With its stark black and white "Universal"-era photography and eerie 50's-style sci-fi soundtrack, its very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security during the early goings of Night of the Living Dead. But by the time you're twenty minutes into George A. Romero's seminal and nihilistic zombie redux, you begin to realize that the director is willing to do just about anything and to shock and horrify you.
Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive at a creepy (is there any other kind?) cemetery to pay respects to their dear, departed dad. Picking up on his sister's unease, Johnny attempts to freak her out by pointing out a lanky, shambling figure approaching from the distance. "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" he intones in his best Karloffian tones.
His attempt at gallows humor quickly escalates into a moment of genuine terror. The ghoulish drifter attacks Barbra, forcing Johnny to come to her rescue. In the ensuing scuffle he's rendered unconscious, giving Barbra an opportunity to flee (and possibly gloat "Who's comin' to get who now, bee-yotch?")
She runs to an abandoned farm house but the system shocks keep piling on. In quick succession, Romero gives us dramatic shots of taxidermy, blood dripping down from the upstairs landing and a wince-inducing close-up of a half-eaten corpse. To make matters worse: graveyard boy shows up again, this time accompanied by an entire posse of his fellow shamblers. Is there any wonder why Barbra (plus a large segment of viewers, presumably) find themselves virtually catatonic with fear by this point?
Just as the last of Barb's marbles are circling the drain the script introduces several new characters. Noble, level-headed Ben (Duane Jones) does his best to keep our "heroine" sentient while shoring up the house's defenses, taking stock of supplies and fending off undead incursions. More reinforcements emerge from the bowels of the basement in the form of thirty-year old teenagers Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) as well as Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), her asshole husband Harry (Karl Hardman) and their pre-chomped daughter Karen (Kyra Schon).
When this rag-tag group finally determines what's going on, we fully expect them to band together in a united bid to escape. Unfortunately their campaign for survival is immediately de-railed by a clash of egos, infantile power plays and chronic jack-assery. I hate to break it you you, kids, but 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead weren't the first entertainments to pose that eternal question: "During a zombie apocalypse would our worst enemies be the zombies or ourselves?"
After Ben breaks out a radio we soon learn that their assailants are re-animated corpses. That's bad enough but when we discover that these fiends have a taste for human flesh, a fuse burns out in our brain. Given what we've witnessed thus far, we immediately begin to dread the very real possibility that Romero will follow through on the inferred threat of showing these cannibalistic proclivities on screen.
Y'see, prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombies were mainly depicted as mindless laborers, goons or automatons (The Plague of the Zombies from two years being a notable exception). It's interesting to note that Romero's flesh-eaters in Night of the Living Dead are still a work in progress. The graveyard zombie doesn't pause for a Johnnycake, they all recoil from fire like Frankenstein's monster and collectively exhibit three-dimensional thinking by using weapons. In light of established zombie behavior it's interesting to watch Romero's ghouls employ rocks to break car windows and headlights, clubs to batter down doors and garden trowels to get their murder-on.
The script even gives us pseudo-scientific reason for the danse macabre. After Ben produces a vintage T.V. set news reports soberly inform us that the dead started to get mobile not long after an irradiated satellite returning from Venus was destroyed in our atmosphere. Mercifully, Romero would abandon this hackneyed MacGuffin (apparently left over from the previous decade's atomic monster movies) for future entries in his zombie saga.
Leading up to these revelations, the audience continues to witness evidence that Romero is complete off his rocker and more then willing to shatter ever possible taboo in order to horrify us. Ben blasts away at the ghouls with a rifle, treating audiences to some very early Peckinpah-era blood squibs. Matter-of-fact mock news reports urge viewers to ignore the normal grieving process and cremate their loved ones before they get back up and start nibbling on elbows. A nekkid zombie casually strolls into frame at one point. Another horribly disfigured ghoul chows down on a bug, simultaneously testing our funny bone and gag reflex.
And with that Night of the Living Dead shoves the viewer out of the nervous-giggle-inspiring funhouse and into a relentlessly terrifying endurance test. When Ben, Tom and Judy's quest to refuel their escape vehicle ends in a debacle, Romero goes right for the jugular. Given that the tense yet ungory Psycho was probably the previous high-water mark for scares, movie goers at the time must have been traumatized when Romero's dead-eyed camera lens impassively documented zombies graphically chowing down on human fricassee.
Night of the Living Dead is undeniably a product of its time. Although Romero constantly downplays casting a black actor in the lead (insisting that Duane Jones got the job simply because he was "the best actor they knew"), anyone can appreciate the significance of this bold step. Especially when a roving band of armed, German shepherd-leading rednecks have their unforgettable run-in with Ben at the climax of the picture.
The other major subtext that bled into the script was the youth rebellion prevalent at the time. Conservative parents that had grown up demure and obedient in the Fifties could scarcely fathom their own offspring taking part in anti-war protests, draft card immolation and espousing tenants of freedom and anarchy. When Karen Cooper succumbs to the zombie plague and comes back to bite the arm that feeds her and (literally) break her mother's heart with a garden trowel you really don't need to be a sociologist to figure out what this means.
Considering the film's skid-row budget, the performances are generally pretty good. As originally scripted, the character of Ben was a "colorless" but crude, rough-and-tumble goon. When Duane Jones came onboard he wisely insisted that the role be re-written to bring it more in tune with his own personality. As a result, Jones is flawlessly self-assured, well-spoken and exceedingly noble. In fact, the only time he seems ill-at-ease is when he's required to brandish a rifle or strike a frantic Barbra, clearly two artifacts left over from the previous draft.
Speaking of Judith O'Dea, her performance as Barbra is pretty hammy. The fact that she goes Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs almost immediately isn't a liability since O'Dea's overwrought approach is actually better suited to mania or catatonia. A lot of hay had been made over the fact that Barbra is virtually useless throughout the film but it's also somewhat realistic. Let's face it, folks, if dead bodies suddenly started coming back to life and devouring the living, most of us would lose our shit pronto, regardless of gender. Granted, there's still an antiquated whiff of sexism in the script, particularly when human choad Harry Cooper whines about being saddled with "a sick child, two women, (and) one woman (who's) out of her head".
But perhaps that line exists just to drive home the fact that Cooper is one of cinema's most monumental assholes. Although Karl Hardman's performance is almost comedically broad, he certainly succeeds in making the audience despise him with the fire of a million suns. Although he's depicted as the sort of irredeemable bastard normally only seen in an E.C. horror comic, I always though that Cooper would have relaxed if he'd just bothered to unbuckle the belt cinched up around his sternum.
Marilyn Eastman's turn as Helen Cooper is the best out of the minor players. She's the heart and soul of the picture: smart, level-headed and sympathetic. In fact, if anything dates Night of the Living Dead, it's her resigned complicity with her douchebag husband. Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley are a bit amateurish as the younger couple but at least they're earnest and likable. Their collective brain cramp during OPERATION GAS UP THE TRUCK WHILE BEING ASSAULTED FROM ALL SIDES BY CANNIBALISTIC WALKING CORPSES is frantically authentic and completely forgivable, given the dire circumstances.
Night of the Living Dead isn't perfect. Given the speed, frugality and unconventional nature of its genesis, some neophyte mistakes do creep in from time to time. For example, during the full length of movie it goes from late afternoon to night to dusk to night and then back to day again. Sharp- eyed viewers will be intrigued by the mystery of Barbra's disappearing slippers. Smashed-out truck headlights miraculously start working again.
But more often then not, the film's low budget really sells the experience as a claustrophobic, sweaty, tense living nightmare. The discordant, eerie music adds tremendous impact to the matricide scene as well as the pick-up truck hibachi sequence. The ad-libbed, on-the spot interview between real-life news reporter Bill Cardille and redneck sheriff George Kosana is inspired genius. Finally, the grainy black-and-white stills that infer a repellent application of meat-hooks and bonfires ensures that even the film's end credits are inherently terrifying.
Night of the Living Dead is the cinematic equivalent of the Zapruder film. How often can you watch a movie make history during it's run time? Half-way through the experience you begin to realize that you're witnessing the birth of the modern horror movie right before your wide, unbelieving eyes.