By Marc S. Sanders
There’s no question that George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead is a pioneering film in horror and suspense. Without it, we don’t get The Walking Dead or World War Z or Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or endless shoot em up gore filled video games that turn our minds to mush.
Romero’s film is not a favorite of mine but I can’t deny its importance or the merits that got the film into the National Film Registry.
A young couple approach a grave to pay respect and leave flowers. In the background is a man walking oddly who then unleashes a terrorizing pursuit of them. One of them manages to get away and eventually take refuge with others in a nearby isolated house.
The leader of this group known as Ben, manages to board up every door and window. Fortunately, the television works and newscasts inform us of a government response to an epidemic of mass killings from “flesh eating ghouls” otherwise known as the dead coming back to life. The word “zombie” is never used in this film (though I do recall a dame calling The Three Stooges zombies in one of their classic shorts). Debates then arise as to whether these survivors make a run for it, stay put or hide in the basement.
Romero really could care less about any of his characters. He cares most about his new invention of monster; not a vampire or a mummy or even a creature from the black lagoon. The most developing dimension he offers is to go from showing one ghoul to showing 50 ghouls all at once with the barriers of the house coming apart and the attempts at escape unexpectedly coming undone.
He also doesn’t much care for explaining the science of this horror. Sure the ghouls eat flesh but did you know what else they do? They pick up rocks to break windows and stab their prey with gardening tools. Go figure!
It all works, especially with the government news footage set against a Washington DC backdrop. Look! The Capital! Put an actor in a military uniform, carrying a briefcase and have him get in and out of a black sedan, and now you’re convinced this is some serious shit you’re dealing with here.
I imagine it especially worked more effectively in 1968 amid the fears of a nuclear apocalypse and presidential assassinations, along with men in space and on the moon covered by monotone news reports. Then again, maybe this was just drive in movie escapism spoof from all that serious stuff. If Romero had the unlimited funds, he might have coaxed Walter Cronkite to headline the intermittent news stories and updates. Cronkite would have advised us best on how to dispatch an undead marauder. “A single shot to the head is what the General advises,” Cronkite would have emphasized.
For film aficionados and students, Night Of The Living Dead is necessary material to cover. Much of fear and suspense is simply covered by crowding a caption with people in dirty, loose fitting clothes (monster makeup was too expensive for Romero’s budget). Since it’s a black and white film, go with chocolate sauce for blood like Hitchcock did, and have your monster chomp on a turkey leg. Yup! The audience will buy that is an elbow or a knee, perhaps.
Night Of The Living Dead is also a significant piece for its main protagonist, Ben, played by Duane Jones, one of the first African American heroes to lead a film. Race is never acknowledged here which is hard to believe amid the prominent racial tensions of the sixties. Yet here is a character (albeit two dimensional like everyone else in the film) that audiences of the time accepted without any consideration for his appearance despite being the only black character in the film. The zombie plague seems to have only affected the white populace of Pennsylvania. It’s refreshing to see Jones carry through with the role. He takes it all seriously, and you pay attention to his commitment even if he’s just hammering a nail into a board.
The other surprise to me is that I’d never heard a mention of the ending to this film. It comes out of nowhere and is certainly never implied and yet your jaw drops. You’re either gonna die laughing at it, or maybe you’ll think it’s tragic, or maybe you’ll hate it. One thing for sure it reminds me again that Romero loves his flesh eating ghouls much more than he ever cared for his heroes.