Friday, January 21, 2011

#27 Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

"The television said that's the right thing to do."

If there is any monster which has truly captured the imaginations of people on a wide scale in today’s world, it is the zombie. Zombies, once a medium of voodoo has grown, especially in the last 10 years or so, into a massively popular subject in popular culture: in such movies as 28 Days Later, Survival of the Dead, and farces such as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland; in video games such as Resident Evil; in various comic books; and even in TV shows such as AMC’s wildly popular The Walking Dead. Zombie movies are not a new phenomenon, and I don’t dispute that they are, but no filmmaker has had such a long-lasting and tremendous impact on the zombie genre as George A. Romero. His first film, Night of the Living Dead, will be the movie I will be looking at today.

The movie begins in a very cool manner. The camera starts drawn back, and we can see a car driving along a road. Periodically the scene cuts, and shows the car slightly closer. This proceeds in this manner throughout the whole of the credits until finally the people inside the car are visible. The two people in the car, we learn, are named Barbara and Johnny, who are brother and sister. They have come to lay a wreath at the grave of a relative. After some time, an old man shows up, staggering around. Barbara gets to close and he attacks her, Johnny goes to defend her, and Barbara makes a dash for it. After a very cool scene with Barbara running from the zombie chasing her down, she finally arrives into a house. She’s eventually saved by a black man named Ben. Barbara is shell-shocked, and so Ben sets to boarding up the house. Soon many more zombies show up, and we soon learn from a radio they find that no one really knows what’s going on, but apparently there has been a rash of mass murder occurring along the east coast of the United States. Eventually the two discover that there are more people hiding out in the basement: the couple Harry and Helen with their child, and then another couple Tom and Judy. Eventually Ben and Tom decide that what they need to do is get to a nearby safety station that has been set up, but in order to do that they need to fill up a truck with gas from a nearby station. Ben and Tom lead a daring, but ultimately futile attempt at fueling the truck, resulting in Tom and Judy’s death. Eventually the zombies get riled up enough that they make an attack on the house, and, in spite of a valiant defense, all are killed save Ben, who boards himself up in the cellar.

Meanwhile, the government, who we have been shown, proves to be inactive and unresponsive, has finally gotten their act together, and now vigilante groups, headed by the police have been clearing out the infestation. By morning one of these groups has reached the house Ben is in. The zombies are resoundingly cleared out, but unfortunately, Ben, who went out to see what is going on, is shot alongside the zombies, firmly establishing the trope, so gleefully alluded to in the show Community, that the black man never succeeds in zombie movies.

The acting on the whole in this film is quite good. Ben, played by Duane Jones does a fantastic job; but even better, in my opinion was Judith O’Dea, who plays Barbara. In her performance you can really feel the emotional instability she is dealing with after seeing everything that has happened. I also really liked Karl Hardman, who played Harry. He really pulled off the shrewd, suspicious, selfish skeptic well. Loathe to help anyone but himself and his own family, he really helps to bring tension to a situation that is, essentially, 7 people sitting around in a house.

Even better in this film is the directing. George A. Romero has built a reputation over the years as a master of horror and suspense, and this film demonstrates this spectacularly. The cinematography is very cool. I like the early scenes of zombies attacking, in which are showing hands coming out of the dark, and obscured faces. I also liked the pacing and writing of this film. The film tells you nothing about what is going on for the first 35 minute of film, and even then, it’s nothing more than you’ve probably already surmised. The very small and scattered trickling in of information is very well done, and adds to the mystery and suspense.

What I like more about this film is that it’s not about the zombies; rather, it is about the characters. It’s an interesting study of how various people respond to stress and conflict when put into an extreme situation. I thought the best scene in this film comes at the very end when the zombies are clawing at the door, and Ben and Harry are too busy fighting over the gun to save their own lives. It’s very cool. Frankly, this whole film is just plain cool. Its cultural influence is profound, establishing many of the conventions and clich├ęs of the zombie genre. This movie is an absolute must see for any zombie – or film – enthusiast.

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