From the DVD case: Inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, this grimly realistic 1968 shocker revolutionized the horror film, followed by two sequels (Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) and many more imitations.
It begins as squabbling siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visit their father’s grave outside Pittsburgh, a visit that becomes a nightmare when Johnny is killed by a walking corpse. Soon Barbra and the resourceful Ben (Duane Jones) are besieged along with a family in an isolated farmhouse, as each new victim rises again to pursue the others in its relentless quest for living flesh. (1968, b&w)
Mark says: Talk about recreating a genre, director George Romero really broke the mold with this film. After Night of the Living Dead it became blatantly obvious that directors did not need a large budget to set their audiences on edge; disturbing concepts, high tension, and social poignancy are more than enough.
Duane Jones is excellent in the role of Ben, our protagonist. It is often noted that portraying a black man as hero in a racially charged era was more than a little significant. Immediately social norms are challenged. What’s more noteworthy, though, is that Ben’s color is never mentioned in the film, even by the character (Harry Cooper) who seems he would be the obvious bigot. A wonderful touch, I think.
Judith O’Dea plays the sometimes hysterical, sometimes catatonic, Barbara. She is important in that she sets the mood of uneasiness, and then raises the tension level, but I’m sometimes distracted by her over-the-top performance. This is only a minor critique, and certainly does not spoil the film.
Harry Cooper, played by Karl Hardman, is another significant character. He is so obnoxious that you wish Ben would just belt him and get it over with. However, Harry plays an important role in this movie.
Even more than Barbra, we get a genuine feel of panic through Harry. We hate him for his human weaknesses: cowardice, the need to be right, and a reluctance to take orders. But ultimately, it is Harry who is correct in his belief that everyone would be safest in the basement. Meanwhile, because Ben is so likable and seemingly in charge, we hardly notice that he is getting everyone killed.
This leads to another intriguing aspect of this film. It is completely unpredictable. The characters you peg as surviving the ordeal meet grisly deaths. The people you think are making right decisions, are leading people to their demise. You are completely off-balance, and this is reinforced by the shocking (and depressing) ending.
The zombies themselves (in appearance) are not that terrifying, but they can be absolutely disturbing. It’s not easy to forget the segment where they break off cadaver pieces and then fight over the entrails. And the scenes with the child zombie toward the end are unabashedly chilling.
Night of the Living Dead gets very high marks from me. After all, it’s one of the few films my wife will not watch, not because it is so stupid, but because it is so frightening.
Scene to watch for: Ben shows Barbra his technique for calming a hysterical woman. Ouch.
Line to listen for: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”
Personal note: When I was in high school (late 70s, maybe early 80s), my friend Bryan wrote George Romero a letter. Not much later, he received a personal handwritten note from the man. That always impressed me.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.