Plot: As the dead mysteriously start coming back to life, complete with a new-found taste for human flesh, a few survivors take shelter in a farmhouse, only to discover their own fear is just as great an enemy as the zombies outside their door.
Reviewed809 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 2s)
These days, zombies are everywhere. From action adventure (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)) to comedy (Shaun of the Dead (2004)), television (The Walking Dead (TV)) and, of course, horror (Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)), you can’t escape them. So, it’s hard to imagine a time when we weren’t subjected to these walking re-animated corpses.
True, George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first time zombies had been seen on the big screen. But, his low-budget presentation of these flesh-eaters has gone a long way to keep their popularity high among moviegoers, even to this day. That’s partly due to his inspired idea to have the zombies eat the flesh of the living.
Because of it’s profound impact on zombies on screen even to this day, then, it seemed remiss that I had never actually sat down and watched the original Night of the Living Dead. So, when I found out I could watch it instantly on NetFlix®, I settled in. What – if anything – had I been missing all these years?
With no stars among the cast, it’s not surprising that none of the actors really achieve much in Night of the Living Dead. As with most horror flicks, it’s more about the girls being able to scream and the guys putting up a decent fight along the way. The cast does that well enough, but past that, well, they aren’t exactly inspiring, and don’t seem to be much more than cardboard caricatures. Whether it’s Duane Jones’ business-like Ben, Judith O’Dea’s catatonic Barbra, Karl Hardman’s wimpy Harry or any of the rest, they are simply one-faceted characters. All of their actions revolve around the only thing that defines them.
Shot in black-and-white since color was too expensive, Night of the Living Dead uses that black-and-white atmosphere to it’s advantage by giving the film a documentary-like feel. While the discordant music grows wearisome by film’s end, it’s put to good use in the beginning. It creates a silent film effect as the blaring music takes over and the characters and their actions are muted. It’s a nice touch, but once the characters start talking once more, it’s washed away into a rather dreary middle.
Despite the fact that zombies are attacking the farmhouse, the main part of the film focuses on the interactions taking place within the house, rather than outside. A glimpse out a window reveals their plight every once in a while, but mostly the film focuses around the quasi-relationships that begin to build within the house. As usual, the males jockey for the dominant position and the females either sit staring blankly or try to console each other. Sadly, the character’s interactions are the biggest downfall of the film. The viewer can never quite figure out the motives behind some of their actions, especially when things start heating up near the climax of the film. Unfortunately, this means the film feels much longer than it’s 90 minute run time suggests.
The zombies, on the other hand, are a highlight of the film, despite their painfully slow movements. Most of them never really get a chance to do much but wander around for most of the film. Still, their desperate shufflings give the viewer a chill, even while they scoff at their rather weak attempts at attack. Alone, they aren’t too hard to handle, but their growing numbers soon represent an overwhelming force for those caught in the farmhouse. It’s a nice way of building tension outside, since the viewer knows there will eventually be a confrontation between these two opposing forces. The longer that confrontation is dragged out, the worse the odds seem for the farmhouse group.
The zombies also provide most (but not quite all) of the shocking moments of the film, helping to snap the viewer back awake after some of the duller moments. Despite it’s age, Night of the Living Dead has managed to maintain a lot of it’s special effects imagery. Scenes like the zombies snatching at and chewing on barbequed remains will still give viewers a slightly nauseated feeling – a surprise considering how commonplace zombies chomping on human flesh is these days.
The cast isn’t exactly impressive. Their scripted sequences can be either downright dull (most of the middle of the film) or oddly kooky (Ben spends a good amount of time shoring up the house, very nearly whistling as he works). Obviously, special effects have improved (and the ratings commission has relaxed) quite a bit since 1968 (to the point where viewers have watched a living person torn to shreds by zombies in hordes of films).
Even with all of that, Night of the Living Dead still manages to shock and surprise even the most jaded of viewers. That says a lot for a film that’s not only more than 50 years old, but is also one of the most inexpensive feature films ever made (a paltry $114,000).