Written by John Russo & George Romero
Directed by George A. Romero
A Walter Reade Organization Picture
Starring Judith O’Dea (Barbara); Duane Jones (Ben); Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper); Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper); Keith Wayne (Tom); Judith Ridley (Judy); Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper); Russell Streiner (Johnny) and Bill Hinzman (The Cemetery Ghoul).
Once upon a time, the word “zombie” denoted a person who had been captured and either bewitched or drugged by a master of the arts of Voodoo (who was not always played by Bela Lugosi but who, along with Colin Clive, was the best mad scientist ever) to become a creature with no will of his own. For many years, this odd and shady and never clearly disproven aspect of third-world culture had made numerous appearances in horror films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943), only two of many films that examined this rather strange phenomenon. These films attempted to add a new creature into the realm of cinematic stalkers that consisted of the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, the Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, and while many of the films with African zombies were successful and are good enough to still be watched and enjoyed in the 21st century, they never broke into the nightmares of mainstream audiences. Big bugs and aliens would soon dominate fantasy cinema and the poor zombie would get shunted aside and shamble back into the hole that it staggered out from, a failed experiment in terror destined to be forgotten by everyone except anyone who happened to travel to exotic lands and get on the bad side of the local witchdoctor.
But in 1968, a gang of independent filmmakers from Pittsburg would usurp the word “zombie” for their own, newly-invented monster and, in doing so, would revolutionize horror cinema straight to the present day. Although it is difficult to say exactly when the monsters that appear in Romero’s Night of The Living Dead would be christened “zombies” (the film never names them and the script apparently referred to them as “ghouls.” Eat your heart out, Mr. Sardonicus), by the time the 1980s rolled around, there was no doubt that a creature that had risen from dead, staggered towards you with an aim at taking a bite out of you and could only be dispatched with a gunshot to the head was called a zombie, and their genesis was chiefly due to the efforts of film director George A. Romero. Although Romero’s zombies/ghouls would have had a short shelf-life in the annals of horror had its sequel Dawn Of The Dead (1978) not caught the public imagination and spun the creature into the national lexicon (so much that the 2011 zombie television series The Walking Dead could present its premise to its audience without worrying that they wouldn’t “get it”), it is amazing to settle down to view Night Of The Living Dead and realize how much of the original concept of zombies are present in that very first zombie film. Stoker’s vampire was able to walk around in sunlight, unlike his cinematic offspring, but Romero’s zombies remain largely unchanged from their debut.
Can anyone sitting down to watch this film not smile (as one might when settling down watch an old favorite like The African Queen or The Wizard Of Oz) when we watch that car lumber its way up to the cemetery and watch squabbling siblings Barbara and Johnny (Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner) trudge over to their father’s grave for what will be last time? The two of them are not the most pleasant people to start a cinematic legend with: Barbara is agreeable but plain while Johnny is positively churlish and childish, complaining incessantly about the hours it takes to drive to the father’s grave (“I can’t even remember what he looked like.”) and at Barbara’s attempt at reverence, telling her that praying is for church. Then the immature jerk starts teasing her about her natural fears of being in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara…”) and then scampers off when a strange-looking man starts walking towards them. But despite his ignorant (as Barbara describes it) ways, Johnny is quite right: the odd man comes to get Barbara, grabbing her viciously, and Johnny does what can only be described as his first and last valiant act – he comes to his sister’s rescue and gets his head smashed against a tombstone for his efforts. And so begins the odyssey that leads Barbara to the farmhouse where she will spend the last two hours of her life and that will put her and her fellow non-survivors in the Horror Hall of Fame.
Much has been written about how the audience starts the film with Barbara and stays with her until she falls into a state of deep despair and Ben (Duane Jones) arrives to provide the film with its real hero, about Barbara is ultimately a weak character who needs the protection of others during the course of the film (this has been such a stigma that the film’s 1990 remake features Patricia Tallman as a tough, no-nonsense version of Barbara that probably pleased a lot of feminists but did little more than turn the film into a Terminator remake with zombies standing in for futuristic cyborgs), but Barbara’s time spent sitting on the couch in the farmhouse is important: she’s coming to terms with the death of her brother and the crisis erupting around her (and, let’s face it, with the probable end of her life). Reviewers who write about Barbara’s weaknesses seem to forget how she suddenly springs to life when Helen Cooper, the only person besides Ben who tried to talk to her (“I’m Helen Cooper… Harry’s wife.”), starts getting mauled by zombies attempting to break in. She’s been sitting on that couch for nearly the entire film, lamenting the death of Johnny (it’s so good to see a character in a horror film take more than five minutes to get over the death of a loved one) and when she’s finally ready to engage the zombies, she lunges forward with a plank of wood that saves Helen from the grasping hands reaching through the slats that can’t keep the living dead at bay. Helen may rush downstairs to check on her child (and suffer the trauma of seeing her daughter feasting on her husband’s arm before she’s cornered and murdered by her daughter’s wielding of a garden trowel), but Barbara tries valiantly to keep the farmhouse safe until she, like Helen, is confronted by a zombie with a familiar face. Helen falters when she realizes that Karen, her “baby”, has become a zombie and who can blame her, just like no one can blame Barbara for allowing herself to be dragged outside to her death when she sees Johnny’s zombie, complete with his driving gloves still on his hands, leering at her and extending his undead fingers towards her. In many ways, Night Of The Living Dead can be thought of as a story hinging on Barbara’s survival (as she represents each equally unprepared member of the audience who may have absolutely no idea what to do in these circumstances) and when she is dragged outside to her death, the last ten minutes of the film can almost seem like a moratorium: Ben is left in the cellar, wondering what he could’ve done differently to have saved his “friends” (those that he’d spent less than a couple of hours trying to get to know), but probably thinking most about Barbara, the young lady without shoes who sat on a couch and only wanted to live through the night, something that Ben couldn’t promise her.
Ben’s ability to deliver on his promises brings up another aspect of the film: the conflict between Ben and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). The Ben/Harry conflict that moves the film forward is often seen as a racial conflict (particularly since the film was released in 1968, the year that Dr. King was assassinated), but modern viewers have taken a new view on the conflict, going so far as to say that Harry Cooper was right (as vocalized by Hardman’s daughter Kyra Schon, the young actress who was last seen eating her father’s arm) when he demanded that everyone get into the cellar and wait out the zombie apocalypse until help arrives. Many reviewers have pointed out that Ben eventually takes refuge in the cellar that he initially rejected, thereby forcing himself to accept Harry’s demand that they were all safer behind the cellar’s strong door. Harry was definitely right concerning the strength of the door against the zombies, but he was wrong on almost every other point. Consider that Ben’s plan to get to one of the rescue stations is a good one, especially considering that the Coopers have a sick daughter (true, nothing can save her from becoming a flesh-eater, but neither the characters nor the audience of 1968 knew that). Ben and Tom’s plan to take a chance and try to gas up the truck is also a good one (one that even Harry takes part in – throwing Molotov cocktails out an upper floor window while the others pile into the truck), ruined only by Judy’s insistence on going with them and an accident that set the truck on fire, blowing Tom and Judy into the next world and giving the zombies their first meal of the night. This is the turning point of the film: Tom acted as the mediator between the warring Ben and Harry, arguing that the cellar is a good last resort in case things up top become dire, but realizing that they need the TV (which won’t get reception in the cellar) to get up-to-the-minute bulletins on the crisis. No sooner is Tom dead than the uneasy pact between Ben and Harry breaks down (not helped by the fact that Harry tried to lock Ben out of the farmhouse to get devoured). In the end, the worst comes true for both of them: Harry ends up dying in the cellar (shot by Ben, sure, but he’s still dead) and Ben’s fate echoes what he and Tom feared would happen – after a night of surviving the zombies, Ben emerges, not knowing what the Hell is going on, and is promptly shot by deputies before he can identify himself (and in 1968, would it even have made a difference?).
I haven’t said much yet about the zombies themselves, quick and nimble movers before future films painted them as slow lumbering corpses (another place where the 1990 remake fails – Patricia Tallman points out the zombies are slow and that she could probably walk around them, something she actually does near the end of the film and survives to see the end credits roll). They also have strength in them: Bill Hinzman (playing the first Romero Zombie in cinema history), does a good job at smashing Barbara’s car window to get to her and those arms breaking through those slats of wood in the farmhouse are still frightening even after all these years. What is best about the zombies is that their slow pace seems to exist only for lack of purpose; they wander around with nothing to do (as if on “standby”) when there is no source of food in the vicinity. But once there’s a chance of good eating, they spring into action (as they do when they go to town on the burnt-out truck where Tom and Judy’s deep-fried entrails lay waiting).
Romero may not have envisioned that this concept would spawn both a series of subsequent films and a career; the film ends with the crisis seemingly coming under control. For an entire film, we’ve watched mankind getting attacked by inhuman monsters and, when Ben is shot through the forehead by deputies, we’re struck by how callous and “business-as-usual” his murder and the killing of all the zombies are. Notice that none of the zombies whom are shot by the sheriff’s posse are in attack mode; they’re simply wandering about. True, they’d attack if they knew there was living human flesh around, but it’s interesting that Romero doesn’t show any of the zombies charging their attackers. The end of the film presents the killing of the zombies like a turkey shoot, good fun for the boys on their day off, and then we are treated to a series of creepy still shots of men gathering up Ben’s body with meat hooks. As the credits roll on Night Of The Living Dead, with the zombie apocalypse apparently averted, one can only breathe a sigh of relief that mankind was saved, but then sit back and wonder if mankind was actually worth saving?