Zombies attack; that is the basic plot for most undead survival horror pictures, but George Romero’s original 1968 film uses zombies more like a Hitchcock MacGuffin. Barbara and her brother Johnny travel hours outside of Pittsburg to leave flowers in a cemetery. Johnny jokes about her being afraid. A man attacks. Johnny fights him and Barbara runs away. The man pursues and chases Barbara to an abandoned house in an isolated rural area. This is the set up. Ben arrives and takes refuge in the house. By now Barbara is hysterical and incoherent and paralyzed. Ben boards up the house as zombies group outside. Down in the basement another group of survivors led by Mr. Cooper. They don’t come to until they are certain danger is absent. Cooper and Ben disagree with their course of action. Cooper wants to barricade in the cellar. Ben feels they stand a fighting chance upstairs where there is food and radio, and where they can observe their surroundings and maybe get away if need be. The tension develops between who is right.
The first glimpse I ever had of Night of the Living Dead was in a horror tribute special hosted by Vincent Price in the 1980s. It was called “Creepy Classics”. Price provided campy commentary in between movie clips, and the first sequence shown was the cemetery scene. I was scared by the film and did not see it complete for another 10 or so years. I always thought Barbara was the star of the piece. The last image I had of the film was her running into the lonely house—a shelter from the undead—and never imagined that the film could shift focus from the zombies to the horror that the human characters create.
The film sets up immediately an uneasy relationship to death: the cemetery sign has bullet holes shot into it, a foreshadowing of just how easy and dismissive death will become in this tale. We also are uncertain of who Barbara and her brother are leaving flowers for. Is it their father or grandfather? We know through their conversation that the deceased is close to their mother who is too old to make the trip, but Johnny claims he cannot remember the person. He surely could remember his own father. That both show, in their own ways, such a distance from the dead man led me to believe it was a grandfather buried in the cemetery, especially when Johnny reminds his sister that his grandfather said he would be damned to hell for scaring Barbara in the very same cemetery when they were kids. The set up is misleading, and must have been in 1968 when such a film was new and unbearably terrorizing—there is no way to expect that in the very first scene, led into with an impersonation of horror icon Vincent Price (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) that a zombie will attack the defenseless people.
Night of the Living Dead began what was, up until 2005, a trilogy known as “Undead”. George Romero wrote and directed a series of films about human behavior in the face of catastrophe. Night seems less a satire than the following films. It fact there are no laughs in the picture. It’s pretty grim. But one bit of commentary, which leads to a death we hate to witness, looks ahead to Dawn of the Dead. As the human race outside the isolated house discovers how to kill the zombies, their behavior becomes very monotonous. They roam the field killings zombies dead. They become so robotic, hypnotized by their repetitive ritual that they never check if those they’re shooting are the undead or civilians. I will say no more, but at the destitute mood at the end of the picture I thought to myself that with a little more care something more positive might have happened.
Back to my initial impressions as a kid—I was disappointed to see that Barbara is killed by the very man whose death made her catatonic. The finale, which I will not spoil, now, after I don’t know how many viewings, is still chilling. Forget any idea of the film being a metaphor for racism—it is chilling to think that if everybody in that house listened to Mr. Cooper and hid in the cellar, they would have gotten out alive...well, maybe. That the most despicable and cowardly man in the cast turned out to be right all along, and to a lesser extent what happens to Duane, make us doubt everything we know about the world.
I will say after my latest viewing, I was still shrunken in my chair. I don’t think I had moved for the final 15 minutes—I am still stunned by this picture; it was not safe to move. I felt safer contorted in my seat.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo & George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, and Karl Hardman
Runtime: 96 minutes