Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: John Russo & George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley & Kyra Schon
In a single movie, director/writer George A. Romero created an entire subgenre of horror and gave birth to a new type of monster. Partially inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND and co-writing alongside John Russo, Romero created a terrifying vision of the end of the world and scared the hell out of audiences on a tiny budget. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of the few horror films from the black-and-white era that truly scares me and holds up perfectly to this day. This nightmarish masterpiece is disturbingly bleak, packs powerful social commentary that remains frighteningly relevant to this day, and will haunt the viewer long after its grim final image has faded.
NIGHT begins with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) driving to a countryside cemetery to visit their father’s grave. The simple tradition takes a nasty turn when Barbara is attacked by a ghoulish man. After Johnny hits his noggin on a gravestone, Barbara runs to an isolated farmhouse and is rescued by Ben (Duane Jones). Soon enough, the mismatched pair discover a group of people hiding in the house’s basement and tensions flare between Ben and the ornery crank Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). As more flesh-eating zombies gather outside and attempt to claw their way in, the survivors attempt to keep the flesh-eating monsters at bay and discover that the real monster may be human nature itself.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was created on a small budget, yet carries the realistic atmosphere of a worldwide cataclysmic event. Romero smartly keeps the horrific story centered on a small group of people and we surmise what’s going on from the sheer number of ghouls gathering outside the farmhouse. Also, there is a fantastic exposition scene that’s delivered in a creepy news report. This exposition dump isn’t piling on information that sums up the apocalyptic event, but instead lets the characters in on what might be going on. The viewer knows as much as these characters do and that increases the sense of suffocating desperation.
Speaking of characters, NIGHT has a strong cast of well-rounded survivors. You’ll love some of these people, despise at least one of them, and definitely pity a certain damaged individual. As Ben, Duane Jones serves as a well-spoken, level-headed hero. This protagonist was originally written as a redneck (which would have brought in social commentary about class differences), but Jones won the part from his sheer acting abilities and this thrust NIGHT into the area of commenting on racial tensions (black leading men were uncommon in the 60’s, to say the least). Judith O’Dea delivers a truly sympathetic performance as Barbara, who spends most of the film in a believable state of shock after being beyond traumatized by her cemetery encounter.
Karl Hardman is perfectly cast as the despicable, cowardly, and potentially dangerous Cooper. Hardman’s antagonist seems like a scumbag at first, but gradually evolves into a villain who you’ll want to see die in a painful manner. Marilyn Eastman is solid as Cooper’s frustrated spouse, while Kyra Schon also delivers one of the film’s scariest moments as Cooper’s injured daughter. Keith Wayne and Judith Riley are a nice couple who try to side with Ben and face potentially dire consequences in trying to help out the group. They aren’t the biggest characters in the film, but they do share enough dialogue to get us to care about them.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s tone is bleaker than bleak. The plot already revolves around the zombie apocalypse, at a time when this was a fresh new concept. Romero gut-punches the viewer’s emotions as characters, who we come to care about, bite it in horrific ways. The film’s gory violence was shocking at the time and its gritty brutality remains effective today (fingers being chopped off, flesh being eaten from the bone, and a bullet to the brain being the only way to kill a zombie). The ever-escalating tension that accompanies this violence is suffocating and feels real. Things kick off from the opening graveyard scene and never really give the viewer space to breathe for the rest of the film. I cannot praise NIGHT’s ending enough either. This story has one of the darkest conclusions in horror movie history.
Romero wrote the zombie rulebook with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. He (and co-writer Russo) did a phenomenal job of establishing a truly scary cinematic monster. One or two zombies seem relatively feasible to escape from (or even kill), but soon those numbers grow to ten and eventually thirty (or more). That idea in and of itself is frightening, but throw in desperate humans who will do anything to ensure their own survival and you’ve got yourself the makings of a horror masterpiece. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is easily the most terrifying entry in Romero’s DEAD saga and one of the best black-and-white horror films to ever grace theaters. This is a bonafide classic that has left an unforgettable, undeniable legacy on both the horror genre and cinema as a whole. If you’re a horror aficionado, this is required viewing!