Modern horror owes so much to the original Night of the Living Dead. It ushered the zombie away from voodoo towards flesh-eating, tackled socially relevant issues like racism and the apocalyptic overtones that permeated the 60’s. Something not many horror films did at the time. It challenged audiences’ expectations with its story, and like Halloween, showcased what can be accomplished on a low budget. But legendary films are often lost in the legacy they create. Years of continual praise can put newcomers off and throws the film’s flaws sharply into view. So, on its 50th Anniversary let’s see how kind time has been to Night of the Living Dead.
While visiting their father’s grave, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) are attacked by a ragged man. Johnny is killed, and Barbra flees. Coming across a local farmhouse, she eventually meets Ben (Duane Jones). As night comes, the house is swarmed by creatures, later revealed to be re-animated corpses. Ben and Barbra also discover Harry (Karl Hardman), Hellen (Marilyn Eastman) and their sick daughter Karren Cooper and a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) held up in the basement. And soon arguing erupts as the people in the house must decide whether to barricade themselves in or run for it? Soon it becomes clear that the zombies may not be the biggest danger to the living.
What did I like?
Night of the living dead is a film we truly take for granted. Because the film influenced every zombie story that came after, it is easy to see it as “another zombie movie”. But NOTLD does many things that help you see why it set the standard for its genre.
The zombies, although quaint by today’s standards, are perfectly realized through the makeup and black and white cinematography. Helping the undead look like truly damaged humans. And the escalating tension they create as the night continues helps us feel the characters peril. The story is also a well-told exploration of the breakdown of communication in extreme circumstances. Reason and emotional concerns are brushed aside by survival driven macho posturing or destroyed by the uncaring zombies. The film firmly believes, human nature is the most destructive of all things, with the film’s ending is the perfect summation of that, Still having the power to shock even now. But the film owes its success, primarily to its independent edge.
The actors were not big names and the film was shot for only $114,000. As a result, the film has so many little elements that set it apart from the mainstream horror being offered at the time. The dialogue flubs that hurt other films make this one feel more genuine. The seemingly unrehearsed nature of the fight scenes and the zombie’s movements make the film feel less staged and the dialogue and characters all feel distinct.
Night of the Living Dead takes a subtle approach to its characters. In the film, Ben’s race is never once mentioned in dialogue. There is no racist language or drawing attention to his skin colour. Ben is just another person. His race is a part of him, but it does not define his role in the story. And some may view Barbra as a typical female in distress, but the film makes it clear that none of these people are heroes. They are just people and the actions that they take are an almost perfect reflection of who their characters are. As a result, the film creates a unique world with interestingly flawed and relatable characters that we can easily see as reflections of the real world.
What I do not like?
However, all movies, no matter how iconic have flaws that future filmmakers can learn from. The films biggest flaw is the explanation for the zombie’s creation. In this case, radiation from a crashed space station. Although it may have seemed appropriate at the time, with the space race still in full swing, now it serves only to demystify the zombies and takes away from the terror of the unknown. In the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, the zombie’s origins became much more shrouded in mystery and hearsay. But Night presents the space station as the only viable factor in the zombie’s creation. And with such attention paid to it, the fear of the flesh-eaters diminishes.
The film also has a quite boring second act. The beginning perfectly sets up the characters and the threat and the ending is a brilliantly sour note that leaves the audience reflecting on the film long after they have finished watching. But the second act feels a bit repetitive by constantly going back and forth on the same disagreements between Ben and Harry. The scenes are well acted and relevant. But as a whole, the second act feels like the bland filling to the tasty bread that populates both ends of the story.
Finally, there are presentational elements that are likely to be distracting for some. The flubs and limited choreography for myself make the film feel more real. Some viewers, however, will view them as amateur mistakes, and they are not wrong for doing so. And the use of still photos to present certain sections of the narrative, while effective for the films ending, giving it the disturbing look of dispassionate war photography, serve only to distract in the television scenes. As they feel entirely separate from the rest of the production.
All in all, Night of the Living Dead still holds up from a modern perspective. The flaws of being too exposition heavy regarding key plot points, a slow second act and some of the corner cutting necessitated by the budget do not damage the overall project and the legacy it left behind. The film is a deft exploration of the worst side of humanity, that never lets its social commentary diminish the entertainment. It has memorable characters, set pieces, a fantastic beginning, and truly devastating ending. If you are a fan of zombies or films in general and you have not watched night of the living dead, you need to fix that right away. Because like the undead themselves, NOTLD may seem old and decrepit, but once it sinks its teeth in, you will find yourself becoming a fan.
Verdict: (4.5 / 5)