George A. Romero will be remembered in cinematic circles for inventing the zombie horror genre. Night of the Living Dead is and remains the inspiration for the slew of zombie related horrors which follow. It is not without its unique issues, but these are more a product of the time in which it was produced, than serious indictments of the character of the film. The plot is thus: Barbara and her brother Johnny are laying flowers at their parents’ grave when suddenly a lone zombie comes up and attacks them. This spawned the iconic line “They’re coming for you Barbra” which I have included in the clip below.
Barbra escapes to a nearby farm house where she finds herself locked in with Ben, Harry and Helen Cooper, their sick daughter Karen and Tom and Judy, a couple. Will they escape intact?
- Duane Jones … Ben
- Judith O’Dea … Barbra
- Karl Hardman … Harry Cooper
- Marilyn Eastman … Helen Cooper
- Keith Wayne … Tom
- Judith Ridley … Judy
- Kyra Schon … Karen Cooper / Corpse in House
As with all seminal horror films, we have become desensitised to the comparatively demure techniques used to evoke terror. However, it must be recognised that this was the first zombie movie and as such would have terrified audiences then. M and I wondered what it would be like for us to travel back in time and show the same audience The Conjuring. I suspect they would not have slept for many weeks. Romero established the core facets of zombification in this movie, that is to say the resurrection of the bodies from graves, eating the flesh of their victims, needing to shoot the zombie in the head to kill the brain and thus neutralise the threat. These all came from this film and can be seen featured invariably in the zombie horrors which followed.
An independent film shot in grainy black-and-white on a shoestring budget, Romero delivered a stark and subversive horror that established the most important facets of zombie lore (bodies returning from the grave, destroying the brain to kill them for good) and proved the director as a filmmaker adept at genre-infused social commentary. As Ben, Barbra and more hide away from the rising corpses in a rural farmhouse, Romero reflects ideas of racism in the USA, the ongoing trauma of the Vietnam War, and the American public facing up to the realisation that their greatest enemy might actually be themselves. Empire
I was somewhat concerned at the portrayal of Barbra as an incapable, panic stricken mess throughout the film. I suppose this is again a product of the time of the film. I was impressed by the consistent drama between the guests of the house, namely Ben and Mr Cooper (the latter of which obsessively insisting that everyone would be safer in the basement of the house – they were not). This drama and the tendency for Ben to be correct more often in his strategic thinking leant itself to some stellar drama and dialogue.
Overall, without spoiling any of the surprises of this film, I must admit it ended exactly how I suspected it would. I am deeply impressed by this movie and encourage you to watch it to gain an understanding of all the zombie films which followed. Please see below a more modern trailer for The Night of the Living Dead.
Further watching (optional)
- 28 Days Later (Boyle, 2003)
- 28 Weeks Later (Boyle, 2007)
- Train to Busan (Sang-ho 2016)
- Dawn of the Dead (Romero 1978)
- Day of the Dead (Romero 1985)