Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" has no real resemblance to what we know as the modern horror film. In fact, I doubt that there is any backstory to the film—the film just throws you into a situation with characters and expects that engage...it's a gamble that's well worth the risk.
The movie's beginning sees two siblings carrying a wreath to place on their father's grave. They didn't really know him that well, but they annually bring a new wreath to place in the cemetery. They are both tired from the long drive that seems pointless to the brother.
Once at the cemetery, they notice a man who is ambling around, seeming in a daze. To scare her, the brother cornily says that "he's coming to get you"...which, he is.
The man turns out to be a zombie, a word that, if ever used in the film (I don't think that it is), has come to mean something completely else in modern day culture.
With movies like "Zombieland" and TV shows like "The Walking Dead", I doubt you could find a modern teenager who hasn't heard of the bad guys. Yet, Romero's classic is so clever because the characters don't know anything about the zombies, thus they have to find out for themselves the staples of the genre: zombies don't like fire, zombies die after a head shot, a bite is infectious, etc.
The zombie attacks the brother and the sister has barely enough time to escape before the imposing man is chasing her down.
She runs and finds herself at a small house—my thoughts went to "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", don't go in the house!—and bursts inside, locking the door behind her. She's alone for a few minutes before she tries the telephone—not working—and ventures upstairs to find the owner dead.
A lot of hysterical "woman screaming" later and a man comes to the house, evading the zombies that have no congregated around the small farm, eager for human flesh.
He doesn't introduce himself and she doesn't ask for his name. Instead, he gets right to boarding up the house, while she is content to spend the rest of the film in a state of catatonia.
"Night of the Living Dead" is very straightforward in its approach—survive the night. Help always seems to be on the way, the intelligent have survived and are working on explanations for why there is a "mass murder" epidemic.
The film is really, really clever, though it doesn't show its true cards until the last few minutes of the movie. The last frames of the film have us questioning everything we have seen, from what constitutes a "zombie" to the evil nature of man. I don't think that Romero was trying to make a statement with the film, but all the right ingredients are present for him to do so.
Also curious is the motif of the black man in a horror film. It's become a rather regrettable part of the horror genre to be defined by racism. Any African American character will most likely be the first one to get the axe...or the instrument of choice. The solitary, white girl seems to be the most likely to survive, which is a curious anomaly of the horror genre because man-power is present everywhere else.
But with "Night of the Living Dead" there is no trope of racism. The man that arrives to the house and starts to board it up is black and he identifies himself as "the boss". He is the most intelligent, the most athletic, and the most cunning of any character on screen. He's all about survival...but will that be enough?
"Night of the Living Dead" was Romero's debut piece and has since landed itself into the history books, not only as one of the originators of zombie entertainment, but as a landmark horror film.
Posted by Micah Jones