Friday 20 September 2019

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

De levende døde
The birth of the modern zombie. No less will do.

“Night of the Living Dead” is more than a cult classic, it is the mother of all zombie movies, the starting point of a franchise and an entry into modern pop culture few other movies can match. Finally, I got to watch it as well.

This, my final movie for 1968, was one I had been looking forward to see for a long time and one that I thought I knew a lot about, yet as it turned out, all I knew was its legacy, but practically nothing of the actual movie.

“Night of the Living Dead” is a true low budget movie. As I understood it, even the actors had to pitch in with financing the movie and all sorts of short cuts were made to reduce costs. It shows, but actually in a good way. It forced the producers to be creative and to emphasize story and dialogue for gory effects, something many of its descendants could have benefitted from. The acting is surprisingly good for its budget, especially Duane Jones as Ben and Judith O’Dea as Barbra, were convincing in roles that were key to how the movie would work. I have watched some horrid results of cutting a low budget, but “Night of the Living Dead” managed to avoid most of those flaws.

By far most of the movie takes place inside what looks like an abandoned house. Barbra is on the run from the zombies that has already taken her brother and seeks shelter in the house. Soon after Ben arrives at the house, also seeking shelter as his car is out of gas. Their responses to the zombie attack are complete opposites. Ben is calm and resourceful and, using whatever is at hand starts turning the house into a fortress. Barbra on the other hand goes into shock and becomes catatonic. As frustrated Ben is with her, he also has enough understanding to let her alone.

As it turns out the house is not as abandoned as it first appeared. In the midst of the zombie siege people start coming up from the basement. Harry and Helen Cooper with their sick daughter Karen as well as the young couple Tom and Judy has sought shelter in the basement and are lured out by the noises Ben is making. Harry (producer Karl Hardman) is a particularly annoying character who is opposed to everything Ben is suggesting. Tom is more cooperative, but a scheme to fuel his truck goes… horribly wrong.

In fact, all except Ben eventually become zombie food and Ben, well, zombies are not the only dangerous creatures.

“Night of the Living Dead” is a very dark movie. There are practically no light moments. The lookout for the group in the house is bleak and most of what they do is futile. As such it feeds into the apocalyptic genre, where the evil we are facing is just too big to fight. This is a tradition that hearkens back to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and is almost tradition today. Not having to aim for a happy ending gives horror movies that extra dimension and here it is exploited to the full. What I also liked about the movie is that some of the real demons are not flesh-eating zombies, but normal people under stress. There is a lot of group dynamic going on here and that is pretty cool.

Still we cannot avoid discussing the zombies. I have seen a lot of zombies in movies, like gazillions of zombies, so it would take a lot to convince me, yet, despite the poor budget the zombies work pretty well. Ironically, part of the reason for that is that many of them look like ordinary people in sleep walk. It is the ordinariness that makes them scary. Children, women, grandfathers banging the doors and walls and munching warm flesh. They are not alien, but people like you and me. Uh, that freaks me out.

“Night of the Living Dead” is a must see. Not just for its impact on pop culture and not just for horror movie fans, but because it is simply a good movie. Some of those participants who had to help financing it must be pretty pleased. The movie earned its budget over 250 times!

And thus ended 1968. On to 1969.



  1. This is such a great film for so many reasons. The fact that it's the birth of a genre/subgenre is important, of course, but it's a film that reaffirms that good horror (and science fiction) isn't just about the scares but about the human condition.

    Romero's comments and especially Wes Craven's at the end on this are worth hearing:

    1. That is a very interesting clip. It emphasizes that is more, a lot more than a bunch of braindead zombie out for human flesh. Thanks for the link.

  2. I can watch this one over and over. Criterion Collection DVD has a really great commentary. Movie may have been dark but it sounds like the cast and crew had a fantastic time making it!

    1. I can imagine that. Zombie movies must be super fun to make.
      My version was not Criterion and the bluray was a bit wasted on the grainy b/w images.

  3. It still is a high benchmark for other zombies films all these years later. And it demonstrates that good storytelling is more important than big budgets.

    1. It does indeed. Sometimes it seems like a blessing to have only small budget. Romero certainly managed to get the best out of what he had.