I was only eight or nine years old when I first watched George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Believe it or not, I didn’t sneak it but sat down with my siblings empowered with parental permission. Now, my parents are wonderful people, and I think they raised me and my siblings well. I have no idea what any of them were thinking that night, though. Maybe I’m somewhat to blame; I probably begged. Nevertheless, I was genuinely terrified. The film, though turning fifty years old this year, is not as discreet as some might assume. For some reason I think people cast it as a campy, low-budget film you can kind of laugh at, but I think that’s mainly because so many of the films that came in its wake are laughable. If you’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, I can’t imagine you could think it’s funny. Though I’m much older, I still haven’t recovered from all that goes on in the basement in the film’s climax.
So I was too young when I first saw it and it definitely made a distinct impression. I had nightmares for years that I was in my house with an army of undead coming from every angle. Yet I loved it even then. It was probably my first genuine horror film. Over the years my love has grown. I admire its ability to frighten me into a deep claustrophobia. It taught me that the monsters are not the only thing to be afraid of. I’ve watched it many times, and it still gets to me, in just the way I want it to. Though, I must add, I’m not willing to subject my own nine-year-old son, who loves zombies, to this provocative terror just yet.
I’ve never seen a great version of the film, though I’ve heard some of the old DVD releases were good. In general, Night of the Living Dead has had a tough life on home video because, due to neglect, the prints were not copyrighted and the film quickly fell into the public domain. This allowed many distributors, even ones no know-how, to release the film on home video, and most copies out there, selling for a dollar in some bin, were tough on the eyes. The image was often soft, and the whites bloomed like the sun, overtaking much of the detail (I never watched one of the many colorized versions out there). Sure, the battered black-and-white source could be seen as part of its bleak charm, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Today, The Criterion Collection is releasing their fantastic edition of the film, sourced from a new 4K digital restoration that Romero, co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R. Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner supervised. It’s pristine and loaded with supplemental features — a perfect release!
The setup is classic — now, at least, since this film created a long-running horror trend: the recently dead are rising and feasting on the living. The living flee, looking for any shelter they can find. In Night of the Living Dead Romero does it best; they find a simple, old farmhouse and try to board it up against the persistent, hungry intruders, which looks impossible, like running away from something in a dream.
And they just keep coming:
The stakes are high for everyone, and they are dealing with the shock of the situation — the world has changed — as well as the shock of their own losses. The survival instinct kicks, and everyone must figure out how to protect themselves and their loved ones. This is easier said than done when stranded with others who have their own interests to protect and their own ideas of how to do it.
In this farm house, we have several people coming together who never knew each other before. First, we meet Barbara (played by Judith O’Dea). She and her brother Johnny (played by Russell W. Streiner, the producer) are driving to a cemetery to visit their long dead father’s grave. They talk about why they do this for a man they don’t even really remember; in the background, barely noticeable, we can see someone walking strangely toward them. Johnny teases his increasingly anxious sister: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” When that stranger gets closer, it becomes clear he is malicious and is coming to get Barbara. Johnny gets knocked out — or worse — trying to save Barbara, who eventually makes her way to the farmhouse.
The farmhouse looks abandoned until another man arrives. This is Ben, played by Duane Jones. Once Barbara is able to stop running, she enters a state of shock and barely helps Ben as he starts to nail the doors shut with the flimsiest wood imaginable. It really is like it would be in a nightmare.
For the first little while, it’s just these two, trying to understand what’s going on and how to get out. Well, at least Ben is. Barbara has already fled mentally. Eventually, though, a few people who are hiding out in the cellar dare to come up the stairs and see what’s going on. This is a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), and an older couple with a young daughter, Harry (Karl Hardman), Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and Karen (Kyra Schon).
Harry and Ben are immediately at odds. Harry wants everyone to stay in the cellar. Ben wants a way out if the dead enter the house. There is another, unspoken undercurrent, though. Ben is a black man, and Harry, though he wants to be the one in charge in any situation, is certainly even less interested in being led by Ben.
While Night of the Living Dead is a scary classic, with its seemingly simple setup that pays off easily, Romero takes it all further by using this claustrophobic tale to touch on social issues, in particular race relations. It is soon clear that Duane Jones’s Ben is the lead character, which continues to advance on ground opened by black actors like Sidney Poitier.
Beyond casting, though, race relations and mob violence are also part of the horror story’s texture. Just look at this image from the television report.
It would be hard in 1968 to not see connections to what was going on around the nation. And the film ends with a series of photographs that make the whole thing feel like a real event. The images there are perhaps more horrific than anything we’ve seen in the film up to that point.
This is a “legal” band of white men who talk of the best way to kill the ghouls. We get the sense that they are not just doing a job — they like it. And thus the horror is not limited to the unlikely even of an undead apocalypse.
Happy 50th, you terrible marvel!