Night of the Living Dead: A Watershed Moment in Low Budget Horror

And now it's time for Night of the Living Dead, George A Romero's 1968 horror classic that made the zombie genre what it is today.  It's a ridiculously awesome, low budget fake gore fest that's actually still pretty creepy today.  TSPTD lists it at #201, which is pretty good for a movie that reportedly cost a little over $100,000 to make.

Full Disclosure: I'm a little bit of a secret zombie movie junkie, I have seen Night of the Living Dead, and I'm 100% on board with its potential cheesiness because it's awesome, OK?

So Johnny and Barbra are out in the country for the day, putting a wreath on their father's grave, when they encounter a strange figure in the cemetery.  Unfortunately, on top of being strange, he's also strong, bloodthirsty, and undead.  Barbra manages to escape (Johnny isn't so lucky) and she takes refuge in an old, empty farmhouse nearby.  She's now in an (increasingly irritating) state of shock and has pretty much lost it by the time Ben gets there - which is a lucky thing, because without Ben she'd be zombie food in about three seconds.

Because Ben insists upon doing Things That Make Sense - using fire to scare off the zombies, boarding up the house, etc.  Wish Blonde Chick would get with the seems like she prefers to do Things That Piss Me Off, like wandering around the house aimlessly, screaming hysterically, rambling nonsensically, and generally distracting Ben from saving their asses.

After a while of being trapped in the house, just when they're starting to feel a little secure, a new conflict introduces itself - in the form of stubborn Harry Cooper.  He and four others (including his wife and daughter) had been hiding in the basement.  Harry likes to argue.  He also likes to have stupid ideas, such as suggesting that they all go hide in the basement...where they can't see what's coming and have no exit strategy if the zombies manage to break through the one and only door.  I could say more, but I think Lt. Aldo Raine said it best:

"You know, fightin' in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you're fightin' in a basement! "

So after a whole lot of macho posturing, Tom and Judy (the other couple) decide to stay upstairs with Ben, while Harry goes back to his wife and daughter in the basement.  Even Harry's wife thinks that he's a moron - their daughter is injured and he's just cut them off from the television and radio, where they could potentially get information or instructions.  We see who wears the pants in this relationship; they quickly rejoin the others, while Judy goes back downstairs to keep an eye on the little girl (because women are interchangeable and only suitable for child care).

They hear a news report saying that they should head to their local rescue center, so they devise a plan to get out of the house.  Ben and Tom will go out to the truck and get gas from a nearby pump, while Harry will throw homemade explosives from an upstairs window (I'm on board with pretty much any plan as soon as it involves Molotov Cocktails).  Presumably the womenfolk are way too dumb and girly to be involved with this plan in any capacity, so they just sit around and watch.

Apparently Judy can't even sit back and watch without screwing things up, because at literally the last possible second she decides to go with Tom.  These three people are incredibly inept at pumping gas, because in the process they manage to set the car on fire.  I mean, you've got to be pretty dumb...but anyway, Tom and Judy get blown up, and Ben makes it back to the house only to discover that Harry's a giant wuss and won't let him back in.  Ben, being a badass, kicks the door in and manages to get to safety.  Then he punches the crap out of Harry.  Good for him.

But then everything starts to go to hell in a handbasket, because the zombies decide to launch an intensified attack on the house.  And Harry pulls another dick move, turning the gun on Ben so he and his wife can escape to the basement -- so they're effectively fighting each other instead of the zombies.  Harry is shot, and he limps down to the basement.  And is eaten by his daughter.

Thank you for those nightmares, George A Romero.  She then murders her mother with some gardening equipment.  Meanwhile, Barbra decides to step up to the plate and start fighting off the zombies, only to completely lose it when she sees the zombie version of her brother.  Who's gone all...emo.

She gets dragged out and presumably eaten by the zombies, leaving only our hero, Ben.  Who locks himself into the basement.  (Which apparently wasn't that terrible of a plan, because it does actually manage to hold off the hordes of zombies.  I issue a posthumous apology to Harry for mocking his idea.)

So the black man survives the zombie apocalypse...only to be shot the next morning by a group of white rednecks, mistaking him for a zombie.  Gee, I wonder if that was a coincidence or if they were trying to say something about, I don't know, the racial climate at the time.  (Actually it may have been a coincidence -- Romero wrote the script before casting Duane Jones in the lead role...but I choose to take it at its most politically explosive.)

Random Musings:

  • I'm just going to go on the record right away and say that I think the fact that this movie was made on the cheap goes a long way in adding to the creepy atmosphere.  And I don't care if the music was public domain and originally used in the Hollywood abomination, "Teenagers from Outer Space"'s creepy!

  • "They're coming to get you, Barbra." Best line of the movie.  Pretty unsettling, in a campy kind of way.

  • I'm sorry, but Barbra is probably the most useless human being I've ever seen in my life.  I realize she's in shock and her brother just died, but that's no excuse for spending the entire film alternating between hysteria and a catatonic state.

  • I'm gonna draw a line in the sand and I say that I prefer the slow-moving zombies to their cheetah brethren.  I find it really effective that with these zombies, it's not their speed or strength that will get you - it's their numbers.  Also I think it makes more sense (although it's probably a mistake to look for sense in a zombie movie) that a creature that has a decaying human body as its mode of transportation would understandably be a little ungainly.

  • Words can not express how awesome Ben is.  He is the model that every person trying to survive a zombie apocalypse should strive to emulate.  He's calm, cool, collected, resourceful, and oh so very badass.  And it's fantastic that it's an African-American character who has all of these strong characteristics and leadership skills - instead of being, you know, the first one to die.

  • I love when Ben goes outside to fight the zombies and it Could Not Be More Clear that he's slamming his weapon into the ground about two and a half feet from the zombie's head, instead of actually hitting the zombie.  Yay for Special FX!

  • No blonde chick, don't turn on the music box with its sinister, tinkling song!  Don't you know that music boxes, like small children, are guaranteed to amp up the creepiness factor of any horror movie by at least 40%?!

  • OMG.  Did I just see a black man slap a white woman across the 1968?!  Damn.

  • "If you're stupid enough to go die in that trap that's your business, however I am not stupid enough to follow you.  It is tough for the kid, that her old man's so stupid.  Now get the hell down in the cellar.  You can be the boss down there.  I'm boss up here."  Oh Ben.  There are no words.  You are so cool.

  • I am unhappy that in this film the zombification (screw you spell check, that is a word) is a result of a space probe from Venus with a high level of radiation.  Really, movie?  That's lame.

  • I have to hand it to the film, watching the zombies gnawing on human entrails is pretty disturbing.

So that's Night of the Living Dead.  It may not be the most technically advanced horror film, or the smartest, or the most scary...but it's certainly one of the most influential.  What it lacks in outright scares it makes up for in a genuinely unsettling, pervasive atmosphere.  Duane Jones has a really great commanding presence, and it's too bad that he didn't go on to a long and illustrious film career.  There's a lot in this movie to enjoy, and it opened the doors for countless horror filmmakers.  That being said, it does have some pretty cheesy bits (most notably when the little girl is killing her mother) and it does come off as pretty dated...but I think most horror fans are willing to overlook that.

Another note: Night of the Living Dead is public domain, so it's available online free (and legally) on several different websites, including Hulu.  So there is no excuse for not watching it, especially if you like scary movies!

Thanks for reading!  Check back tomorrow for Alphaville!

Want to know more about the Top 1000 List?  Check it out and see if your favorites are here! They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

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PRSkow said...

I'm a huge zombie fan. I looked forward to your review. And then, I tried to read it...
Most of it is just you explaining the plot, in great detail, in your own words. That's not really a review. The "random musings" would have been better worked into the review itself.

As a zombie fan I'm glad you enjoyed the mother of all zombie movies, and I don't mean any disrespect. Just callin it as I see it.

Audrey on a Mission said...

I'm sorry you didn't like the review. When I write these, I try to split it in half: the first being a (hopefully entertaining) breakdown of the film, and the second being more of my own thoughts and critiques. That's how it just kind of happens in my head. But I recognize that not everyone likes that kind of writing style.

But thank you for reading! :)

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