Night of the Living Dead

4 out of 5

Directed by: George Romero

It’s always good when it’s clear why a classic is a classic. Especially with horror movies, where the formula may have been improved upon, there are times when older movies perhaps get by due to the taint of nostalgia, or having been “first” – that you had to be there. But with Night of the Living Dead, it still works as an incredible bit of low-budget, paranoid, single-location horror, well applying its effects where necessary but milking the absolute most out of its setup and limitations, and coming across as actually an ironically fresh depiction of zombies – here called ‘ghouls’ – given that co-writer / director George Romero essentially created the rules for a breed of the creatures with the series kicked off by this movie.

The basic gist has been used in thrillers and horror flicks before this point, many times after this point, and will surely be used again and again in flicks to come: baddies in pursuit; hole up in a comparatively cramped space; mix some mismatched personality types together; and let stresses from within and without ping-pong around for 90+ minutes. What’s quite amazing – what makes this film timeless, and why it was capable of supporting a mostly solid franchise – is how much room Romero finds for story and characters within this formula, while also committing to the genre needs.

We start with Barbra (Judith O’Dea), visiting a gravesite with her brother and running into ours and her first ghoul – which moves faster and more aggressively than the shambling you may recall, Romero tellingly not really thinking of them as zombies at this point – and fails to elude it via car, instead running to a nearby house. It seems abandoned… except for the corpse at the top of the stairs. While O’Dea could maybe be said to just be portraying a wilting damsel for the film, the actress (and script, and Romero’s direction) appreciably show her shock over what she cannot comprehend. When Ben (Duane Jones), another ghoul-escapee, finds his way to the same house, his take-command personality is a great balance to Barbra, and Jones – apparently rewriting much of his character – fascinatingly has Ben as not an outright hero; he has concern for his fellow man, but also is prioritizing his own life. This plays out very uniquely in the film’s final section.

More ghouls come; the duo – mostly Ben – secure the house, and try to figure out next steps. More survivors are added, including a younger teen couple, and a bickering married couple with a daughter. Through these characters – and the clips of news / TV that we see – we’re introduced to Romero’s penchant for using these flicks as commentaries on society. It’s not subtle, but it’s also not as baldly overt as followers of this template would apply in their films, as though just trying to “elevate” the material superficially; here, Romero makes it all feel very natural, and integral, at least for the most part. The inclusion of the teens (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley) feels a bit half-baked at points, included for demographics; the only moments the movie really drags is when trying to give these characters room for a small arc. The actors aren’t firstly really up to it, and it doesn’t add much to the dynamic formed with Ben / Barbra / Harry (Karl Hardman), the husband of the married couple, doing the foolhardy, know-it-all type.

But all of the jabs at power dynamics, and the government response to the ghouls – gold. As a teen, I did read more into Ben being black, but watching the movie as an adult, you can tell that it’s what Romero has said: Jones was just the best actor for the bit, and the script was unchanged otherwise. However, it’s still fascinating externally to consider the time in which the movie was made, and the symbolism of the movie’s conclusion, and we have to assume that Romero and Jones were not unaware of that.

And it’s just an effective thriller to boot. The gore is minimal, but the lighting is well-applied to hide makeup and whatnot to make the splashes of body-eatin’ we see feel graphic, and the movie also builds to it really well – the night keeps getting darker and foggier as the ghouls look more and more decayed, and the violence becomes more graphic. The final escalation is terrifying; just well-handled film-making.

I’ve revisited NOLD a few times, and I’ll admit that it’s generally with some hesitation: that it’ll be slow; that I shouldn’t have watched Dawn of the Dead or somesuch right beforehand. But the movie absolutely holds its own, and I’d say as I’ve gotten older and rewatched it, I’m even more impressed by that: by how effective it is for a debut, and how well it works, even now.