This is it. This is *the* horror movie. Neither Hammer's Frankenstein
, Universal's Dracula
or any other damn film in the world so completely revolutionised ideas of what could be done with horror in the cinema... yet it was done on tuppence-ha'penny with a mostly amateur cast and Bosco chocolate syrup for blood. Its zombie extras were paid one dollar and a T-shirt saying "I was a zombie on Night of the Living Dead." Copyright problems have made it public domain. There have been many other zombie flicks since 1968, made with more money and greater scope, but there's something timeless about Night of the Living Dead. Simply, it's a must-see.
This timelessness becomes particularly impressive when you consider the age in which was made. Let's get some perspective. In 1968, they hadn't yet put a man on the moon and Hammer had recently released Quatermass and the Pit. The previous decade (the fifties) was the age of monster flicks like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms - oh, and the last Laurel and Hardy movie. Hell, 1968 is about as far from our era as it is from silent films and Murnau's Nosferatu. Romero didn't film in black and white as some kind of artistic statement, as with Schindler's List, but because the budget wouldn't stretch to colour and black-and-white films hadn't died out yet.
What's more, this is a film set in the American South in the sixties with a heroic black lead character. He even gets to shoot a cowardly piece of slime white guy - and the audience cheer! Screw today's milk-and-water political correctness. This is crusading social polemic with a flesh-eating bite.
It begins like an episode of the Twilight Zone, with similar music. Sometimes the era intrudes, as with that huge bakelite TV on which presenters speak the American equivalent of BBC English. Oh, and there's also Marilyn Eastman's hair. But the moment Duane Jones appears on the scene, you forget it's not taking place today. He's strong, smart, practical and a landmark in black cinema as much as he is in horror.
As an aside, it's been claimed that despite Ben's brave resourcefulness and Mr Cooper's cowardice, the former was wrong and the latter was right. Had they all gone down to the cellar, they'd have survived. This, I humbly submit, is bollocks. Ben's thinking was sound and it took terrible luck to screw it up, but even then the cellar option was still available. Whereas Mr Cooper's "plan" (let's all hide and wait for a miracle) would have needed only a little bad luck to bring a horde of zombies down the stairs for munchies all round, with no second line of defence. (I wouldn't have liked to be trapped down there when the lights went out and the little girl went freaky, for a start.)
The style is ultra-realist. In such a naturalistic piece, it feels wrong even to notice the acting (which is never inadequate) but at times you can tell that Hardman and Wayne are amateurs.
The introduction is particularly interesting. Filmed today, it would be tight on the actors and full of close-ups... but instead George Romero seems more interested in the world they're driving through. Little touches like the radio ("we are coming back on the air after an interruption due to technical problems") put us subtly on the alert and watching what's around rather than giving all our attention to the dialogue. This is probably a good thing, since it's not a particularly interesting conversation!
The zombies (never named as such) are unusual. Later films turn them basically into vampires, infecting you with their bite and so on. However here it's more general - anyone who dies might get up again, while Barbra appears to be zombifying while still alive. (She shows signs of fever by complaining that it's hot, is rather too fond of her knife and gets scared of fire.) I've never really bought the argument that we're all zombies under the skin, despite the messages in Dawn of the Dead and other such films, but with Barbra the lines are definitely being blurred.
The make-up jobs are also pretty minimal, with the dead not having had much time for decomposition. Later Romero films would show far more disgusting zombies. (Incidentally, I can't believe that the imdb lists as a goof those still-moving eyes on the zombie that's just had a crowbar through its head. Not only is it obviously deliberate, but it's possibly the movie's single most chilling image!)
Even after so many years, Night of the Living Dead still has the power to shock. The scenes of cannibalism are hard to take and the ending retains its punch even on repeat viewings. There's a beauty to the cinematography that you only get with black and white, combined with an uncompromising realism that cinema's largely lost over the past twenty-odd years. It's not the goriest zombie film out there, but it's one of the finest cinematic achievements in the genre. Takes no prisoners.