“It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It's hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact” - Newscaster
There’s no question that Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important and maybe, actually THE most important horror movie of the past fifty years. Think about it, previously very few zombie films had been made. I can think mainly of four: White Zombie in 1932 with Bela Lugosi, I Walked with a Zombie in 1943 Plan Nine from Outer Space in 1959 and Hammer’s 1966 Plague of the Zombies. (An argument can be made to include The Cabinet of Caligari (1919) as the first actual zombie movie rather than White Zombie, but let’s discuss that one on Facebook, shall we?)
And in those films, the zombies were always mindless slaves, under a spell, totally obedient.
That all changed with Night of the Living Dead. In fact, it changed the whole zombie movie genre forever. Actually, it created the zombie movie genre – because a sprinkling of films over thirty five years can’t really be called a genre. After this film, the zombie apocalypse became a “thing” a norm in the zombie movie. Whereas the zombies previously had been slow moving and pretty much unthreatening unless they had been ordered to kill you – and even then, they were pretty easy to out run, post Night of the Living Dead, the game changed.
Now, the genre norm was that practically all of humanity had been wiped out as something vaguely described as the effect of the Earth travelling through the tail end of a comet caused the recently dead to rise and walk the planet looking for live food – living humans. Now, as they kill humans the humans themselves return as the living dead (provided, I guess that there’s enough of them left to be able to get around) and they too are hungry – so it’s a mathematical progression.
This film also introduced the trope that to kill the zombie, you have to kill the brain. Obviously this plays well in to the skills of the special effects make up artists who create the head shots that are filmed in loving close-up.
So, not only did Night of the Living Dead establish the “zombie rules of engagement” which frankly borrow a lot from vampire lore, but it gave George Romero a career as the Godfather of Zombies and begat a whole industry which culminates nowadays into the wildly successful Walking Dead series.
You might THINK you’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, but I’m guessing you haven’t. Not really. There are so many releases of the film, it’s amazing. One film – dozens of releases on dozens of labels. And here’s the thing – the film has been edited and cut so many times, its impact has been greatly diminished over the years. It’s like a wolf that had its teeth pulled. I didn’t know any of this.
Back in the days of VHS, the only copy I could get my hands on was colourised. The zombies had a green tint to them, making the opening scene in the graveyard with Barbara being attacked by an approaching zombie ridiculously unsurprising. (If you’re approached by a staggering, stumbling green guy in a dirty suit in a cemetery – walk the other damn way, people.). I could only ever watch that tape with the colour on my TV turned all the way down, which was a hassle because it then took me forever to adjust it back to exactly the way I liked it (Yes – thank you, OCD)
When DVD came my way, I saw there was an anniversary cut available as part of the original Romero Zombie Trilogy box with added scenes that had been filmed (not by Romero) for this cash grab release. The other films Dawn and Day of the Dead were worth the purchase though. They made up for the sheer insanity of the extended cut.
So I went hunting, and found that only one company had the full version, taken from the original 35mm print, all cuts restored exactly as it was back in 1968 and endorsed by Romero himself, lovingly remastered in THX for upgraded sound and visual quality. Sadly, again, you need a region one player. BUT – the film itself is definitive with several more scenes of out and out disturbing gore than I had EVER seen in any other screening of this title.
Okay, so we’ve established that Night of the Living Dead is the first zombie apocalypse movie. Having said that, the big problem I have with zombie apocalypse movies also makes its debut here.
The zombies are outside, trying to get in – but that’s not the real plot. It’s merely what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin. A plot device to get the protagonists to where they need to be in order for the plot to proceed. The real plot is the desperate struggle to survive among the humans who are where the zombies are trying to get to. Really, they’re WHAT the zombies are trying to get to. Zombie apocalypse films are, without fail, character studies of people under siege. Their trials, tribulations and arguments. And this can slow the film right down if you don’t manage to engage with the characters.
Sadly there are such characters in just about every film of this type.
Okay, so on to the plot.
A brother and sister (Johnny and Barbara) have been driving most of the day, out of touch because of static on the radio, to place a wreath on their father’s grave. The brother is an asshole and soon comes to a bad end when the first zombie they unknowingly encounter attacks Barbara and he tries to defend her but ends up giving a head butt to a gravestone.
Barbara escapes to a seemingly deserted farmhouse nearby and is soon joined by Ben – another survivor. He tries to barricade the house against the increasing number of flesh eating zombies outside, and they soon realise that another five people are hiding in the basement of the house. A young couple, and a father, mother and injured young daughter who lies unconscious on a table in the cellar until she passes, becomes reanimated and murders her own mother with repeated stabbings of a garden trowel. She also murders her domineering father and starts to eat him in a gory scene that I swear I had never seen before acquiring this version of the movie.
Much of the film is taken up by the incessant bickering between the occupants of the house – and this is where the film judders to a slow crawl with the focus on the reluctant group’s differing opinions on what to do next, do they go, do they stay, is an escape plan possible (the one they try comes to a seriously bad end, fortunately the zombies don’t mind their food cooked). But, slow as it gets, Romero wisely punctuates the tedium with shots of the different zombies gathering outside, waiting. It both relieves us from the goings on in the house and reminds us of the horrors that await them outside, giving the make up artists some time to show their skills.
Eventually, they are over-run – with Barbara’s dear departed brother one of the first in the house (though as he’d died presumably of a brain injury when he fell head first on the gravestone I have no idea how that’s possible) leaving only Ben as the lone survivor.
Sadly, he only survives until the morning when he’s shot by a trigger happy bunch of redneck hunters out clearing the area of zombies. The final scenes are a montage of shots, showing his body dragged to a bonfire and burnt, along with the original graveyard zombie from the beginning of the film, in a downbeat ending that was pretty common in the late sixties.
You can buy a standard copy of the film here
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