31 Screams in October, #11: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Posted: October 12, 2014 in Movie Review
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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne

Zombies have never been more “in” than they are in 2014. They seem like they’ve always been around… and they very nearly have. The earliest “zombie” movie would probably have to be 1932’s “White Zombie” starring Bela Lugosi. However, when we hear the word “zombie,” what we associate with that word doesn’t come into play until 1968. George Romero’s concept of the flesh-eating undead struck such a chord that it has led to countless clones (as well as a few spoofs) in film, comic books, video games and television. With the Season 5 premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” just hours away, it seemed prudent to take a look back at this landmark film.

Siblings Johnny and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) arrive at a cemetery in Pennsylvania to lay a wreath on their father’s grave, when a man appears and attacks and apparently kills Johnny. Barbara, out of fear and self-preservation, runs away and hides in the first house she can find. Already traumatized, her fragile mental state is weakened even further by the sight of a corpse with its face torn off, later presumed to be that of the lady of the household. Soon after, Ben (Duane Jones) arrives in a truck, having noticed that the house has a gas pump out in the front yard. Ben quickly boards up the windows and doors, and tries to reason with the now virtually catatonic Barbara.

It isn’t long before Ben and Barbara find that they were not the first ones to spot this place. Hiding in the basement are Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman, also the film’s producer), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon, Hardman’s real-life daughter), as well as Tom (Keith Wayne) and his girlfriend, Judy (Judith Riley). Only a few boards of wood and an extra door (all held in place by nails) are what stands between them and a growing population of the cannibalistic walking dead. Desperate for information, the group turns first to a radio and, then, to a television set. This is all before the power cuts out on them, though whether that’s from a blown fuse or a downed power line is never specified. As tensions mount inside the house as well as outside, there is never a chance for anyone to breathe as the night becomes a constant struggle to survive.

The first-time feature-length film director took a big risk with his cast of unknowns, but it paid off. Some of them were friends of his, others were financiers and were professionals in areas other than acting, and some (like lead Duane Jones) were primarily stage actors. With such a pivotal film having been made on such a shoestring budget, it makes one wonder who among the legion of today’s YouTube users might secretly be the next George Romero.

As the movie came out just before the MPAA ratings system was in place, that meant that anyone could go see it. Today’s desensitized modern audience may find it too tame for their tastes, scoffing at its brief scenes of gore. What they ought to be doing is viewing the film from the perspective of a late 1960’s moviegoer. The sort of dark, subversive movies that are commonplace now were only just beginning to surface at this time. “Night of the Living Dead” came around when you could still “go too far” without actually going too far.

The movie stirred even more controversy, specifically with its African-American male lead, something which (apart from Sidney Poitier) just didn’t happen in ANY genre in those days. Speaking of Poitier, both he and actor Duane Jones share a then-shocking “slap” in common. Poitier’s came when Virgil Tibbs struck back after being backhanded by a Caucasian plantation owner. In “Night of the Living Dead,” Ben slaps Barbara (a white female) to knock some sense into her, and also later strikes Harry (also white). Shocking, to 1968 audiences, would be putting it mildly. George Romero fully admits to being inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” but “Night of the Living Dead,” with its zombie violence and its patented George Romero social commentary, this time on our obsession with breaking news bulletins and racism (both of which, sadly enough, are still relevant today) has fully earned its own legendary status.

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