43 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara! “

“If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy. “

Night of the Living Dead was the birth of the modern-day zombie film, and probably the birth of modern horror, George A. Romero, writer, director, editor and cinematographer of this independent film, however does not give himself any credit dismissing a lot of the factors that fans and critics see as acts of genius as pure acts of fate. My opinion is that he is being very modest and generous to others round him, this is a truly inspirational film, and did go onto inspire so so so many works and still continues to do so and will keep on doing so, even at the time of writing the US tv series The Walking Dead is due for a climatic finale to its second season with the characters holed up in a farm surrounded by…………the things, ghouls, walkers…….(never call them zombies)

Picking Night of the living Dead for this list was easy, watching it was a pleasure, however trying to write something about it that has never been written before is the hard part. Over the years I have read so much on this film, and watched so many documentaries on it and on film in general, it is really hard to come at it and try to add something new to the discussion.

A grainy black and white horror movie, shot for almost no money by a man who had previously only made a commercial. Of course it’s an instant classic. I wonder if this would pass David Cameron’s test for only making profitable films, would he know this film made for only $114,000 would go on to mak $30 million worldwide?

Night was turning point in the use of special effects and make up. Where previously horror films had been about rubber monsters lumbering around in the dark, this one was about flesh eaters. And that meant showing flesh eaters. Not once in the sixty years prior had any horror film (or any film for that matter) actually shown murders and gory sequences. Everything always happened off camera, or as shadows on the wall. In Night, a woman playing a zombie ate a live cockroach, a decaying disembodied head was shown in full close-up, and the living dead could be seen gnawing on the limbs and entrails of their human victims. This was absolutely unheard of in motion pictures. Not showing the graphic or disturbing scenes was a rule of thumb in cinema, breaking that barrier didn’t even occur to filmmakers.

Night of the Living Dead begins with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Steiner) driving to visit a grave site. Johnny is complaining about having to go and is teasing Barbara about being afraid of cemeteries. Once there though, her fear is justified when they are attacked by a ……ghoul, walker…..those things (never a zombie….remember).

Barbara makes her way to a farm-house where she meets up with Ben (Duane Jones) who ends ups being the hero more out of necessity than anything else. The character of Ben was originally supposed to be a crude but resourceful truck driver, with no specification to race. After Duane Jones, in real-life a self-serious, erudite academic, auditioned for the part, director and co-writer George A. Romero re-wrote the part to fit his performance.

Night has been analyzed to the point of dissection by film critics, resulting in the ‘discovery’ of the most ridiculous and far-fetched subtexts. People have read meaning into the film’s use of black and white, the grainy look of the film stock (an accident because the lab had to switch to cheaper stock), the use of effects and the anonymous masses of the zombies. Romero states there is only one explanation for all of these aspects: money.
But the most oft-discussed point was without a doubt the casting of Duane Jones in the lead role of the hero Ben. Romero states that the only reason Duane Jones was cast was he was the best man for the job and cheap. however you can’t escape the significance of casting a black man in the lead role with all the racial unrest going on in the US during the late sixties, seeing the Ben character as being a comment on society is inescapable. Especially the final scene, which I wont give away, but this can’t be just dismissed by Romero, especially when he would go on to direct other Dead films which also gave a social commentary on society.

The film being shot in black and white meant that chocolate sauce could be used for all the blood in the scenes, this is fun when you are watching it with someone for the first time, there is a very gory scene in the middle of the film when a group of …….ghouls, walkers, those things….. are eating the remains of an unfortunate couple, you might see your companion grimace at this scene, to get a double grimace, tell them that the actors are actually eating bacon covered in chocolate sauce for that double dunt grimace, great fun.

In my research for the film I came across a sad fact, that S.Willaim Hinzman, who plays the cemetery zombie in the opening scene, passed away last month on the 5th February, he is the first zombie we see on-screen, and he based his walk on a Bela Lugosi character from a 1930s film, his performance in this scene is extraordinary, and is instantly recognisable in the closing scene when you see him again, all actors have based their zombie performance on S.William Hinzman, who was also a financier of NOTLD, giving THE HUGE amount of $300 to let the film be made, he went on to be not only an actor in many more films, also a writer, director, editor, cinematographer and producer, for me he will always be the father of modern zombies, patient x, the first, and was sad to read of his passing.

If you have never seen Night of the Living Dead, do yourself a favour and watch it. It will change the way you watch movies, not just horror. One word of warning though; Stay away from any version that has “30th Anniversary” or “colorized” on it. Night Of The Living Dead has aged. There’s no denying this. Modern day audiences will probably find it dull and cliché-ridden, perhaps they will even find it laughable. But the films they base those opinions on, the zombie movies they know, the ones made in the eighties, are the movies that owe their existence to George Romero’s great film. Today Night Of The Living Dead needs to be seen in context. Even if it has lost much of its entertainment value, its historic and artistic value will last forever.


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