Fifty years ago, on October 1st, 1968, one of the most influential horror films, Night of the Living Dead, released to audiences across the United States. The film’s release would eventually spread like a virus, across the globe, for audiences to take in its horror like a zombie engorging upon human flesh.
Night of the Living Dead premiered to audiences of all ages and apparently left quite an impression on many. That’s right, the film was open to adults and children as the MPAA had not been established until a month later. Roger Ebert wrote about the reaction he saw from kids when attending a screening of the film stating, “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating.” It’s hard to imagine a film like this was exposed to children of such a young age and can’t even imagine the terror they must have felt. I had my share of scares during my youth as Jaws terrified me, but this was different. This was not a horror film with bits of laughter and glorious moments; this was a film of doom.
“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” is the quote that has remained one of the most popular in horror film history for 50 years. Not only is it spoken with perfect chilling tone by Johnny (Russell Streiner) but it kicks off the horror that is to become of Barbra (Judith O’Dea) as the chillingly white lurching ghoul in a suit chases her to an isolated home. It is here where she meets up with six other individuals to help in the fight for survival. The most noteworthy here is Ben, played by Duane Jones, who is truly outstanding in the role of the everyday man trying to survive this monstrosity of terror that’s developed before him as well as the struggle to work with his own kind to band together against the undead. His constant bickering with Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) is one of the highlights of the film as both men make valid points to their arguments of making a stand on the main floor or hiding in the cellar. The two are flawed by the end, but it’s Cooper’s selfishness and loud abrasive tone which builds him to be one of the antagonists in the film, while Ben is seen as the hero as he tries to keep it together and find a way for everyone to survive.
Night of the Living Dead is a film that is eerily terrifying to this day. It was a low budget production filmed in black and white with some static and cracking in the picture. This turned out to be an asset to the film as it gives it an old documentary look and feel, thus making the story and its ghouls more terrifying. It is better to not see the creatures in full color, so avoid those colorized versions at all costs. Even the 1990 remake, directed by makeup extraordinaire Tom Savini, could not provide the same chilling effect of the ghouls as in black and white.
It was not until one of my last couple revisits of the film that something had occurred to me. First off, the undead do not like lights. They would literally pick up rocks and bash out the headlights in a nearby vehicle. Earlier in the film, I had noticed one of them using a rock to try and break glass and even jiggled the car door handle. These weren’t the creatures I know from the many modern day zombie films. I realized that Romero’s ghouls have the ability to problem solve, which is actually what progressed in his later films especially starting with Day of the Dead and going forward. Though I never liked the idea of the undead picking up guns and such, the ability of these ghouls picking weapons up in Night of the Living Dead was minimal enough to where it did not bother me. Well, except for a certain ghoul and a trowel but that’s more on the disturbing level. Accepting that these creatures were ghouls that Romero created, and not the zombies that I’ve come to love in horror cinema actually made the film better for me.
What I remember most from the first time I watched Night of the Living Dead was how depressing the ending was. I recall just staring at the screen wondering, why would they do this? Why would they have the person die this way? I couldn’t swallow it and this, along with the grim postcard images of the bodies piled up ready to burn to ashes, just disturbed me. I’m more of a hopeful ending kind of guy, but as I’ve gotten older and have watched the film numerous times, I found that I appreciate this ending more than I did before. It does end with the thought of how humanity can destroy themselves if they can’t work together, which can be even scarier than the ghouls, as most of the characters in the film die by their own hand or by their own kind. This notion of humanity unable to work together in a time of crisis is something that continues to carry on in zombie films to this day.
I recently watched Night of the Living Dead in the movie theater, for its 50th Anniversary hosted by Fathom Events. The film was being played in its new restoration and what I found was a remarkable transfer of a horror classic. The film was very crisp and clear, compared to the many versions I’ve watched prior, and it was fascinating to me as I was able to notice many new things that I didn’t catch before. Such as certain blood markings on the walls, finer details on the house, and even a bit of sweat on a couple of the characters. I was also surprised to find someone brought their child in with them to the movie, and I could only think that the parent must not have read Roger Ebert’s reaction piece to his experience with children seeing the film. Luckily, the little girl took the horror like a champ and when it ended, she ran off like she just watched a superhero film. Now I can’t say how well she slept that night, but hopefully she didn’t dream of ghoulish creatures attacking her bedside and bashing out her lamp with stones.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking film that has influenced many other films to this day. Imagine there not being a 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, or a Train to Busan. All of these films and many others were inspired by this iconic little film with a story of seven individuals stuck inside a house surrounded by ghouls. Night of the Living Dead has a strong and engaging story, which still has the ability to provide terror and chills, and is a classic film that I enjoy going back to time and time again.