Now 40, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead holds up as a stark, eerie and unrelenting parable of dread. Shot on a low budget with grainy film stock and a mostly amateur cast and crew, there’s a no-frills approach to the material. The frequently handheld camerawork doesn’t quite feel like documentary photography, but it does lend a sense of immediacy and tension right from the start, when a brother and sister are visiting their mother’s grave and, after he teases her by chanting, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” his joke comes true when a roving, flesh-eating zombie promptly dispatches him and chases her to an abandoned farmhouse. The tension only increases as our hapless heroine, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), slips into catatonia, wandering around the house and blankly staring at music boxes and avoiding the mutilated corpse rotting at the top of the stairs.
The hero of the film is a resourceful, quietly intense black man named Ben (Duane Jones). After he boards up the house and delivers a searing monologue about his narrow escape from the creatures outside, he has to deal with Barbara’s increasing hysteria, and even though the movie never overtly comments on racial or sexual tension, it’s unavoidable when you have a scene where he has to slap Barbara into unconsciousness (and, as an act of atonement, finds her a pair of slippers for her bare feet). While our survivors deal with the nightmarish situation at their doorstep, they also have to deal with each other, and that subtle discomfiture between Ben and Barbara lends an eerie frisson to their scenes together. Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, and the troubled partnership between Ben and Barbara is as much a sign of the times as the zombie invasion. There’s much more going on here, and much more reason for this horror classic’s timelessness, than a straightforward Vietnam allegory. That said, as impassive creatures lay siege upon the rickety house, the characters find themselves in a situation as hopeless, devoid of reason and criminally unfair as the political climate of their era.
There’s a brute force in Night of the Living Dead that catches one in the throat. As other survivors gather in the farmhouse, they come up with plans of escape that continually go awry. No matter how many times they shoot the zombies, throw homemade fire bombs at them, wave torches in the air, and board up the windows, the monsters keep coming. Once you tally up the carnage, however, only two of the six principal characters die in zombie attacks; the others are wiped out by their own kind through short sightedness, stupidity or blind rage. Human error remains a chilling X-factor here, and the notable sequence where survivors attempt to flee in a truck is a series of blunders that’s painful to watch. Romero shot the sequences plainly, without operatic fanfare, and their effect is downright numbing.
As for the ending, it’s notoriously downbeat. The farmhouse survivors end up in a calamitous mess, with almost all of them killed in the onslaught. When help comes in the form of police helicopters, attack dogs, and a posse of good old boys with shotguns, Romero subverts the notion that authority figures know best. When they arrive at the farmhouse killing off zombies in the fields and searching for human survivors, the outcome is hardly what you’d expect. Audiences of the time felt emotionally seared and vindicated at the same time, remembering the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as the hick sheriff, instead of lending a helping hand, orders his man to fire at will and hit all moving targets “right between the eyes.”
The final images are still black-and-white frames of bodies (of people we have come to know) being carried to a raging funeral pyre on meat hooks, dehumanizing the dead among us. The ending has a staying power, inducing rage and nausea in equal measure. That Romero’s classic still conjures up such intense feelings so many years after its making is a testament to its power. If you’re looking for more after completing this one, go out of your way to see his 1970s sequel Dawn of the Dead, which improves on Night of the Living Dead and is as cutting in its social commentary about consumer society as anything by Michelangelo Antonioni—and yes, I am dead serious.