For Halloween this year, I wanted to take the opportunity to write about one of my favourite horror films. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the most iconic horror films of all time. I first watched this when I was in the final year of school, so I would have been 17, coming up to 12 years ago. Some friends came over and I had the DVD in a pile of stuff to watch at some point that my uncle had given me, and someone suggested it. We put it on and about 40 minutes into it, one of my friends said we should watch something else as it was boring. I was surprised, as I was really enjoying it, and thought that everyone else was too. So we did turn it off, and watched something else, that I can’t remember. I later re-watched the full film by myself, and still really enjoyed it.
I can completely understand why some would consider this boring, mainly because the effects and gore are very tame by today’s standards, and the music is very cheesy at points. But if you let the film suck you in, then it really works. It doesn’t rely on jump scares at all, and instead builds a very unsettling atmosphere. The music adds to the atmosphere, even if most of it is from a 1950s B-movie, Teenagers from Outer Space. The film feels like one step above a B-movie, in that it does have some science fiction, with the radiation from Venus causing the dead to rise, as well as the monsters coming to get the characters, but the acting is really decent and the tension and terror has aged well. It’s over fifty years old, but once you get into the film it’s completely absorbing. The dialogue is also really good, and doesn’t come across as cheesy at all.
The opening to this film is absolutely brilliant. It hits the ground running introducing two characters, who feel fully developed straight away. Barbra and Johnny, who are on their way to place a wreath on their father’s grave. Johnny is frustrated, as he doesn’t really remember his father, and it’s a lengthy drive there. He’s making jokes, and mocking Barbra, trying to scare her. At the same time, in the background is a lone person walking, and watching this now you know that it’s one of the ghouls, but it’s still a shock when Johnny dies, leaving Barbra alone as she struggles to get to the now iconic house. The line ‘they’re coming to get you Barbra’ is absolutely brilliant and has stayed with me all these years later.
When Barbra finds safety in the small house, the film becomes very insular, with the only outside contact being through the radio and TV that’s giving updates on the outside world. It’s incredibly claustrophobic, and the house seems to get smaller in each scene. When Barbra is first exploring it, picking up the knife and finding the body at the top of the stairs it seems massive, and when Ben arrives it seems to take a long time for him to board up the windows and doors, then as the film progresses it’s more focused and smaller, shrinking around the survivors as the ghouls get closer and closer with no way to escape.
While the film spawned a franchise that’s pretty much the most iconic ‘zombie’ film series of all time, and has inspired many parodies, copycats, and other films in the sub-genre, the actual word ‘zombie’ is never used. At first the living dead is referred to as murderers and assassins on the news, before this is eventually replaced with flesh-eating ghouls. They’re the recently deceased, who don’t need to be infected by other ghouls, and the radiation from space has brought them back to life to hunt other humans. They’re very slow, but they’re more adaptive than a lot of later zombies, picking up weapons to break through windows, and have more awareness of their surroundings. They don’t put up much of a fight when they’re taken on head on, but if there’s a lot of them they can easily overwhelm. What really puts the survivors in danger, is their inability to work together and make a joint decision. It’s the pettiness between them that really causes their downfall.
I do think that the first two sequels (Dawn and Day of the Dead) are better films, with incredible effects, and gore, but the original is still a fantastic film. It set the standard for zombies films, and it’s such a high bar that very few have come close to matching it. It’s a classic that will be watched for decades to come and will continue to scare generations as well as inspire new stories.
Yes, the sequels seemed to get better (unlike most movies lately), but this is a classic and should be watched by everyone that loves zombie movies or TV shows. It kind of set the tone for the large majority of the ones that followed.
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Completely agree with that! A must-see for any zombie fan
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