31 Fright Nights: Halloween 2016, Night #24 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Tagline: If It Doesn’t Scare You… You’re Already Dead!

Director: George A. Romero

Writer(s): George A. Romero & John A. Russo

Studio: The Walter Reade Organisation

Budget: $114,000

Box Office: $30m

Release Date: 1st October, 1968

IMDb Rating: 8/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

UK Blu Ray release? Yes

Cast

Duane Jones – BennJudith O’Dea – Barbra

Karl Hardman – Harry

Marilyn Eastman – Helen

Keith Wayne – Tom

Judith Ridley – Judy

Trailer

Plot According to Google: A disparate group of individuals takes refuge in an abandoned house when corpses begin to leave the graveyard in search of fresh human bodies to devour. The pragmatic Ben does his best to control the situation, but when the reanimated bodies surround the house, the other survivors begin to panic. As any semblance of order within the group begins to dissipate, the zombies start to find ways inside – and one by one, the living humans become the prey of the deceased ones.

Inertia’s Insight: A low budget horror rife with subtext that catapulted both its director and its villains into the history of cinema and beyond, Night of the Living Dead is an exemplary piece of horror filmmaking. The zombie film is now as synonymous with our pop culture as Gangnam Style and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and Night is where this fascination with the undead started.

Embracing its limited budget by isolating the story in a remote farmhouse, Night of the Living Dead beautifully eschews unnecessary build-ups or set pieces and instead immerses you into the confusion and horror of the situation. Brother and sister Johnny and Barbra are visiting their Father’s grave on their annual trip, when a joke between the two about Barbra’s fear of the graveyard becomes startlingly true. Romero captures the horror of the situation perfectly, flicking the switch from normal to abnormal within seconds. All of a sudden, Barbra’s life is turned upside down as she is pursued by a man that at first she considers a maniac but soon discovers, via an incredibly specific radio broadcast, that the dead have come back to life and are devouring the flesh of the living.

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The 1960’s saw an America in tatters. The American Dream of the 50’s was shattered as the country embarked on a proxy war in Vietnam that saw the loss of thousands of lives; the Bay of Pigs invasion brought the country close to the edge of mutually assured destruction with communist Russia, and at home riots prevailed on the streets of major cities as civil rights movements saw Black communities demanding change. A horror film about zombies broadcast in drive-ins and as part of Saturday matinees might have come across as B-movie schlock, but it held a mirror to the country and perfectly commented on society’s feelings. The role of Ben was not written with a black man in mind; Romero has stated in many documentaries, most recently Birth of the Living Dead (2013), that Duane Jones, a classically trained actor, was the best fit for the role and the script was not in any way amended to reflect his race. The interpretation of each of Ben’s scene, solely given his colour, is hugely important when considering the social instability at the time. The scene in which Ben first arrives and Barbra reacts to seeing him; the scene in which Ben is talking and Barbra is just staring at him, scared; the scene in which he hits Barbra to wake her out of her hysteria – all of these scenes have an added weight and intensity to them given Ben’s race. And of course, lets not forget the final scene in which the search group, all white, find Ben at the house. As Romero has said the script wasn’t altered at all, but you can’t help up but define the relevance of him in context with all that was happening at that time. It’s no surprise that this film has been studied and critiqued in colleges and universities across the world.

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It is an exemplary film for many reasons, one of which is its rife political and social subtext but also its change in direction for the movie monster. The 1960’s were peppered with horror films that had villains with a sense of an elevated status – creatures like Dracula or Frankenstein may appear in human form but they are never regarded as such. Here, the villains were people – and not just in zombie form, either. The notion that some place that exists after death, better and more prosperous than life on earth is shattered by the notion that the dead no longer die, they no longer rest in peace; we are doomed to walk the Earth for the rest of our days, aimlessly wandering about, feeding, feeding, feeding…

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Now, the argument might be that Romero’s zombies are the original format to follow: their bite is infectious, they are slow moving and are motivated only by the need to feed, but… if you watching Night of the Living Dead, his ghouls are actually none of these. They are quick (not Dawn of the Dead-remake quick, but still quick nonetheless) and they appear to be intelligent (the ghoul at the start tries to open the door and uses a brick to smash the window to get at Barbra, and Judy uses a trowel to stab her Mother to death). The beauty of this film is the sub-genre that it launched, catapulting into pop culture and saturating all manner of consumerism – films like Shaun of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead-remake; TV shows like The X-Files and, of course, The Walking Dead; comic books, novels, games, web series… the list goes on, and so will the genre for years to come.

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Primal fears that are inherent in society no matter its changes will always ensure that the zombie sub-genre continues to be explored, and Night of the Living Dead a timeless classic that can be appreciated as if its the first time you’re seeing it during the social uncertainties of 1968.

Inertia’s Ideal Score (* out of 5): * * * * *

Trivia

  • Readers Digest tried to warn people away from watching the film in 1968 by claiming if its ever watched, it will inspire cannibalism.
  • One of the working titles for the film was, “Night of Anubis”.
  • The word “zombie” is never used. The most common euphemism used to describe the living dead is “those things” or “ghouls”.

Quotes

JOHNNY: They’re coming to get you, Barbra.

NEWSCASTER: It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It’s hard for us here to be reporting things to you, but it does seem to be a fact.

All images courtesy of Blushots: https://blushots.weebly.com


Tomorrow: Night #25 – Nina Forever (2015)

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