CULT CLASSIC: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (USA, 1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman

When John Landis was being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live for his new book Monsters at the Movies, he commented that zombies have become the main monsters of the early-21st century. From the re-tooling of Dawn of the Dead and political, 'infected' movies like 28 Days Later, to spoofs like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, zombies have become the go-to monster for popular horror. Zombies are cheap to create, easy to direct, and can be overladen with all manner of social commentary, or played for all kinds of laughs.
With this in mind, you might think that Night of the Living Dead could not hold up to modern expectations of a zombie movie. George A. Romero's low-budget debut effort, shot entirely in black-and-white, is not as slick or grossly shocking as either its sequels or modern-day equivalents. What it is, however, is a really terrifying, deeply unnerving film, whose substance still rings true and whose scares still deliver even after 44 years.
It's very difficult for us to imagine the kind of outcry Romero's film created the first time round. When it was first released, it played in matinee screenings alongside classic Hollywood horror movies such as James Whale's Frankenstein and Val Newton's The Curse of the Cat-People. Because the MPAA rating system was not in place until a month after it arrived, there were reports of young children going to see a fun old-fashioned horror film and coming out completely traumatised. After much public outcry, with Variety calling it an "unrelieved orgy of sadism", the film was pulled from mainstream theatres, only to find a second, more devoted audience on the midnight movie circuit.
Looking at the film today, its terror derives from two completely different sources. One is the same kind of fear or shock that greeted audiences in 1968, namely the shock of seeing monsters that looked exactly like them, preying upon innocent people and eating human flesh. The other kind comes from the continuing political resonance, with its themes of racism, revolution and the Vietnam War still striking a chord in today's society.
Up to Night of the Living Dead, popular horror had by and large externalised or marginalised its monsters or enemies. The War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body-Snatchers used alien invasions as a double for communist infiltration, depicting the enemy as something that was totally un-human, something that had to be eradicated rather than understood. Whether they were tripods or pod people, the aliens were so clearly different to our heroic American protagonists that the films were never quite as scary as they could have been.
Romero's film incorporates many classic B-movie elements into its storyline. There is the hapless heroine, the expository radio broadcast, the phone lines being completely down and alien radiation being blamed for what is unfolding. But none of these elements are ever allowed to become the centrepiece, pushing the zombies into the background for the sake of pulpy fun. Romero is too good to let that happen, and instead uses the B-movie riffs as a comfort zone to provide relief from an enemy that is like us in every detail. His "blue collar" monsters come at us head-on, relentlessly questioning our perceptions about our fellow man.
One of the creepiest scenes in Night of the Living Dead, which reinforces this technique, comes in the very first scene. Johnny (Russell Streiner) attempts to wind up Barbara (Judith O'Dea) by playing on her childhood fear of ghosts: he jumps around, pulling hokey faces and hollering: "They're coming to get you, Barbara!". While they are larking around, we see a strange man shambling around in the background; because he looks exactly like them, we assume he's a passing stranger and take no notice. Then, out of nowhere, the stranger attacks Johnny and Barbara: he gets his head smashed in, she runs for cover, and the ordinary has become the terrifying.
The film is on one level a brilliant examination of racism. It tackles the stereotypes associated with black people in American society, showing the tension and prejudice among the characters in a far more effective way than mainstream efforts like In The Heat of the Night. The interactions between Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry (Karl Hardman) belie a continuing distrust between blacks and whites, resulting in the latter's betrayal of the former in favour of base self-interest.
Much of the racial politics of Night of the Living Dead are rooted in the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. Both the novel and its 1964 adaptation The Last Man on Earth were big influences on Romero, and while Matheson dismissed the film as "cornball" he bore Romero no ill will. Running through all three works is the theme of protagonists realising their inferior position, letting the old ways pass and submitting to the new order. But while John Neville becomes philosophical about his impending execution, Ben has no such choice. In an appropriately shocking and subversive ending, he survives the zombie onslaught, only to be mistaken for a zombie and is shot in cold blood by a white police officer.
Romero described Night of the Living Dead as a film principally about revolution. The idea of the dead no longer being dead is a huge challenge to the preconceptions of the main characters, with Romero playing for scares what Landis played for laughs in An American Werewolf in London. Less frivolously, the zombies are characterised as an unstoppable wave, a counter-culture of death descending on, quite literally, the old way of life. The traditional family unit is destroyed, first by Barbara and Johnny being separated and then the young daughter becoming undead. The creepy scene of the child killing its mother reflects both the rise of the young generation and the erosion of family bonds in favour of pure greed.
Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later, Night of the Living Dead also touches on the impact of the Vietnam War. In this interpretation the zombies become the brain-dead soldiers returning home in their droves, being unable to reintegrate into polite society to the point where normal citizens feel the need to isolate themselves entirely and ignore the problem. Alternatively, they are the embodiment of war guilt, representing all the 'gooks' on the consciences of American troops, refusing to go away and tormenting the Americans to the point where they literally lose their minds.
What makes Night of the Living Dead so effective as a horror movie is how invasive it is. By confining the action to a few rooms, Romero achieves a natural sense of claustrophobia which is exacerbated by the intimate and intrusive camerawork. The recurring images of hands clawing through the barricades are akin to the hallucinations in Repulsion, in which Catherine Deneuve imagines thousands of male hands reaching out along a corridor to grope her. In both films the threat is breaking in rather than exploding out; the threat is endemic and yet is being concentrated in a manner which becomes thrillingly unbearable.
The performances in Night of the Living Dead are the key to cementing the level of tension achieved by both camerawork and allegory. Duane Jones and Judith O'Dea improvised much of their dialogue, adding another layer of chilling realism to an already unsettling picture. Karl Hardman's character may be the loudest and brashest in the building, but his performance is one of subtle shifts and gestures which perfectly convey his cowardice and frustration. But it's not just the heroes who are well-fleshed out. The zombies seem to take on personalities of their own, with make-up supervisor Marilyn Eastman making the best of the low-budget effects on offer. 
Night of the Living Dead remains a huge horror milestone and as cracking a debut feature as you could possibly hope for. While its dialogue is occasionally repetitive and its female characters are never properly fleshed out, its political and social significance remains writ large and it can still scare every bit as well as its gorier cousins. Romero's later zombie movies would push the boundaries of what could be shown on screen, but if pure and simple terror is what you're after, the original is still the best. 

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: Intense, intelligent and truly terrifying