff, instead of lending a helping hand, orders his man to fire at will and hit all moving targets “right between the eyes.”

The final images are still black-and-white frames of bodies (of people we have come to know) being carried to a raging funeral pyre on meat hooks, dehumanizing the dead among us. The ending has a staying power, inducing rage and nausea in equal measure.

Full movie on YouTube

Art of the Title

George Romero didn't mean to tackle race in Night of the Living Dead, but he did anyway

How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’

Night Of The Living Dead’s indiscriminate killing spree is a handy metaphor for ’60s society

Roger Ebert commentary on audience reaction during Night of the Living Dead screening

George Romero Discusses ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in Previously Unavailable 1972 Interview
posted by MoonOrb (15 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have to disagree with Empire in that this movie is one of those genre-definers that still feels truly fresh and surprising even today. It's just such a damned good film.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:39 PM on June 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

Still scary.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:50 PM on June 4, 2018

In one of the finest arguments against copyright, Lowell Mason (an alias for James Riffel) took the original, completely wiped out the soundtrack, and dubbed in his own words and music, "What's Up, Tiger Lily?"-style. The result, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2, is all-time hilarious.
posted by whuppy at 6:32 AM on June 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Even as a modern viewer, I find this movie almost unwatchably disturbing. I'm not sure why. Maybe the combination of the black & white, the ponderous tone, the fact that I went to college in the area where they filmed it, so the towns they list on the news are very familiar to me. The scene where the little girl kills her mother with a trowel...GAH. The opening scene with Barbara and her asshole brother is really great and could be a short film all on its own.

Good God, Barbara is useless and incredibly frustrating as a character. Ben is awesome.
posted by Aquifer at 8:38 AM on June 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the event of an actual zombie apocalypse, there would be no Bens; everyone would be Barbara.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:46 AM on June 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

In one of the finest arguments against copyright

The film is in the public domain and has been since the day it debuted.
posted by maxsparber at 2:34 PM on June 5, 2018

Yes. The example was something that can only be done (legally) because the film is not in copyright.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:40 PM on June 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I suppose that in and of itself is an argument against copyright and for a robust public domain.
posted by maxsparber at 2:40 PM on June 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

That's how I took whuppy's comment in the first place.
posted by tobascodagama at 3:12 PM on June 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

It took me six minutes to get there.
posted by maxsparber at 4:22 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I watched this for the first time when I was 14 - I had seen a commercial advertising that it would be on TV and I knew I'd be home alone that night while my mom worked, so I made some popcorn, snuggled up on the couch, and proceeded to have the living daylights scared out of me when a windstorm kicked up during a critical moment of tension, knocking down the 100+ ft pine tree just outside my window. It's a great film, it didn't need the abject terror of lightning flashing through the windows and giant pines roaring in the wind but I will admit I enjoyed the ambience.
posted by annathea at 12:09 PM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is one of a small handful of movies on my "Never Watch Alone At Night" list.

I actually felt a tear running down my cheek at the end the first time I watched it. Just the whole unfairness of everything that happened in the final act -- from the moment the truck escape fails -- hit me so hard. And made it so realistic.

Romero et al really made something magical when they put this together.
posted by lord_wolf at 2:05 PM on June 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

The 1990 Savini remake is a much different movie, but also good on its own terms. It gets unfairly maligned and overlooked.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:20 PM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've seen this a bunch of times and I'm always astounded at how good a filmmaker Romero was right out of the gate with his first feature. He was working with no budget, not sets, amateur actors and a crew that had only made Iron City commercials and Mr. Rogers segments and made a film that still scares the hell out of me half a century later.
posted by octothorpe at 6:04 PM on June 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I just watched this with my kid last night. Umpteenth time for me, first for them.

I was struck by the way Romero steadily ratchets things up:
-weird guy, not obviously dead, grabby/scary
-multiple weird guys, some clearly injured; obviously intending to harm
-lots of people, some of whom seem too damaged to be normal, living people; ready to kill
-Ben explains this is happening all over town; deadly swarms
-media reports they are eating flesh, this is nationwide
-it becomes clear they're dead/undead

He really leads you to the zombie thing in steps, never asking you to go too far at once.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:06 AM on January 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

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