Subgenre: The Undead
The film: Siblings Barbra and Johnny have taken the day to drive out to rural Pennsylvania to visit and lay a wreath on their father’s grave. Johnny complains about having to spend an entire day on the road just to make a five-minute visit to a man he hardly remembers. As Barbra pauses to pray and pay her respects, Johnny asks Barbra is she remembers when they were kids when he used to tease her about being afraid of the graveyard. Barbra gets upset and Johnny starts to tease her, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.” He sees a man a few yards away and pretends he is coming to attack them, leaving Barbra while he jokingly runs for cover. Barbra is embarrassed as the man approaches but before she is able to apologize the man violently grab on to her. Johnny grabs the attacker and wrestles him to the ground before he accidentally hits his head on a gravestone and is killed. Barbra runs off down the road, pursued by the man, until she takes cover in a farmhouse.
In a state of shock Barbra wanders around the house, but can find no one expect a gory corpse at the top of the stairs. In a panic she goes to flee but is stopped by a man named Ben who pulls her into the house away from a group of shambling attackers that he is fleeing. While he tries to keep Barbra calm, Ben goes about fortifying the house, boarding up the doors and windows. Ben turns on the radio to hear that the attackers are springing up everywhere – and that they are dead people who have been reanimated, now only having the drive to kill and eat human flesh. The cellar door opens to reveal five people who have been hiding in the basement the entire time; the Cooper family Harry, Helen, and their daughter Karen, who is ill from being bitten by one of the creatures, and a teenage couple Tom and Judy. Ben finds a television and with Tom’s help they set it up and the whole group listens to the news broadcasts. After hearing of the supposed explanations for the occurrences, the anchor reports that there are rescue centers that offer shelter and safety. Harry urges everyone to hide in the cellar; Ben refuses, calling it a deathtrap, and starts making plans to escape the farm. With his truck low on fuel, Ben resolves to fuel up with the farm’s gas pump. While Harry covers them with Molotov cocktails, Ben, Tom, and a willful Judy make a break for the gas pump. But before they can unlock the pump, the creatures close in. Ben is able to escape but Tom and Judy are killed when the pump and truck explode and catch fire.
Ben runs back to the house only to find that Harry has locked him out and hidden in the cellar. He kicks the door in and, once the cowardly Harry helps Ben reboard the door, Ben punches him repeatedly. Outside the living dead start to eat Tom and Judy’s remains; inside, a broadcast of a local sheriff comes on who states that the best way to kill the creatures is to burn them or shoot them in the head. Suddenly the power in the house goes out. Now without the light inhibiting them, the zombies surround the house in growing numbers, getting closer and closer to the fresh meat inside.
Fear factor: When discussing the zombie king George A. Romero, most people are quick to recognize 1978’s Dawn of the Dead as his magnum opus; those people wouldn’t be wrong, Dawn being Romero’s most fully realized and rounded film as well being the earliest concrete vision of the zombie as it exists in film and literature today. Despite the respect I have for Dawn, I still always gravitate towards Night of the Living Dead, the true impetus of the zombie genre as well perhaps the biggest landmark film in the modernization of the horror genre as a whole. Roger Ebert wrote in his original review that the theater was filled with young children as horror films were generally considered a juvenile affair (the film was released in the months just before the formation of the MPAA ratings board). Ebert described the film: “The movie has stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years-old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.” Nowadays the movie is almost laughable next to other horror films, including Romero’s later work, but aside from reveling in how effective and terrifying the film still is it is also important to stop and pay respect to movies like this, a springboard film that paved the way for the bloody good terror horror fans enjoy today, a film that was labeled as an “unrelieved orgy of sadism.” Critics have tried to pigeonhole Night as having some lofty political subtext, perhaps as an allegory of the Vietnam War or a metaphor for the activist career of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I have always believed Romero in his assertions that the film and the cast was what it was, an extremely low budget used to its fullest possible extent, nothing more. If it defied any convention it was transforming the shake-and-bake storyline of the classic undead horror film – [SPOILERS] the male hero doesn’t fall in love with the wayward female lead, the monsters aren’t glamorous or entrancing, and the band of survivors doesn’t live happily ever after or at all for that matter. Sure, it has all the shortcomings of inexperience from limited visual construction to questionable acting, and yet in every flaw can be found something positive to lend to the film’s overall presence. People’s perceptions are so numbed today that it’s hard to find general appreciation for this movie, but I still have no shame in saying that if anyone ever asked me, as a cinephile, what movies I would want to travel back in time to see in person, Night of the Living Dead would be at the top of my list.