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The seminal zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead, can now be crossed off my list of films I need to see. Here is a tale of the undead that is still copied and paid respect to today, some forty years later. Even writer/director George Romero continues to add installments to the saga with his most recent entries gracing theatres in the past few years. It is interesting to note that this film, the most notorious zombie flick, never uses the “Z” word. Much like 28 Days Later, the label is not uttered. Whereas it was intentional with Danny Boyle, as his creatures were just rage-infected humanity, here it might be because the word just wasn’t part of our lexicon. Instead we are treated with the slow moving “ghouls” leaving “partially devoured” victims in their wake. It really is just low-budget terror entertainment more than anything else. I had always heard about its great social commentary, and I guess you can make parallels to the red scare and communism, but in the end it’s all really just a film to instill fear in the young and laughs for the unaffected.

I jest a little about the laughs as this is not as poorly acted as one might think. Sure there are moments of cringe-worthy deliveries and over-acted moments, but for the most part everyone is restrained enough to allow the themes of survival, heroism, and humanity’s penchant for destruction to resonate. From the get-go I will admit to being worried, especially with Judith O’Dea’s shrill screams for her brother to stop scaring her—“Johnny!!” And Russell Streiner’s Johnny himself is too indifferent and tough when juxtaposed with his nerdy wardrobe. The performance seems forced, until he starts having fun with his sister, adopting the creepy Vincent Price-like voice, “they’re coming to get you Barbara” with ease. I think the amateurish acting helps lend some character to the film, though, being such a cheaply made one, (I mean that cost-wise not production-wise as the film is very well made), especially since Romero shoots most of it in close-up. It’s as though he wants us to see firsthand and up close the mostly unsuccessful attempts at naturalism.

But this creature isn’t made for film accolades, nor has it become a cult phenomenon never to be forgotten because of them either. The sheer simplicity of it all is what really stands tall when the credits finally role. At the center of the tale is this inexplicable outbreak of the recently dead being brought back to life with a hunger for human flesh, thus turning their victims into ghouls too. An interesting scene, viewed by our leads on the TV, showing the thoughts of the government on what could be the cause tries to illuminate some reasons, but nothing really sticks. Scientists believe the destruction is a direct result from a satellite beacon returning from Venus that was shot down as it entered our atmosphere with extremely high levels of radiation. The military, however, is skeptical that the cause is alien … possibly the most obvious comment on the Cold War. Horrors have always been the strongest comment on politics and societal distress because of the inherent fear they bring. Films give us an embodiment of the evils and monsters out there waiting for an opportunity to strike. With Night of the Living Dead, we are being overtaken by radioactively triggered automatons, stumbling into our homes looking for blood. Could this be the mechanical and emotionless face of Communism seamlessly integrating their way into our world? A wave of fear that people who look just like us could in fact be the enemy? Maybe.

The ghouls are knocking at our doors, trying to get in and growing in numbers as each minute passes. They are a force created by our own technology, inventions created to try and expand our hold on the world, devices sent to help begin our conquering of space coming back with a disease set to hit against the ego that’s necessary to take those steps. They consist of our brothers and sisters and friends, and once they have been turned, they show no remorse or kinship, only a lust to turn you too. Huh, maybe I’ve changed my mind during the course of writing this review; I guess there is more social commentary than I initially thought.

To get back to the surface, though, the story of these three small groups, trying to survive against the onslaught, I enjoyed what Romero did. He gives us the semi-locals—Tom and Judy—both young and unsure of their place, doing what they can to help, but letting emotions get in the way; the older stubborn Harry Cooper, entrenched in his views that his need for self-worth shields him from the right and smart moves; his wife and ill daughter caught in the middle as they must stick with Cooper no matter if he is wrong; and our outsiders, Barbra and Ben, caught up in the mix and truly the wild cards. Barbra is catatonic for most of the film, but her eccentricities cause immense unease and some of the best tension offered. As for Ben, Duane Jones is the epitome of the manly man hero. His take charge attitude is perfect as he will never back down to Karl Hardman’s overly brash Cooper, nor allow the wild Barbra get to him, willing to smack her if needed. Ben is the one with a head on his shoulders, looking for survival no matter the cost, trying to help as many as he can, but unafraid to leave them behind if they don’t want to jump onboard.

So, when all is said and done, Romero has crafted something here that I’m sure was odd and unique back in 1968. This is the backbone to every zombie story you can think of, it started a trend that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. Utilizing the media as a main character even in his first film, the newscaster becomes a voice of reason. Our implicit trust in the man on TV/radio, the person accessible to everyone and therefore must be the authority on the subject is the real scary aspect of the story. Our heroes do what they are told, not because it’s the right thing, but because it is the popular choice. I will say that the ending is superb and in tone with what had been going on. America as a land of cowboys, shoot first and ask questions later … ah, McCarthyism at its finest.

Night of the Living Dead 7/10

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