REVIEW – ‘Night of the Living Dead’

50 years later, George A. Romero's original zombie classic lives on!

Review by J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: October 1, 1968
DIRECTOR: George A. Romero
CINEMATOGRAPHY: George A. Romero
WRITER: John Russo, George A. Romero

Director George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is a bona fide classic and there is simply no denying that, which is why it automatically gets a five star rating. If you have ever enjoyed anything from “28 Days Later” to “Shaun of the Dead” to “The Return of the Living Dead”, then you need to tip your hat to this original horror classic. With that said, it has absolutely not aged well even with other films from its time period.

There is cheesy acting that draws more laughs than dread these days. The zombies don’t quite act the way that “classic” zombies act. For example, they do show some form of intelligence such as picking up rocks and being able to run after their victims. Also, the “fights” that occur in the film are also more laughable than suspenseful.

Still, the movie pushed the boundaries of what could be shown at the time. In fact, the violence depicted in the film was so graphic for its day that it caused quite a bit of controversy. This was just before the MPAA was set up, so anyone including children could go see the film. Despite this, the film became a huge hit, probably due to the very controversy that the movie was generating.

Romero shot the film on an extremely tight independent budget. The movie then went on to make millions, becoming one of the most profitable independent films of all time. The crazy thing about this film, though? You can watch it virtually anywhere you want, even YouTube.

How is this possible? Because the film is in the public domain due to an error in which the original distributer forgot to put a copyright indication on the film’s prints. So, since you can go see the film for free, there really isn’t any excuse is there?

For those who don’t know what the film is about, it starts off simply enough with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) heading to the cemetery to leave a small cross at their father’s grave. While there, Johnny teases Barbra before a man shows up and attacks them (“There coming to get you, Barbra!”). Johnny tries to fight off the ghoul and Barbra runs for safety.

Eventually, she comes across a seemingly abandoned house and discovers a partially eaten corpse. Before she can leave, a man named Ben (Duane Jones) shows up and begins boarding the place up, commenting that there are several ghouls outside and it isn’t safe. Ben tells a shocked Barbra that their best bet is to stay in the house until help can arrive.

Jones gives a fantastic performance as Ben and pretty much carries the entire movie. In fact, it is the hysterical Barbra that annoys the hell out of me and O’Dea gives a performance that is way too over-the-top. There is a moment in the film where she goes completely nuts and Ben has to hit her in order to calm her down. This is the only time where I didn’t mind a man hitting a woman.

Eventually, Ben and Barbra discover that there are other people in the cellar. This includes the rather unpleasant Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), a man who thinks he knows everything but is really just a coward.

The movie has many themes relevant to its time, as do other films in Romero’s “Dead” series. In this case, it is a scathing look at Vietnam with the carnage that was being wrought there at the time. In addition to that, the film was more prominently a comment on racism and this is represented more completely by Ben’s ultimate fate in the film.

The movie is a rather stunning achievement despite its flaws due to the nature of the ragtag filmmakers who made it. It’s not Romero’s best film in his “Dead” series, but it is the successful prototype on which all zombie films were built. As long as you can remember when this film was made and its poor aging, you should definitely check out this film for its status as a true classic of the horror genre.

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